Northern Thailand may not be as popular as it’s southern island oasis paradise, but stunning mountains and unique things to see entice many travelers to the north. From lantern-lit cave tours to sparkling-white temples and surging waterfalls, spending time in the north of this amazing country has plenty to offer any visitor.
One of Thailand’s most northern towns is the small backpacker-orientated town of Pai. Surrounded by stunning mountains in every direction, it’s hard not to fall in love with this town.
Hike to one of four waterfalls or catch a stunning sunset at Pai Canyon, all the town limits. During my second visit to Thailand, I made Pai a must-see destination, and I’m so glad I did! All of Pai is easily accessible by motorbike and there are plenty of rental companies offering cheap bikes – just make sure you check your bike for damages before you drive away! Also, don’t forget have with you your international driver’s license in Thailand.
Mae Yen Waterfall
While there are four notable waterfalls dotted around Pai, Mae Yen Waterfall is stunning. Due to the length of the hike involved in reaching it, the 4-hour return hike, and the waterfall itself is much quieter than other falls.
A lush bamboo forest surrounds the narrow trail the entire way and with limited human interaction, you can be immersed in nature.
While 95% of the trail is flat and easy to walk along, one section does become abruptly steep. Also, be prepared to wade through possibly knee-high rivers, multiple times throughout the hike. It is well worth the effort and uncomfortable wet shoes to visit Mae Yen Waterfall!
Right in the middle of Pai sits a massive hole in the ground. Getting to the main lookout over Pai Canyon is very accessible, stairs lead to the main summit, and from there, there are plenty of small routes around the rim of the canyon. There are even trails leading into the dry river bed if you’re after a different perspective.
If you have your sights on seeing a sunset in Pai, there is no better place than Pai Canyon. Valleys stretch far off into the distance as the sky begins turning a purple hue. Be warned, this is the most popular time for visiting the canyon and it does attract quite the crowd.
Tham Lod Cave
In my opinion, if you have a spare day and want to take a day trip out of Pai, then Tham Lod Cave gets my vote! I drive slow and stop many times along the road, but I reached the cave entrance in 90 minutes by rented motorbike.
Entrance to the cave is by a guided ‘lantern tour’ only and it makes for a memorable experience. It’s a beautiful sight walking through the caverns dimly lit by the gas lantern.
Three sections of Tham Lod Cave are open to the public. This first two are accessible by foot, while the third by bamboo raft.
I toured the first two If systems and my guide pointed out many animal formations created by the formations created by dripping calcite. While there were some obvious structures, like an elephant and snake, be prepared for unusual pieces like the “UFO” that required a great deal of imagination.
Another well known northern Thailand city is Chiang Rai. It is home to a few of my most memorable experiences. From towering waterfalls hidden in bamboo forests to a sparkling mosaic-mirrored temple, plus one of my all-time favorite night markets.
Khun Korn Waterfall
A short drive from downtown Chiang Rai is Khun Korn Waterfall. From walking such a peaceful trail through a thick bamboo forest, you would never suspect a giant lives here!
At around 80 meters tall, you hear the sound of rushing waterway before you can lay eyes on Khun Korn. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, there is a small pool at the base of the waterfall where you can have a very refreshing swim. Be careful as the water is very cold and climbing over large rocks with numb feet isn’t too fun – trust me on that one!
Wat Rong Khun Temple
Wat Rong Khun Temple, or The White Temple, is possibly one of the most well-known attractions in Chiang Rai, if not most of Thailand. Every angle of this beautiful Temple and the buildings surrounding it gives a reflection and makes for a beautiful sight when the sun shines directly on it.
In fact, the majority of the temple grounds has this mosaic feel to it, as little chunks of mirror-like material are plastered to every inch of the white surface. It is really a one of a kind attraction.
Be warned, this Buddhist temple shuts at 6PM sharp. Around 530PM the security guards will begin rushing people through the complex. Plan your day ahead if you would like to spend more than a quick walk through of this intricate attraction.
Chiang Rai night market
Night markets are one of my favorite activities in Southeast Asia. They are always bustling with energy and life. The problem is a lot of them tend to be so similar that you can get the feeling you’ve been here before. Chiang Rai’s night market is a breath of fresh air.
There are a few souvenir shops, artwork and clothing that is definitely worth a look. However, it is the wide range of food available here that kept me going back night after night.
Northern Thailand’s famous “spicy sausage” can be found in abundance here, as well as many other forms of the meat. Hot Pot is a visible favorite of visitors here – every second table has a little clay pot with burning coals beneath and a plate of raw vegetables and meat you cook for yourself. Make sure if you do choose a meat platter, you cook it well, especially the pork and chicken!
If you’re feeling more adventurous, there is also plenty of interesting things to taste in the form of beetles and bugs! So grab a beer and something tasty to eat, and immerse yourself in Chiang Rai’s lively market!
Although being the largest city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai holds a great deal of a small town vibe. With temples to visit inside the ancient walls of the city, there is plenty to see outside including elephants – make sure if you do intend to visit, you do so ethically.
Walk the ancient city
Once the capital of Lan Na Kingdom (1296 – 1768), Chiang Mai has plenty of ancient remanences. Only a couple of gates and small sections of the city wall still stand today. Even though the moat that once surrounded the city limits has been altered into a pond with fountains, it’s still a nice stroll and gives an insight into ancient times.
Visit elephants ethically
One incredibly popular tourist activity in Chiang Mai, and indeed all of Thailand, is visiting elephants. I get it, they are amazing creatures. What many travelers are unaware of is the dark side of this tourist attraction.
Elephants don’t naturally paint pictures for tourists or perform circus tricks. Riding on an elephant’s back is also very detrimental to the health of the elephant. So why do these animals seem to be okay with all of this? The process of “phajaan” is taking a baby elephant, isolating it in cruel conditions until the animal’s spirit breaks and then is able to be trained for what industry it will be used in.
This is why if you want to spend time with these gentle giants, Chiang Mai is home to an amazing elephant sanctuary. Here, mahout’s or the elephant’s owner is actively taught how to care for and respect them, and throughout my visit, it was interesting to hear elephant sanctuary employees coaching these men on elephant welfare.
Thailand is well known for its stunning waters and picturesque islands – and rightfully so, the south is incredibly beautiful. However, a lot of travelers overlook what the northern destinations have to offer.
Mountains, waterfalls, and temples just scratch the surface of what is in store for those that brave the windy roads north. It is truly a country that has much to offer, and I would be surprised if you came back feeling unfulfilled from Thailand!
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