Northern Thailand

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Northern Thailand


Northern Thailand region shares borders with Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, as well as Central Thailand and Isaan (North-East Thailand). 


  • Chiang Mai - the largest city in the north, well known for its temples
  • Chiang Rai - the usual access point for the Golden Triangle, where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar
  • Mae Hong Son - a small town in the north-west surrounded by wonderful landscape, and one of the major starting points for trekking, especially to the different "hill-tribes"
  • Mae Sai - northernmost city in Thailand and border crossing town to Myanmar
  • Nakhon Sawan
  • Nan - former capital of a small kingdom, filled with history and temples and surrounded by mountains
  • Pai - small village and nice overnight stop between Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai, with a laid-back backpacker/traveller atmosphere and a good starting point for trekking tours
  • Phitsanulok - a good overnight stop between Bangkok and Chiang Mai and a gateway to the Sukhothai historical park
  • Sukhothai - Thailand's original capital- glorious temple and history.

Other destinations

  • Chiang Dao - known for its caves, and next to Chiang Dao National Park
  • Chiang Khong - gateway to Laos
  • Mae Salong - a very interesting place to stop on the way to Chiang Mai
  • Thaton - hang out on the border with Myanmar, and take the boat to Chiang Rai
  • The many national parks in this mountainous region make it a popular destination for trekking


Wat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
Wat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

Surrounded by the tallest mountains in Thailand, Northern Thailand is cooler than the rest of the usually sweltering country and thus particularly popular in December and January. In the mountains at night temperatures occasionally dip below freezing, although in the plains the daily average is rarely less than 25 Centigrade.

Culturally, Northern Thailand shows heavy influences from the neighboring cultures of Myanmar and Yunnan (China). The kingdoms of Lanna (centered at Chiang Mai) and Sukhothai were the first historical Thai nations.

Much of northern Thailand was for a long time off limits due to a series of Communist insurgencies and Myanmar's drug battles and civil wars spilling over the border. Both problems have been largely resolved, although caution is still advised near the border with Myanmar in the provinces of Tak and Mae Hong Son.


The people of Northern Thailand speak their own dialect of Thai called Kham Meaung (or Kham Muang; คำเมือง), however standard Thai is widely understood. In addition, the hill tribes speak their own languages.

Get in

By plane

The main airport in Northern Thailand is Chiang Mai, which has connections throughout Thailand and some international links too. Domestic flights (some of which may be seasonal) connect with Bangkok, Chiang Rai, Ko Samui, Mae Hong Son, Nan, Pai, Phitsanulok, Phuket, Sukhothai and Udon Thani.

By train

Trains from Bangkok go regularly to Chiang Mai via Phitsanulok.

By bus

There is an extensive bus network with the main backbone being between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. From Chiang Mai, buses head north-west to Mae Hong Son and Pai, and further north to Chiang Rai.

Get around

By plane

Regular flights connect Chiang Mai with Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Pai, Phitsanulok and Sukhothai.

By train

The only railway line within Northern Thailand runs between Chiang Mai and Sukhothai (and further on to Bangkok).

By road

There is an extensive network of public bus services with major hubs in Phitsanulok and Chiang Mai.

Minibuses, songthaews and tuk-tuks also serve many places which are not directly accessible by bus. Cheap but not always comfortable.


Temple-tramping in Chiang Mai and historical sites in Sukhothai are the major cultural attractions of Northern Thailand, the birthplace of Thai civilization.


Chiang Dao National Park
Chiang Dao National Park
  • Trekking is one of the main attractions in northern Thailand, there are trekking tours suiting everybody's needs. From one-day-all-inclusive to tours which last several days you can choose whatever fits you best. Many tours include rafting and elephant riding.
  • Hill tribes are another major attraction. The ethics of hill-tribe trekking are somewhat questionable, with tour groups tramping through some villages daily - particularly those inhabited by the famous long-necked Karen women - and the tribes consequently abandoning their traditional lifestyle in favor of hawking trinkets to tourists. Some trek operators attempt to limit the damage by restricting the number of visitors and employing local hill tribesmen as guides, but the competition is tough and many simply aim to minimise costs and maximise profits.


A bowl of khao soi with condiments, Chiang Mai
A bowl of khao soi with condiments, Chiang Mai

Northern Thai food is somewhat different to that eaten in the rest of the country. Northerners prefer sticky rice over steamed, bitter flavours to hot ones, and avoid using coconut milk. The favoured meat is pork, which finds it way into a variety of sausages (cooked or fermented) and whose skin is fried as the ubiquitous snack khaep muu. The traditional way of sampling Northern food is a low round table known as a khan tok, laden with dishes. Some favorites include:

  • kaeng hang le - a Burmese-style pork curry
  • kaeng khae - a soupy curry flavored with bitter herbs
  • khao soi - a curry noodle soup reputedly of Burmese origin much favored in Chiang Mai, served with shallots, lime and pickles to add as you like
  • khanom jiin naam ngiew - rice noodles with pork ribs and a complex tomatoes and black bean sauce
  • nam phrik - covering a variety of spicy dips for rice and vegetables


While the larger towns (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phitsanulok) offer a broad range of accommodation, in the smaller villages the tourist has to refer to guest houses and smaller hotels. Prices are usually lower than in Bangkok. Booking ahead (using the Internet or travel agencies) may give you better rates at some hotels.

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