Northern Thailand's beautiful, rugged geography is the region's great temptation. Hidden among the forested mountains are Thailand's most iconic waterfalls and caves, as well as whitewater rapids and jungle trails. The area is a playground for outdoor pursuits – hiking, rafting, kayaking and caving opportunities abound.
As much of a draw are the diverse communities who populate the villages tucked away in the hills. Northern Thailand's proximity to Laos and Myanmar gives the region a unique multicultural feel, too, and the Burmese, Chinese and Shan influences in towns such as Doi Mae Salong and Mae Hong Son might make you wonder which country you are in.
Conversely, the south of the region is regarded as the birthplace of much of Thai culture. History buffs can go back in time at Sukhothai Historical Park and Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park. And when you're not trekking or temple-hopping, Pai's party scene will keep you busy.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northern Thailand.
The Sukhothai Historical Park ruins are one of Thailand’s most impressive World Heritage sites. The park includes the remains of 21 historical sites and four large ponds within the old walls, with an additional 70 sites within a 5km radius. The ruins are divided into five zones; the central, northern and western zones each have a separate 100B admission fee. Note that motorbikes and cars are no longer allowed inside the park.
Nan’s most famous Buddhist temple is celebrated for its exquisite murals, executed during the late 19th century by a Thai Lü artist named Thit Buaphan. The exterior of the temple takes the form of a cruciform bòht (ordination hall) that was constructed in 1596 and restored during the reign of Chao Anantavorapitthidet (1867–74). The ornate altar in the centre of the bòht has four sides, with four Sukhothai-style sitting Buddhas facing in each direction.
This ancient Buddhist temple compound has several interesting religious structures, including what is arguably the most beautiful wooden Lanna temple in Northern Thailand, the open-sided Wihan Luang. Dating back to 1476 and thought to be the oldest standing wooden structure in the country, the impressive wí·hăhn (sanctuary) features a triple-tiered wooden roof supported by immense teak pillars and early-19th-century Jataka murals (showing stories of the Buddha’s previous lives) painted on wooden panels around the inside upper perimeter.
Located in the Um Phang Wildlife Sanctuary, this waterfall is Thailand’s largest, measuring an estimated 200m high and up to 400m wide during the rainy season. Thais, particularly fanatical about such things, consider Nam Tok Thilawsu to be the most beautiful waterfall in the country. There’s a shallow cave behind the falls and several levels of pools suitable for swimming.
About 9km northeast of Soppong is Tham Lot (pronounced tâm lôrt and also known as tâm nám lôrt), a large limestone cave with impressive stalagmites, coffin caves and a wide stream running through it for 600m. Along with Tham Nam Lang further west, it’s one of the largest known caves in Thailand, with a total length of 1600m.
The Nam Tok Thilawsu falls are near the headquarters of the Um Phang Wildlife Sanctuary, which is about 50km from Um Phang, towards Sangkhlaburi in Kanchanaburi Province. The wildlife sanctuary links with the Thung Yai Naresuan National Park and Huay Kha Kaeng Wildlife Sanctuary (another Unesco World Heritage site), as well as Khlong Lan and Mae Wong National Parks to form one of Thailand's largest wildlife corridors and one of the largest intact natural forests in Southeast Asia.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, the Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park features the ruins of structures dating back to the 14th century, roughly the same time as the better-known kingdom of Sukhothai. Kamphaeng Phet’s Buddhist monuments continued to be built up until the Ayuthaya period, nearly 200 years later, and thus possess elements of both Sukhothai and Ayuthaya styles, resulting in a school of Buddhist art quite unlike anywhere else in Thailand.
In addition to a museum that houses one of Thailand’s biggest collections of Lanna artefacts, this vast, meticulously landscaped compound includes antique and contemporary art, Buddhist temples and other structures. It’s located about 4km west of the centre of Chiang Rai; a túk-túk or taxi here will run to around 100B.
Wat Rong Khun’s construction began in 1997 by noted Thai painter turned architect Chalermchai Kositpipat. It's a striking structure that, from a distance, seems to be made of glittering porcelain. A closer look reveals the appearance is due to a combination of whitewash and clear-mirrored chips. It's located about 13km south of Chiang Rai. To get here, catch any bus from Chiang Rai's interprovincial bus station with 'White Temple' written on it in English (20B, 40 minutes, frequent services from 6.15am to 6.10pm).