I had been fortunate enough to visit this wonderful country a couple of times on past trips but my most recent visit (April 2018) took me for the first time to North Thailand, which is a stunning contrast to the metropolis of Bangkok and the more popular coastal areas. Here I found less development and more natural beauty and naturally hospitable people.
Known as the “Rose of the North” Chiang Mai is where I was based, which is quite central to explore all this fabulous region had to offer. The Chiang Mai region is situated much higher geographically than the rest of the country and is known for its mist-shrouded mountains, its lush green valleys and abundance of fauna and flora.
Chiang Mai itself has grown so much recently in what it has to offer in terms of attractions and activities. There are some really great blog posts around these days when it comes to the top things to do in Chiang Mai which I suggest you check out when planning your visit.
While it would just not be possible to pack in everything I saw, experienced and learned into this piece, I have instead included a summary of what I thought were some of the more significant highlights and photos of the what this part of the world has to offer for the outdoor enthusiast.
Northerly Thailand: A paradise for nature lovers
Here are my top 5 nature-related places from my trip that I really enjoyed and would recommend you to see if/when you visit this corner of the world.
Mae Kajan Hot Spring
I have previously seen natural hot springs/pools/geysers in Japan and New Zealand and even though these weren’t quite in that category in terms of size, this was still worth a stop. This spring is located at Tambol Mae Chedi Mai, Wiang Pa Pao District, Chaing Rai Province (north of Chiang Mai).
This natural feature has become very popular for Thai people as a stopover while travelling between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai or vice versa. The Spring has also become a bit of a tourist attraction and many enjoy getting a wooden basket to boil quail eggs in the water and then eat the eggs as a snack.
The water contains a high concentration of dissolved minerals. Visitors are really captured by the natural hot spring and in some sections (that are not boiling), love to bath their feet in the natural warmth.
The Golden Triangle
The “Golden Triangle” refers to the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers. The name “Golden Triangle”, coined by the CIA, is commonly used more broadly to refer to an area approximately 950,000 square kilometres (or 367,000 square miles) that overlaps the mountains of these three countries. This area has been one of the most extensive opium-producing areas of Asia, and indeed the world.
So long as you travel in established routes where locals and tourists go, you are really very safe from the dangers associated with the illicit drug trade. In the case of my fiancé and I, we were visiting the area to see the lush vegetation and natural beauty as well as to travel the rivers where the Ruak and Mekong converge between the three nations.
We hired a local boat (punt) along with other visitors to experience the waters here and it was amazing to see how obvious the demarcation of the different rivers was where they met. You could actually see straight lines that formed separating the different colours of each river! We went up right next to the Myanmar shore and then turned to visit some markets in Donsao, Laos.
In Donsao, we took a few photos of the area (including some bottled snakes, scorpions and other creepy crawlies) before doing a bit of Jade shopping where my lovely fiancé bought me a lovely green jade bracelet. We then took the boat (which was really rocky) back to the Thai border to return back south.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon National Park covers an area of 482 km² in Chiang Mai province. The park is actually part of the Himalayan mountain range even though the elevation ranges just between 800 and 2565 meters.
Located south of Chiang Mai, the park is one of the most fertile troves of natural treasure in Thailand. The invigorating mountain air and fresh, cooler climate makes it a rejuvenating break from the cities. This area is extremely popular among bird watchers and many tours come here also with people wanting to experience a very different side of Thailand.
Aside from the amazing vistas of stunning nature, the park is also home to the Twin Chedis. The twin chedis were constructed by the Thai Royal Air Force to honour the 60th birthday of the King and Queen of Thailand (in 1987 and 1992 respectively). The darker colour chedi with the brown tint (Phra Mahathat Chedi Nophamethanidol) is for the king and the one with the light-blue or lilac hue (Phra Mahathat Chedi Noppholbhumsiri) is for the queen. The area is beautifully landscaped with a stunning display of flowers and on a clear day provides glorious views over North Thailand and the mountains of Myanmar/Burma (to the west).
Great Camping Spot in Northern Thailand:
Doi Inthanon HQ is situated at 30.8km near the Ban Khun Klang village of Hmong (Meo) tribe. 500 meters west from the HQ there is a market with few restaurants around, there is also an ATM nearby. The camping area and bungalows are 500 meters north from the junction or nearly 400 meters east of the HQ. Camping gear can be rented at the entrance to the campsite. There are no restaurants in that area, the nearest options are around the HQ and the market. The smaller options of tents for 3 people costs 250 THB/day while bigger ones for 5 people costs 400 THB/day, sleeping bags, matt and pillows included in the price.
“The Roof of Thailand”
Doi Inthanon within the National Park is the highest mountain in Thailand. It is in Chom Thong District, Chiang Mai Province. This mountain is an ultra-prominent peak, known in the past as Doi Luang (‘big mountain’) or Doi Ang Ka, meaning the ‘crow’s pond top’. These days it is referred to as “the roof of Thailand”.
Due to the higher altitude, the summit has high humidity and cooler weather all year round. The average daily temperatures are normally around 10-12 °C.
Reaching the summit, you can definitely feel the chill and moisture in the air. It was really fun to follow the established path under the canopy of forest branches, noting the different plants and many insects and small lizards as well as to appreciate the cultural monuments there such as the King Inthanon Memorial Shrine.
This waterfall is really lovely. It is a multi-level fall with a total drop of around 80 metres.
It is reached via a narrow and steep road off the northern side of the highway at roughly the 21 KM mark on highway 1009.
Although the falls are flowing all year, the biggest quantity of water will be flowing during the wet season from May to November.
There is a lot of spray from the falls which creates a rain-like mist that flows down the valley. If you have camera gear or sensitive electronic equipment that may be prone to water damage you may wish to bring protective coverings.
The mist can be at times very impressive to look at and you will almost always see rainbows within. This makes it a popular spot for taking movies and photos.
It is also recommended that you wear appropriate footwear as the area is often slippery and muddy.
Below is a very quick video shot by my fiance showing me and our guide Maggi at the falls
North Thailand’s Flora and Fauna
Quite aside from the top 5 attractions/locations of this holiday, I really feel I should make mention of the wildlife flora and fauna that is fairly unique to the region.
This majestic animal is the national symbol of Thailand. They are revered where ever you go and there are countless statues, ornaments and images of them across the land. I first came across elephants in Thailand when visiting the resort island of Koh Samui and really fell in love with their intelligence and beautiful personalities.
While in this region, I visited the Maesa Elephant Camp and to quote from their website: “This area of the Maesa Valley is home to the largest assembly of domesticated elephants in north Thailand. Visitors can see the elephants working with their mahouts (trainers), bathing in the river and even painting landscapes!”.
A 4 minute compilation of video of the elephants:
I was very fortunate to see all of the activities described above and even got up close and personal with a couple of very large elephants that came by for a cuddle! What a photo opportunity that was! I was halfway between being exhilarated and terrified…
The largest and often most feared of the cat family, Tigers are looked after these days in wildlife preservation centres, some of which also encourage tourism and (for additional fees) will facilitate photos right up close. How close you might ask? Well at Tiger Kingdom you actually are let into the enclosure and can pat them before (or while) posing for a photo!
Now I have considerable respect for the sheer grace, speed, strength and power of these awesome animals and I was not overly keen to push my luck here…not even with experienced trainers with me. So instead I opted to go into the enclosure with some smaller cats to give them a bit of a pat, get a photo or two and then respectfully retreat. One of them even gave me a bit of a kick with his hind paw, much like a domestic cat when annoyed and I took that as my cue to leave! Being up close was a wonderful experience to look back on and their fur is quite soft, although quite thick at the same time.
Orchids and Butterflies
Not far from Tiger Kingdom is Bai Orchid and Butterfly Farm which, although not overly large in size, contained some wonderful displays of flowers that grow so well here. A visitor who was a keen photographer and lover of nature could probably spend many hours engrossed here. Although I am not a professional photographer by any means, I have included a few shots here of the flora here as well as a couple within the butterfly enclosed area.
People and Culture
I don’t think any article on the beauty of this area could be complete without talking a little about the wonderful people of Thailand having regard for the cultures and traditions that make up this peaceful country.
Thailand is predominately a Buddhist country and its people are overwhelmingly friendly, courteous and thoughtful.
Chiang Mai and North Thailand generally has fascinating natural beauty and cultural heritage. The endless rice paddies that you will find at every corner of the region, tranquil lakes, and lush forests make the atmosphere full of phenomenal calmness.
The temples of Chiang Mai are many and all are just stunning in their design and workmanship. I doubt anyone could visit here and not want to see these amazing structures from the outside and in. Their beauty mirrors that of the fundamental principles of Buddhism and has such a fundamental and lasting impact of serenity for most of the people. It is hard not to be moved.
Externally, adventure-seekers are drawn from all four corners of the globe. During my trip, I met a solo woman traveller (Brooke, from Florida USA) who was on extended holidays from her job as a military and civil air traffic controller based in Kabul, Afghanistan! She was having a wonderful time travelling through South East Asia and loved Northern Thailand just as much as I did and focussed a lot on hiking as many scenic treks as she could. Otherwise, my fiancé and I met many other couples and singles that could not get enough of the fabulous country and its people.
Below is a video of Brooke and I try a local Thai delicacy…silkworms!
Naturally, it goes without saying that if you like Thai food, the Northern Kingdom of Thailand has some of the most mouth-watering dishes full of taste. Even the mildest Thai curries are so yummy and the ingredients used are all fresh and very healthy for most diets. They also offer Thai cooking classes for tourists who want to be able to show off a few exotic culinary skills back home.
While we were there the annual Songkran (Water) Festival also occurred which really should be seen to be appreciated. This festival takes place at the beginning of the New Year in the traditional Thai calendar. The festival is the most important/significant in Thailand, originating in Northerly Thailand and involves spraying water on anyone in your vicinity as part of a traditionally spiritually cleansing process. Nowadays the festival has gotten a lot bigger and is all over Thailand.
To quote the website: “A feature of the celebration was that some of the lustral water used to bathe the Buddha images was collected. It was then gently poured onto elders and family members as a sign of respect and to ensure good luck and prosperity in the coming year. What has happened in modern times is that this aspect of the celebration has become its central theme, and has become much more intense. The result is that Songkran now resembles a three-day water-fight in which any weapon, from high-pressure squirt guns to buckets filled with icy water, is considered fair game.
It has become very popular with younger Thai people, and the younger tourists from overseas, who see it as three days of fun, rather than a religious festival. In fact, most Thai people are happy to take part in this fun aspect of Songkran, particularly as April is usually the hottest month of the year, when temperatures can top 100º F (40ºC). Every year there are calls from political and religious leaders to moderate the festival, particularly in light of the horrendous carnage on the roads, but every year these calls are ignored.” I had to laugh at James (my fiancé) who got well and truly drenched while travelling in an open tuk-tuk and arrived at our accommodation completely soaked!
Northern Thailand In Summary…
Many enjoy this region as it’s relatively higher altitude means it is not as hot as other parts of the country. It still has the warmth of hospitality as anywhere else in Thailand and is surrounded by natural beauty. It doesn’t have the crazy-busyness of Bangkok or the same heat of places like Koh Samui or Phuket.
I am so pleased to have come here to discover and experience much of this special part of the world first hand and I know I won’t be the last to want to make this trip, as more and more, the word gets out about everything Northern Thailand has to offer.