When most people think of a holiday to Thailand they imagine idyllic islands, dramatic limestone karsts jutting out of the ocean, and a young and lithe Leonardo DiCaprio discovering a certain hidden location. (Not just me is it?) But while Thailand’s beaches and islands are hard to beat there’s lots to discover north of Bangkok that can offer a totally different side to your Thailand holiday. From dazzling temples to a hippy mountain town and remote hill tribes, these highlights of Northern Thailand might just to convince you to travel beyond the beach on your next trip to Thailand.
This post has been written in conjunction with holiday experts Flight Centre.
Visiting Northern Thailand
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You can fly direct from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, a backpacker and expat mecca in the heart of Northern Thailand, in just over an hour.
For a more scenic journey you can also travel to the north by overnight train from Bangkok. Some of the trains were refurbished in 2016 and offer a more comfortable journey than I experienced in my backpacker era. For a little privacy, you can book a First Class cabin for 2 passengers, although do note you will be sharing the bathroom and shower facilities with the rest of the carriage.
If you’ve got more time to spare, you can also travel to the north by bus and this will allow you to make a few stops along the way. There are a couple of significant heritage sites between Bangkok and Chiang Mai that are well worth the visit.
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- Ayutthaya – Found 70km north of Bangkok is the ancient city of Ayutthaya, which was founded in 1350 and is home to some of the oldest temples in Thailand. The historical heart of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site that is easily explored by foot or on bike. Highlights include Wat Phra Sri Sanphet (the former palace grounds) and Wat Mahathat, where an eerie Buddha head entwined in the roots of an ancient tree has become one of Thailand’s most photographed relics.
- Sukhothai – 400km north of Bangkok is Siam’s first capital, Sukhothai. The Sukhothai (meaning ‘dawn of happiness’) Kingdom flourished from the mid 13th century to the late 14th century and was considered the golden age of Thai civilisation. At the Sukhothai Historical Park, you’ll find an incredible 193 historical sites, including Wat Mahathat, which was originally surrounded by 185 stupas.
Highlights of Northern Thailand
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There are so many reasons that travellers are charmed by Chiang Mai – the cooler climate, rich culture, bustling night markets and cooking classes, to name just a few of them.
Home to over 300 Buddhist temples, Chiang Mai is dotted with golden stupas and monks in vibrant orange garments. The most well-known Buddhist temple in Chaing Mai is Doi Suthep, which is reached via 300 challenging serpent-lined steps.
If you’re a fan of elephants then don’t miss the chance to visit them in an ethical environment at the Elephant Nature Park. At this elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre you’ll find a thriving herd of playful elephants that you can visit or volunteer to care for.
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From some of Thailand’s most ancient temples you must travel to Chiang Rai to visit one of its most unique ones. Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, is the slightly bizarre and seriously blinding creation of Chiang Rai-born visual artist and painter Chalermchai Kositpipat. Featuring a pure white exterior interspersed with tiny mirrors, the temple is filled with unusual Buddhist symbols, including tortured looking skeletons, a sea of hands and dragons.
If you could imagine the atmosphere of Thailand’s tropical islands transplanted into the mountains you’ll get an idea of what it’s like in Pai. This popular hill town with a hippy feel is a great base for trekkers who want to explore the surrounding mountains and hill tribes.
Pai’s Walking Street is a big draw for shopaholics and foodies as it fills up with vendors each evening selling everything from jewellery to sushi. Just outside of town are waterfalls, hot springs, caves and lush scenery including the Pai Canyon that is perfect for hiking.
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Mae Hong Son
To experience a mountain town that’s a little less touristy head to the remote city of Mae Hong Son near the border with Myanmar. Nestled within a steep valley, Mae Hong Son offers a respite from the heat during the Thai summer and is a popular stop on the Mae Hong Son Loop, a route travellers take from Chiang Mai to explore the misty mountains and visit the Karen and Lisu hill tribes that populate the region.
Whatever you do on your Thailand Holiday make sure that you do not miss out on the chance to explore Northern Thailand.
Featured image thanks to Colton Duke on Unsplash