Most South Africans with an appetite for travel will visit Thailand at least once in their lifetime. It’s affordable, exotic, and we don’t need a visa to cross the border. And when we visit Thailand, we tend to tick off a list of “Thailand must-do’s”: beaches, buckets of vodka Red Bull and bar crawls. But there’s so much more to Thailand than suntans and massages! Look up North towards the mountains that border Myanmar and Laos, and you’ll find breathtaking temples, welcoming hill tribes and a side to Thailand that begs to be explored.
Northern Thailand offers wild adventures for adrenaline junkies and a rich cultural tapestry for the slow traveller. When you’ve had enough of the beach and you’re all bar-hopped out, the North is the perfect antidote. From waterfalls and jungle trails to village homestays and temple visits, when it comes to the North, the choice is really yours.
Temples, Thai smiles and A Taste of Local Culture
I only spent a few days exploring Chiang Rai, but what I saw has given me a taste for the North. Here are some of the best things to do and see in Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand.
Where To Stay in Chiang Rai
I stayed at the The Riverie by Katathani, which is located right on the river, with amazing views of the surrounding mountains. Their rooftop bar is absolutely stunning at sunset, and their restaurant offers sensational fine dining, complete with live piano. Thai hospitality is world famous, and it’s easy to see why. From the warm welcome to the spacious rooms to the over-the-top breakfast, my stay was 10/10.
The Best Things To Do and See in Northern Thailand
1 Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park
The park houses what is most likely the finest collection folk art and teak artefacts from the Lanna Kingdom in meticulously manicured grounds. Rising from the centre is the Golden Pavilion (Haw Kham), a temple-like royal residence built in 1984 from the materials of 32 Thai wooden houses and presented to the Princess Mother on her 84th birthday. The park is quiet and calm and worth a morning visit.
2 Wat Rong Suea Ten | The Blue Temple
The Blue Temple is an important religious place within the North and is very popular with both tourists and locals. The dramatic architecture and stunning shades of blues and golds on the outside compliment the countless beautiful artworks within the temple. It’s particularly beautiful at sunset, when the awe-inspiring temple is rivalled by the colourful sky.
3 Akha Hill Tribe Village
The Akha are a tribe who live in the mountains of Northern Thailand and the neighbouring Laos and Myanmar. Originally from China and Tibet, the people of the Hloyo Community have created a self-sustainable lifestyle, growing their own food and even coffee, and opened up their village to visitors from around the world. Their village leader, Johann (he’s Thai, but he was named Johan after a group of German Christians set up a church in the area), is passionate about continuing their traditional way of life. He has recently opened up a guest house, the Akha Mud House Mae Salong. Guests can learn about the Akha way of life, cook with Johann and hid family and sleep in the ingenious cottages he designed himself, which open up to allow you to sleep under the stars.
The Akha Mud House Mae Salong is listed on Booking.com. Rooms are fully equipped with en-suite bathrooms, mosquito nets and even hairdryers. Your stay includes an Asian breakfast with seasonal fruits is available every morning.
4 Boat Ride Along the Kok River
A longtail boat ride down the Kok River winds past small villages and beautiful landscapes. It’s beautiful in the afternoon, when the sun sets behind the mountain ranges in the distance, and droplets of water shine with the golden lights of the setting sun as local fishermen throw their nets into the air.
5 Wat Rong Khun | The White Temple
Wat Rong Khun is known as one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand. The whole building is crystal white, with unbelievably detailed facades. The temple has become one of the most famous and most popular in temples Chiang Rai, so it’s best to arrive early or visit toward the end of the rainy season.
I visited Northern Thailand at the end of September, which is toward the very end of monsoon season. The region is cool and quiet at this time of year, and it’s easy to find cheap flights and accommodation deals as this is considered “low season”. There is loads more to see and do in Chiang Rai, so feel free to use my tips as a starting point for your own trip.
If you’re travelling by yourself, the easiest way to get around, see the hidden gems and learn about local culture is by travelling with a tour guide. I was extremely grateful to be travelling with a Arunee, a female guide from Absolutely Fantastic Holidays, who happened to take an excellent picture!
*My trip to Thailand was hosted by Tourism Authority of Thailand.