Combining mountainous landscapes, cultural treasures and untouristed corners, Thailand’s north is arguably the part of the country most apt for exploration. Yet despite this, most visitors to the region head directly to Chiang Mai, followed by a trek in Chiang Rai or a tour of the ruins at Sukhothai. To inspire you blaze your own trail, we’ve put together a short list of towns and parks you won’t find on any itinerary.
Not even many Thais are aware of the northern city of Phayao. But tree-lined streets, antique wooden houses and an attractive lakeside setting combine to make it one of the more pleasant municipalities in northern Thailand.
The town’s inauspicious highlight is Kwan Phayao, the largest swamp in northern Thailand. Framed by low mountains, the swamp is in fact much more scenic than its designation suggests and is the setting for some of the most beautiful sunsets in the country. It’s also a great excuse to eat; Chuechan (Thanon Chai Kwan), a restaurant that looks out over Kwan Phayao, tends to get the most acclaim from locals.
Places to stay include the large and spotless rooms at Phuthong Place (335 Thanon Pratu Khlong) or the Gateway Hotel (7/36 Soi 2, Thanon Pratu Khlong), which offers views of Kwan Phayao.
Salt of the earth
In recent years the remote province of Nan has generated a low-key buzz for its rural setting and historic temples. Yet one destination that’s largely remained off the radar is Ban Bo Luang, a picturesque village located more than 100km north of the eponymous provincial capital.
Squeezed between the Lao border and two mountainous national parks, Ban Bo Luang has long been associated with the extraction of salt from local salt wells (the village is colloquially known as Ban Bo Kleua, Salt Well Village). If you’ve got your own transport, Ban Bo Luang is also a good base for exploring nearby natural areas. Doi Phu Kha National Park is home to the province’s highest peak as well as several hill-tribe villages, while Khun Nan National Park boasts an easy trail that culminates in a dramatic lookout over Laos.
Accommodation in Ban Bo Luang is limited to Boklua View, where a handful of attractive hillside bungalows overlook the village and the Mang River that flows through it.
Avoid the tour buses and crowds at Sukhothai and head for the lesser-visited ruins at Kamphaeng Phet. A Unesco World Heritage site, the park features the remains of structures dating back to the 14th century.
The most accessible ruins lie immediately north of the modern city and were formerly surrounded by a wall (Kamphaeng Phet means 'Diamond Gate'), while the majority of Kamphaeng Phet’s ruins are found a few kilometres outside of the city. A helpful visitor centre at the latter provides context to the more than 40 temple compounds, among them Wat Chang Rob, a chedi surrounded by surprisingly intact elephant statues.
Between 1967 and 1982, Phu Hin Rong Kla, a mountain in remote Phitsanulok Province, served as the strategic headquarters for the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) and its tactical arm, the People's Liberation Army of Thailand (PLAT). The revolution has long since been abandoned and today the area is a national park spanning 307 sq km of rugged, rocky mountains and forest. Highlights include the remains of CPT infrastructure, waterfalls, hiking trails and an abundance of interesting rock formations.
Thailand's Royal Forest Department can arrange accommodation, ranging from comfortable bungalows to tents.
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For the full scoop on the Land of Smiles from the far north to the extreme south, be sure to pick up Lonely Planet's Thailand travel guide.