Many of Thailand’s visitors head to Bangkok or the beaches and islands in the South, but Northern Thailand also offers a staggering range of amazing destinations. Jungles and breathtaking pristine scenery can be found throughout the region, mountain trekking is possible and many small villages are filled with locals who live life far differently than Thais living in big cities.
Whether you want to see elephants in their natural habitat or visit hill tribes, make Northern Thailand part of your next trip to Asia. This list highlights some of the top destinations in Northern Thailand to explore, and it includes everything from historical parks to the gateway in the famed Golden Triangle.
The city of Phrae has a history dating back to the Lanna Thai Kingdom, and it retains many of its incredible historic structures, so it is not a typical tourist stop. Being off the beaten path means that Phrae is not packed with crowds of international tourists, letting you get a better feel for an authentic side of Thai life. Phrae is located in the heart of a major teak forest, so many of its buildings are also made from teak. Don’t miss the Pratabjai House, the Khum Chao Luang, which was stayed in by the Thai King and Queen, and the remaining portions of the old city wall.
The northernmost destination in all of Thailand is Mae Sai. The town is used as a stepping stone for those interested in visiting Myanmar, but it also boasts a lot to do in its own right. The Wat Phra That Wai Dao, a stunning temple, is open to the public, and a smaller Burmese temple stands to one side. You also won’t want to miss the giant scorpion statue, with its claws outstretched toward Myanmar, which is a show of the Thai people’s strength and past prowess in war. Mae Sai is a great place to go shopping at the local markets, and some of the most popular souvenirs to pick up include jewels imported from Myanmar and items carved from local sandalwood.
In the 14th century, Nan was a thriving city-state in the Lanna Kingdom, and it was able to prosper thanks to its location halfway between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang. Nan was only reabsorbed back into Thailand officially in 1931, and the local people are fiercely proud of their home and their heritage. In Nan, start by visiting the Nan National Museum, housed in the palace where the last two feudal lords of the city lived. Then, make time to explore the 19th century King of Nan’s Teak House, the 16th century Wat Phumin and the colorful boat races that take place right on the Nan River.
In the Northern River Valley region of Thailand, stop by the city of Lampang. Artifacts show that humans have resided in the city for more than 1,000 years, and many of its historical landmarks reflect that heritage. Check out the Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao, which is home to a stunning emerald Buddha, the Ban Sao Nak, or House of Many Pillars, and the ancient city itself. Within the ancient city, admire the architecture of the Wat Phra That Lampang Luang and spot the beautiful 19th century murals. On Saturday and Sunday nights, the city of Lampang comes to life thanks to the Gad Gong Tha night market, where you can buy snacks, meals, drinks and souvenirs.
The Golden Triangle is the area where Laos, Thailand and Myanmar intersect. The city that typically serves as the gateway to that Golden Triangle is Chiang Rai. The city contains a few attractions itself like the black house at the Baan dam Museum, the Buddhist temple Munniti Chiang Rai, the 14th century Wat Klong Wiang and the White Temple. Learn more about Chiang Rai by visiting the Cultural Hall Museum, and be sure to take a boat ride along the Kok River before you leave.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
See also: Top Chiang Rai Attractions
Thailand might be associated with tropical weather and coastal landscapes, but Doi Inthanon National Park disproves those stereotypes. Home to the tallest mountain in Thailand, the park has a high overall elevation and can even experience frost on a few particularly cold days of the year. Doi Inthanon National Park boasts a number of magnificent waterfalls, so make sure to see the Mae Klang Waterfall, the Mae Ya Waterfall and the Sirithan Waterfall, among others. Stay active by hiking along the Ang Ka Nature Trail, and round out the experience by visiting the Hmong Market, where the tribal sellers are decked out in their authentic costumes.
Mae Hong Song might be located in Northern Thailand, but it feels like you’re in a completely different country thanks to the distinctive culture of the area. Mae Hong Son borders Myanmar, and many of the local residents are of the Shan descent. As a result, the city is a must-see stop that feels unique from the rest of the country. In Mae Hong Son, trekking is a popular pastime, and many accommodation options offer guides for a day of outdoor exploration. See the Su Tong Pae Bamboo Bridge, the Tham Pla Fish Cave, the Pha Sua Waterfall or the Pang Tong Palace during one of your treks in the area. The city is also a stop on the famous Mae Hong Son loop, a trip along beautiful scenery that starts and ends in Chiang Mai and takes about 4 days to complete.
Popular among backpackers, Pai a laid-back destination in Thailand that is bursting with outdoor recreation activities. You can set off on a white-water rafting trip, go trekking through the mountains on a guided tour, watch elephants make a splash in the Pai River, go tubing down the river or hike to the incredible Tha Pai Hot Springs. For nightlife, head to the bustling Raddamrong Road, which boasts a number of open-air bars, cheap drinks and live music. For some history, check out the World War II Memorial Bridge or the small Chinese village of Santichon that is located right outside the city.
In the 13th century, Sukhothai was the heart of Thailand and the nation’s capital, but today it is a smaller city known for its ruins. The Sukhothai Historical Park lets you see what life was like more than 800 years ago in Northern Thailand, and you can even rent a bicycle to see more of the ruins in less time. The park is divided into separate sections, and you’ll need to pay an admission fee to see each. Expect to see large Buddha statues among crumbling temples, stunning bridges and beautiful art in the form of stucco reliefs.
The largest and most popular destination in Northern Thailand is Chiang Mai, known for its elephants as well as its temples. Chiang Mai is home to more than 300 temples, but the very best include the 14th century Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which is outside of the city center, the 14th century Wat Phra Singh, complete with incredible murals, and the Wat Chedi Luang, a 15th century architectural masterpiece. While you’re in Chiang Mai, make time to explore the city’s many markets especially the famous Night Bazaar.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
See also: Top Chiang Mai Attractions