By Harry Bedford
Thailand is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world with almost 27 million travellers visiting in 2013 alone. With its stunning beaches, delicious food and compelling history and culture, it is easy to see why it has become such a popular holiday spot. While the south of Thailand, particularly the islands, are so beautiful and inviting, the north is often forgotten. But take a trip up to the quaint old cities and mountain towns of northern Thailand and you’ll be rewarded with a plethora of experiences just waiting for you to dive into.
Below is a list of ten Must-See’s and Do’s in the fascinating North of Thailand.
1. Eat – Thailand is famed throughout the world for its cuisine and Northern Thailand is one of the best places to sample it. Fresh produce and traditional recipes combine to create mouth-watering dishes and what’s more, you can get a full-sized meal for as little as 50 pence. Pad Thai (noodles) is arguably the dish that epitomises Thailand the most, and is a particular favourite with tourists and locals alike. To ensure an authentic experience for a quarter of the price of a tourist restaurant, venture into a Thai eatery and ask the locals what they recommend.
2. Marvel at the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) – A surreal architectural wonder in Chiang Rai. The artist turned architect, Chalermchai Kositpipat invites you into his unfinished masterpiece via the walkway through which concrete hands rise up as if reaching from hell. You are welcomed by dramatic statues of Rahu (controller of fate) and Death (controller of life) as you approach the gleaming white building and, once inside, witness the unusual murals on the wall of images depicting the events of 9/11 alongside popular culture figures such as Harry Potter and Michael Jackson. According to Kositpitat himself, it represents the need for a ‘real-life’ hero in the midst of today’s wars. Ensure you leave the temple following the one-way system, which represents the purging of your sins.
3. Get soaked at Songkram – The Thai New Year is simply an excuse for a great big water fight. Take a ride around Chiang Mai’s Old City Square between the 13th and 15th April, and you’d better have your water guns ready! Be prepared to get very wet and don’t expect to be let off lightly if you ride a scooter around the centre either, as these often attract the most attention; if you are not a confident driver, avoid the city centre during Songkram. Many Bangkok workers return home to Chiang Mai for the New Year celebrations so the northern city tends to be the best, and busiest, place to enjoy the three-day festival.
4. Climb Doi Suthep – Rising high above Chiang Mai, this symbolic mountain invites you to climb its 300-plus steps in order to see the mystical temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep at the peak. Once there you are rewarded with breath-taking views of the city labelled ‘The Rose of the North’, and can take your time exploring one of the most famous temples in Thailand. Set your alarm clocks as it is best scaled early in the morning as the temperature can reach the high 30s, making an afternoon climb quite unbearable.
5. Scooter around Pai – The quaint, hippy town of Pai has lots to offer a visitor and they are best accessed on a scooter. The quiet and scenic mountain roads are the perfect place to get acquainted with Thailand’s favourite method of transport. For as little as £3-a-day, feel the wind in your hair as you speed from one end of the town to the other, taking in waterfalls and the infamous Pai Canyon as you go.
6. Volunteer – Thailand has countless volunteering opportunities, many at no cost, but arguably none quite as rewarding as working with the adorable canines at the Care For Dogs shelter in Hang Dong- just south of Chiang Mai. Get to know the dogs by walking and feeding them – even adopt a couple and bring them back home! Volunteering here is free-of-charge as long as you commit to a minimum of four consecutive days. Making friends with these four-legged creatures is a great way to give something back on your travels.
7. Day trip to Burma – The most northerly town of Thailand, Mae Sai, is worth a visit for its important border crossing with Burma, only open for tourists in the last few years. By paying just £10 you get a day-stamp in your passport that allows you to enter the Burmese town of Tachileik and get a taste of life in the troubled former British colony. A surprising contrast to its Thai neighbour, it is quite an insightful experience. Be sure to take a look at the Buddhist temples and try a Burmese curry while you’re there.
8. Market shopping – Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai both have excellent night markets filled with arts, crafts, clothes and food at very reasonable prices, if you are a competent haggler. Many other markets can be found around the towns and cities of Northern Thailand where you can find great bargains on a range of Thai goods.
9. Hike around the mountains – the mountains of the north really define the landscape up here and it is a sin not to make the most of them. Take an easy-going one-day organised hike or a more intensive multiple day trek to really get to know the terrain of Northern Thailand. Many tour companies operating within Chiang Mai offer mountain hikes at competitive prices.
10. Relax at a spa – hotel resorts with spas are dotted all around the north of Thailand with all the luxury and pampering one expects from a spa at the unbelievable price of a Travelodge back home. Check yourself into a spa resort from as little as £30-per-room per-night with treatments from as little as £8. After the mountain hike, you will certainly deserve it.