15 top places to visit in Northern Thailand
There are so many amazing places to visit in Thailand, but the northern provinces have some of the most unusual and authentic locations worth exploring and are not as touristy compared to different regions of Thailand. But if you are interested in a slower pace and a genuine Thai experience you should visit Northern Thailand and some of my favorite cities and areas below.
Here are some suggestions of the 15 top places to visit in Northern Thailand
1. Take a cruise along the Mekong river – The mighty Mekong river is expansive and separates Thailand to neighbor country Laos. A cruise along this majestic river especially along the corridor from Chiang Khan to Luang Prabang on the Laos side is quite scenic. A day trip or even sunset cruise will give you a wonderful insight to the people living and farming around the various communities and it is quite beautiful. Check out my recent post of the Mekong River at Chiang Khan here.
2. Visit the hill tribes of Northern Thailand – The northern provinces of Thailand are inhabited by hill tribes that have immigrated to the area from various parts of China, Tibet and Burma and have built villages and small farming communities in the mostly foothills. The Hmong, Lisu, Akha and Karen tribes are located in different agrarian areas of Northern Thailand. There are many tour companies that do visits to all the four tribes. I used this tour outfit called Asian Oasis and visited both the Lisu and Akha tribes and villages. You can check out a recent post that I did about visiting the Lisu and Ahka tribes here. any of these areas and tribal towns are open for the public to visit, but it is probably easier to work with a local guide to get a better understanding and translation of what is taking place and what the daily lifestyle is like for many of these native hill tribes people.
3. Visit the Elephant Nature Park – a fantastic eco tourism site, the Elephant park was created as a rescue and rehabilitation center for abused and neglected elephants and is one of the few elephant sanctuaries in the world. Visitors come to see the Asian elephants and learn about their history and plight in Thailand’s tourism and work trade. All the proceeds from the tour go directly into feed the elephants and taking care of the caretakers and volunteers. It’s a worthwhile organization to visit and a fantastic way to get connected with these magnificent creatures and help this cause – you can find out more information on their website here.
4. Phu Ruea National Park – This is one of Thailand’s largest national parks. Phu Ruea National Park which is famously known for it’s thick fog and spectacular views of the entire region and is a wonderful and unusual place to explore due to its cooler climate and persistent fog. Unfortunately coming here and hoping for a perfect day instead of fog is unpredictable but it’s also part of the fun in exploring this gorgeous park and the nature trails and views. If it’s too foggy or cold for you, check out the waterfalls, rock gardens and even the Chateau de Loei Winery, a huge vineyard offering different tastes of wines grown in the region.
5. Go water rafting in Northern Thailand – There are many rivers and tributaries in Northern Thailand that offer outdoor water and rafting recreation. One of the most popular places for enjoying rafting and other outdoor activities is along the Mae Taeng river or Po river, about an hour drive north of Chiang Mai. The area hosts a variety of rafting companies offering a series of easy to more challenging parts of the river. While, in the area, you can visit elephant centers or take elephant tours, mountain biking or a variety of other outdoor recreational activities in the area. You can check out my post of rafting the Mae Taeng river here, along with a whole day of other outdoor activities.
6. Explore the Golden Triangle – This region and park about 45 minutes north of Chiang Rai is where the mighty Mekong river separates the nations of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. With an exotic history of being the largest opium producing region in the past you can visit the Golden Triangle monument and check out the Hall of Opium Museum close by. Along with wonderful scenic views of the Mekong, you will find many local restaurants with nice river views in the area. The gateway to this is area is the city of Chiang Rai which the largest city in Northern Thailand. While you are based in Chiang Rai, you can visit a variety of fascinating landmarks and attractions like the Mae Kok river, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Doi Chum Thong, the hillside temple of Doi Tung and the Hill tribe museum and educational center.
7. Visit a tea plantation – There are a variety of tea plantations a short drive from either Chiang Mai or in Chiang Rai province and up in the cooler mountain ranges where many of the hill tribes live and also work in these plantations. All the tea plantations here grow and process the popular Thai Oolong, black, green and white teas. There are a few of the plantations that are open to the public for tours and tastings. Some of the well known tea companies in this region includes: Doi Chai Tea, Raming Tea Co. Ltd, Araksa and a variety of small tea operations around the hills of Mae Salong. One of the nicest and larger tea plantations about an hour north of Chiang Mai is the Araksa Tea Plantation, which you can tour and also stay overnight at the Lisu Lodge I wrote about this visit to the Araksa Tea Plantation along with a day of eco tours in the region sponsored by Asian Oasis tours.
8. Visit the Chiang Mai palace of the Thai royal family – Just outside of Chiang Mai and past the famous Golden Mount temple is the royal families private residence at Bhubing Palace, in which the grounds are open to the public. The gorgeous gardens and outdoor spaces are a massive tropical botanical garden and royal complex which gives visitors a glimpse of how the Thai royalty lives in their summer palaces and enjoy the cooler temperatures at Chiang Mai. Of course, when the royal family is actually visiting the palaces, the entire grounds are closed off from the public viewing and access, so you do need to pay attention to the website for times when tours are open for the public to visit the royal palaces at Chiang Mai.
9. Explore the funky town of Pai – about a drive north of Chiang Mai is this hippie and Thai fusion like city. Lately this city and area has been very popular with the backpack set looking for really cheap and authentic experiences north of Chiang Mai. Apart from beautiful landscape with rolling hills, canyons and other panoramic views, you can visit beautiful temples or shrines, a giant white Buddha, water falls, a fantastic night market and just a nice low key vibe compared to bigger tourist focused cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
10. Visit the Golden Mount at the temple or Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – One of Chiang Mai’s iconic must visit temples, this temple is a nice uphill drive into the cooler hills outside of Chiang Mai with gorgeous views of the city and valley below. This temple often nicknamed Doi Suthep from the myriad of taxi drivers that want to drive you roundtrip for a higher taxi fare, but you can also take the small buses for a cheaper price on the round trip fare to the temple and royal palace which is a few miles further down the road. This sacred Thai complex is filled with many small temples and ornately decorated with carvings, murals and gold everywhere. The complex is located on Doi Suthep National Park which offers a variety of recreational activities and hiking areas to explore.
11. Go to any of the outdoor markets in Chiang Mai – There are 9 main markets in Chiang Mai in this tourist regional capital, most can be found in the old section of town. The two main markets are the massive night bazaar that is held daily and then the regular Walking Sunday Market on Ratchadamoen road. The Sunday market tends to attract both locals who shop actively on Sunday and tourists looking for some cheap deals. Along with these two main markets are smaller local markets that you can also visit almost every day and this includes the Student market, Saturday walking market, Wororot market, flower market, amulet market, Muang Mai, fresh market and the JJ market.
12. Visit the scenic river town of Chiang Khan – A beautiful riverfront city on the Mekong, this city has all the charming small town vibe and feel hin its historic riverfront areas that offer nice riverfront walkways, a quirky and cool downtown walking district, Buddhist temples and a pleasant evening market. A visit to Chiang Khan is like going back to rural life in Northern Thailand with simple pleasures, enjoying the river and daily activities including markets, temple visits and shopping the quirky and fun trendy shops in the old district.
13. Rural charms of Nan – Lan Na is the provincial region and Nan is situated in a valley just across the border from Laos. Formerly an autonomous kingdom, The region is quite isolated and mostly given to agriculture, and nature trekking which is popular with hikers from the country and internationally. There are also six national parks, including the stunning Doi Phu Kha National Park, with mountains touching 6,500ft. Nan city has low key vibe for visitors with a variety of popular temples, restaurants, galleries and cool shops that you can visit fronting the town’s riverfront area.
14. Visit the Loei city attractions and landscape – It’s easy to take a quick one hour flight from Bangkok to the Northeast region of Thailand at Loei. In this less touristy and crowded region your can see nature, landscape and beautiful communities untouched from mass tourism. Wonderful places to visit around Loei include: Phu Kradueng National Park, Phu Luang Wildlife Sanctuary, the charming river town of Chiang Khan, Kaeng Khut Khu with is set of islets in the middle of the Mae Khong River along with a variety of museums, holy temples, and scenic landscapes.
15. Stay at an Eco Retreat in the hill tribe area – For a more relaxing stay and natural adventure in the countryside, a stay at an eco retreat is a nice way to experience the countryside and maybe visit a few of the hill tribe people that reside in these rural hill communities. I stayed at a wonderful eco retreat called the Lisu Lodge which offered a variety of stays and soft eco tours to various parts of Northern Chiang Mai region. It was fun to do a bike ride and water rafting tour as well as visit a tea plantation in the area.
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