Build Your Own Trip

All the things make Northern Thailand become an attractive destination for travelers

Southern Thailand is really a star in this country tourism, with all the spectacular islands and gorgeous beaches. But if you are seeking for something being different from sparkle ocean vibes, you can always head to the north and be attracted by a brand new world. Northern Thailand was largely an independent region until the beginning of the last century, a bastion for hill tribes each with a distinct identity.

And here are all the highlights which make northern region is an unmissable destination in your Thailand tour.

Discover Chiang Rai’s artistic heritage

Chiang Rai is a land of heritage, which will be a treasure for art-lovers. The Lanna Kingdom (a northern Thai Empire that ruled from the 14th-18th century) left behind a rich legacy of artworks, with many fine examples housed in the Mae Fah Luang Gallery and Oub Kham Museum. These collections of sculpture, painting, and pottery have inspired a flourishing community of artists, from the traditional craftspeople of the surrounding hill tribes to contemporary sculptors and painters.

Angkrit Gallery, to the north of Chiang Rai, holds a regular schedule of talks by artists and film screenings. Over the road, you’ll notice an eclectic cluster of buildings created by one of Thailand’s national artists, Thawan Duchanee. Baandam Museum (Thai for ‘black house’) contains Duchanee’s huge collection of paintings, sculptures, and artifacts.

Explore the surreal White Temple

Wat Rong Khun, perhaps better known to foreigners as the White Temple, is a contemporary, unconventional, privately-owned art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. It is owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed, constructed, and opened it to visitors in 1997. Entering the temple, you’ll see traditional-style Buddhist paintings covering the walls. Look closer and, within them, you’ll find surreal depictions of contemporary events and figures including the attack on the Twin Towers, George Bush sitting astride a missile and Superman flying from the mouth of a demon.

Appreciate Thailand’s national animal at Elephant Valley

With the aim of rehabilitating domestic elephants and returning to the wildlife, Elephant Valley in the Chiang Rai must be a favorite for responsible travelers. You can visit the sanctuary as part of a small group tour. There’s no elephant riding, bathing or shows: the experience focuses instead on watching the elephants’ natural behavior, as they tear down bamboo or enjoy a mud bath.

A guide will be on hand to explain the rehabilitation process as you walk through the sanctuary’s forests and grasslands on foot, looking out for the elephants. There’s also the opportunity to help with feeding time —many rehabilitated elephants still need their diet supplementing — as well as enjoying a freshly cooked picnic lunch.

Celebrate New Year with a hill tribe

The hill tribes of northern Thailand have maintained an almost mystical quality, isolated from the mass tourism and development the country has seen in general. Even when you do manage to visit a tribe — for this, you’ll need a guide and driver as public transport is virtually non-existent — having a meaningful interaction can be a challenge. Visiting during a festival can give you the chance to meet the local community, with the New Year bringing the most enthusiastic celebrations. Everyone dons traditional dress, homes are decorated and huge feasts held — and visitors welcomed.

Delve into the caves beneath the Shan Hills

The province of Mae Hong Son is hemmed in by the steep gorges of the Shan hills, which run north to the border with Burma. Large tracts of the hills are limestone, riddled with an expansive cave network, little of which has been mapped. Tham Nam Lod Cave, part of the Tham Lot cave system, is the easiest to explore, located an hour and a half north of the town of Pai.

Local people have devised a system of bamboo rafts for visitors to navigate farther into the cave system. Floating into the darkness, you’re accompanied by a lantern-bearing guide, but it’s wise to bring a torch with you, too. The last chamber houses the remains of a teakwood coffin thought to have been carved by the Lawa tribespeople over 1,000 years ago.

Walk the hills of Mae Hong Son

Using Mae Hong Son town as a base, you can access a network of trails to explore the surrounding hills. It’s best to be driven out to a surrounding hamlet, where you can join tracks that lead deep into the jungle. The routes aren’t marked, at times only visible to an experienced eye, so a local guide is a must.

If you’re prepared to tackle a steep climb, summiting one of the Mae Hong Son’s peaks will reward you with panoramic views of the surrounding hills below. As the jungle begins to thin out, you walk through highland meadows often dotted with wildflowers. Wildlife is tricky to spot, but you might see the occasional deer scampering away, as well as eagles and buzzards circling high above.