An extensive region of mountains, valleys and rivers, northern Thailand straddles an important historical junction where peoples from China, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and beyond have long traded commodities and ideas. The blend was further enlivened by the migrations of tribes like the Akha,Karen, Lisu, Hmong and Yao, whose ethnic heritage knows no political boundaries.
Reasons for visiting
Until the early 20th century, the north was accessible from Bangkok only by a complicated river trip, or by several weeks on elephant back. It is not surprising, then, that the region has retained a distinct flavour all its own. Visitors come here to marvel at the beauty of the temples, with their splendid teak carvings and intricate Burmese-inspired decorations; the wild orchids that grow profusely in the hills; the largely unscathed traditional lifestyles; and the opportunity for remote mountain and jungle treks.
Thai hill tribes
The mountains are home to Thailand’s hill tribes, now a tourist industry in their own right. Still an exotic thread on the fringe of Thai life, the hill tribes are gradually being woven into the national fabric, and more of them are migrating to the larger cities of the north. Chiang Mai, the capital of north Thailand, is regarded as the cultural heart of the country, while Mae Hong Son is capital of a province where tribespeople outnumber ethnic Thai. Northern Thailand’s many attractions encompass the remains of the ancient city Sukhothai, designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, and Sangkhlaburi, an ideal base for elephant trekking.
The Golden Triangle
It is hard for the authorities to patrol this wild terrain adequately, but easy for smugglers to slip back and forth across the borders with Myanmar and Laos in the notorious Golden Triangle. Although there has been some success in introducing alternatives to opium as a cash crop, the smuggling of contrand drugs is still a major factor in the northern economy. Chiang Rai is the far north’s largest city and the gateway to historical and natural sights.
Places to visit in Northern Thailand
Formerly no more than a hillside Shangri-la, the town has grown rapidly to become both a tourist magnet and a major city in its own right.
December and January are the prime months to visit Mae Hong Son, which lies between mountains and is reached by a hair-raising but staggeringly beautiful eight-hour road trip – or a less bumpy 30-minute flight.Sukhothai
This is the most striking of Thailand’s various spectacular ruined cities.
This is a city located 180km (111 miles) north of Chiang Mai, and is a good base for visiting nearby regional attractions. King Mengrai founded Chiang Rai in the 13th century, by chance so it is said. According to legend, his elephant ran off and took him to a spot on the Mae Kok River, where the scenery and military potential inspired him to build a town. There are at least two temples worth a visit. At Wat Phra Kaew, you can see a former home of the Emerald Buddha, the country’s most famous image. At the Burmese-style Wat Doi Chom Thong, you have the bonus of river views and a glimpse of the town’s old quarter. Meanwhile, the Hill Tribe Museum and Education Centre sells ethnic handicrafts, with proceeds donated to hill tribe community projects.
Travel agencies in Chiang Rai operate excursions to the famous hillside temple of Doi Tung, perched 1,800m (5,904ft) high. On the way you pass the former Queen Mother’s summer residence, an agricultural project sponsored by the Thai royal family designed to help hill tribes retain their distinctive traditions while integrating into contemporary life. The project encourages tribespeople to grow strawberries, cucumbers and cabbages, in lieu of opium. In return they receive government assistance in the form of schools and new roads.