The Natural Beauty of Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand

By Nicole Anderson

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 Northern Thailand, which is a stunning contrast to the metropolis of Bangkok and the more popular coastal areas.

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.

 

Northern 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

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Mae Kajan Hot Spring, Chiang Rai Province, north of Chiang Mai.

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 naturally hot spring and in some sections (that are not boiling), love to bath their feet in the natural warmth.

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People relaxing by soaking their feet in the warm waters of the spring.

 

The Golden Triangle

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This monument overlooked where the rivers intersected on the Thai side.

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.

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James, my fiance with myself immediately behind making the journey down and across the rivers.

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 were 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.

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Made it across to 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.

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Jars of snakes and all kinds of nasty things were for sale as a novelty at this market.

 

Doi Inthanon National Park

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Entrance to the 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.

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This was one of the sites greeting you near the entrance to the twin chedis.

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 Northern Thailand and the mountains of Myanmar/Burma (to the west).

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It was hard to get both chedis in one shot and you can’t really tell from here how big they are.

 

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Me on the balcony area of the King chedi with the Queen chedi in the background.

 

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Beautiful gardens abound all around the twin chedis with natural vegetation beyond.

 

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”

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Me at 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”.

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Dense vegetation all around the summit.

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.

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At a pergola at the summit.

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.

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King Inthanon Memorial Shrine

 

Wachirathan Waterfall

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Wachirathan Waterfall

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

 

Northern 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.

Elephants

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At the main entrance to the largest elephant camp in Northern Thailand, housing some 80 elephants.

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.

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An overview of the entire camp and attractions to see and learn all about the elephants.

While in Northern Thailand, 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 northern Thailand. Visitors can see the elephants working with their mahouts (trainers), bathing in the river and even painting landscapes!”.

Two of the elephants getting their bath!

 

Mahouts ride their elephants into the arena

 

Playing soccer. The aim of kicking the ball was really good.

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…

A couple of elephants coming in for a cuddle from behind…

 

Tigers

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!

Planting a flag at the entrance to Tiger Kingdom after making a donation to wildlife preservation.

 

Tiger Kingdom had a variety of all the big cats and most where understandably under cover during the day.

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.

Feeling particularly brave that day…

 

This guy gave me a kick with his hind paw after this photo was taken and that’s when I thought it best to retreat.

 

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 Northern 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.

With fiance James at the famous and beautiful White Temple, Chiang Rai.

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 traveling 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…silk worms!

 

Naturally it goes without saying that if you like Thai food, Northern 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.

 

So tasty, healthy, looks good…what is not to love about Thai cuisine?

 

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 Northern 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.

Water shooting, spraying and throwing on the streets as part of Songkran Festival.

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.

Two standing at the ready – and one shooting at us as we go by, in front of a stall selling water blasters.

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 traveling in an open tuk-tuk and arrived at our accommodation completely soaked!

A young local girl stands by with her bucket of icy water, ready to soak anyone who passes…the road is definitely not wet due to any rain…

 

Northern Thailand In Summary…

Many enjoy the Northern Thailand 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.

Appreciating the intricate beauty of the 600 year old Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep on a mountainside overlooking Chiang Mai.

 

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115 thoughts on “The Natural Beauty of Northern Thailand

  • November 7, 2018 at 12:57 pm
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    Would love to visit Northern Thailand for the hot springs alone! Also love the gorgeous waterfall. That was very brave of you to pat that tiger!

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  • November 7, 2018 at 1:14 am
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    It’s not really a place I’d want to visit but I think it’s one of the most beautiful in the world!

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    • November 7, 2018 at 1:20 am
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      For sure we all differ on our preferences of where we want to visit but certainly most would agree on the beauty of this location. Thanks for reading and commenting Neely.

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  • September 28, 2018 at 10:28 am
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    Wow! Such an amazing adventure! 🙂 I’d definitely love to visit Northern Thailand. I love the way you described everything, very vivid, I had a feeling of being there (and the pictures are great – I especially love the one with the elephants! 🙂 ). Lovely experience, thank you for sharing it with us! 🙂
    Oh, yes, I agree about the local markets and creepy crawlies lol, I’d probably scream. 😀

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    • September 28, 2018 at 11:28 am
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      Thank you so much Scarlet. I truly believe Nothern Thailand has so much to offer beyond what the more touristy areas do. It just feels more natural and genuine and far less commercialised. You really do feel closer to nature there in my view. Thanks so much again for reading and for your kind comments.

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  • August 19, 2018 at 7:19 am
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    Northern Thailand is so much lesser explored than the rest of the country and I made the same mistake when I visited too; I restricted myself to the cliched cities of Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya and Krabi. However, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are two cities I really want to visit on my next trip! Doi Inthanon National Park looks pretty awesome, I’d love to go hiking there. Also, there seem to be some pretty cool waterfalls here. Northern Thailand is beautiful!

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    • August 19, 2018 at 10:25 am
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      It certainly is Medha, no doubt about it. Best wishes for a wonderful trip to both Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai and I know you will love hiking in Doi Inthanon National Park. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

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  • August 17, 2018 at 5:53 pm
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    WOW – northern Thailand looks a lot different from the last I visited! Before, I stayed in Chiang Mai, but now I think I’ll have other places that need to explore! I’d love to visit again and have the same pics of the baby elephants!

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  • August 14, 2018 at 4:55 am
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    Wow, what a complete and detailed guide for Golden Triangle tour in Northern Thailand. You have covered almost everything like temples, exotic nature and animals on this trip. I too loved the intricate sculpture and architectures of temples in Chiang Mai. Those elephants taking bath are so cute. Orchids and butterfly what a deadly combination of two beauties at one place. Thanks for sharing!

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    • August 14, 2018 at 5:21 am
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      Thank you for reading and leaving a comment Yukti. There is no doubt that there is a lot to appreciate in this part of the world and I am so happy to have experienced it and shared it.

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  • August 13, 2018 at 8:20 pm
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    What a great trip to northern Thailand! I love orchids and those were gorgeous. How fun that you were able to take a quick trip into Laos.

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    • August 13, 2018 at 11:21 pm
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      I totally agree that the orchids were just beautiful at the Bai Orchid and Butterfly Farm. It was a highlight as well as the trip across to Laos. Northern Thailand as a whole was such a lovely experience. Thanks so much for reading and commenting Annick.

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  • August 13, 2018 at 3:50 pm
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    This is a fantastic guide to Thailand, or northern Thailand to be specific. The white temple looks spectacular and the waterfalls are amazing. Nice to see that there’s so much to Thailand than just beaches and water sports!

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    • August 13, 2018 at 7:26 pm
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      Thank you so much Sinjana, your comment is really appreciated. You are so right…Thailand has so much more to offer and the north of the country certainly shows this very well.

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  • August 8, 2018 at 10:39 am
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    I like the North of Thailand faaar more than the Southern part and the tourist islands. It’s touristy, too, but not so merciless. People going up North seem to be a bit more interested in Thailand as a country rather than a beach. However, I’m not a fan of using animals for entertaining tourists. Thailand is beautiful and exciting enough, so this attractions shouldn’t be necessary.

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    • August 8, 2018 at 11:29 am
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      Hi Renata. I understand the point you are trying to make regarding the animals. However, the sad reality is that even the most credible animal sanctuaries there need to attract tourists to fund their preservation activities as well as raise awareness of their cause more broadly. For those of us who are supportive of the animals, our support is needed to expand the work they are doing, which I am sure you would be relieved to hear. Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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  • August 7, 2018 at 12:46 pm
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    I have had Thailand on my bucket list for quite some time. I am looking forward to seeing the natural beauty of the country. Also, I think about all of the authentic local cultural experiences I could have there. I’d love to go on a river cruise there and see all of the architecture. And I’d like to see the gorgeous temples.

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    • August 8, 2018 at 11:21 am
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      I think you would see and experience all that and more Angelle. Architecture and temples are plentiful and extremely beautiful as is the culture, people and of course the surrounds. I hope you have as wonderful a time as I did and thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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  • August 7, 2018 at 10:19 am
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    That pic of the natural park is just stunning, with the green and the cascading falls. What was the condition of the sanctuary elephants, did you see? Also, those big cats are definitely not being treated well. See the tiny enclosure the lion was in. At least, it looked really cramped from the picture perspective. Anyways, if you could survive the Golden Triangle unscathed, then I can do it too, and you’re right. YOLO! *you only live once* lol.

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    • August 7, 2018 at 11:36 am
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      Your right that the park is just so beautiful. The condition of the elephants was very good as this was a sanctuary to look after these wonderful animals. The cats were actually treated very well – they were in very large enclosures where they could run and bathe freely. The photo with the lion you referred to – if you have a closer look you will see he is actually relaxing under a bench – not an enclosure at all. I just used the zoom on the camera to get a closer shot of the lion because he was further inside the enclosure. And yes, do visit the Golden Triangle as well as the other natural beauty in the area. Thanks for reading and commenting Kemi.

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  • August 6, 2018 at 8:02 pm
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    Reading your post was a trip down the memory lane! And guess what, we have photos almost at the similar places like you have shared here. Haha! We did a biking trip to Golden Triangle and it has remained one of the best trips of our lives! There is so much more to Norther Thailand apart form Chiang Mai and you post has given a wonderful guide!

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    • August 7, 2018 at 11:29 am
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      Thank you for such a lovely comment Navita. Although we were based at Chiang Mai, our focus was Northern Thailand, hence we travelled a fair bit to see as much of this wonderful region as we could. I’m so pleased you liked this post and that you were kind enough to leave your comment.

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  • August 6, 2018 at 5:11 pm
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    Oh my!! I want to travel to Thailand so bad, all parts of it! Now I’m going to have to try and visit every spot you mentioned…challenge accepted!

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    • August 7, 2018 at 11:25 am
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      Way to go Rachael! There is a lot to see and a lot to take in with respect to the culture and the wonderful people there. Let me know how it goes! Safe and happy travels.

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  • August 6, 2018 at 2:47 pm
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    Ahhhh Chiang Mai was actually just showcased as a destination in the current season of the Bachelorette! This is someplace I really want to visit some day. It looks so beautiful. I am definitely going to be saving your post for future reference!

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    • August 7, 2018 at 11:23 am
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      Thanks so much, Phoebe. I’m sure Northern Thailand would come across very well on TV. Do let me know what your experience is like when you go. Best wishes for a wonderful time.

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  • August 6, 2018 at 12:55 pm
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    Goodness gracious! Northern Thailand is no doubt a beautiful place to explore. As much as I’m already in love with the natural park and the waterfalls, I think I’d spend a whole day soaking up my feet by the hot springs! Sounds so fun!