Northern Thailand promised a lot; with stories of hippy towns, abundant nature and amazing street food, we were excited. Deciding to travel straight from Ubon Ratchathani (East border) to Umphang (West border) was a decision that led us into 3 days of tiring travels. We survived the terrifying and aptly named ‘Death Highway’ in the back of a songthaew easily going twice the safe speed limit. We got to witness the breathtaking Thi Lo Su waterfall, missed off the majority of tourists lists because of how hard it is to reach. It was thunder-storming all day but that didn’t deter us and we managed to swim in the pools at the bottom of the 250 metre high waterfall.
Then we could finally make our way to the start of a three pronged tour of North Thailand, starting with Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, but the city isn’t the biggest draw. The city is surrounded by hills and nature which are open for exploring. It’s also famous for its street food.
We visited a couple of markets during our stay, the largest being the Saturday Walking Market near the Old Town. It was everything you’d expect from a tourist trap; overpriced food and beer, limited authentic Thai food and plenty of useless tat. Night Bazaar market was almost exactly the same except that we found a brilliant little bar called Blues Bar with great live music! I think on return to the city I’d make an effort to find out the great local places to eat, since these gems are always cheaper and often way tastier!
Tribes are dotted in settlements across Northern Thailand and can be found within the mountains. There are 5 main tribal groups found around Chiang Mai (with sub groups) and plenty of tours offering to take you to them. This is the tricky part though. Like with many things across the world, tourism has had a negative impact on these tribes. It has turned them more into ‘human zoos’ than an authentic cultural experience. The tour operators make a profit and little money is returned to the tribes themselves. I’d heard some villages looked more like handicraft markets upon arrival and charged entrance fees. Obviously, we did not want to contribute to this issue but we also did want to see how tribes live up in the hills.
I found a company called Thailand Hilltribe Holidays who I looked into and, on the face of it, seemed to run very ethical tours. We decided to pick a private day tour and were so glad we did because it was everything we had hoped it would be. We were taken care of by Daro (member of the Karen tribe and so also speaks the language) and Daeng (local villager who lives on the outskirts of Chiang Mai). The day seemed to flow naturally from the point we were collected. Instead of arriving and interrupting the lives of the village, we were more like observers to their daily lives. On this particular day the women were relaxing, doing some weaving and sorting the rice for themselves and the chickens. They happily greeted us with sincere curiosity into their home (a bamboo structure on stilts with a fire pit inside for cooking) and invited us to help with their chores.
The village is made of just 15 families and Daro explained how he has only visited this group 10 times. They are not revisited every week as some other tribes are, they are left alone and asked if we may visit. You could see modern influence in the village, but also many women chose to wear original tribal clothing. If the woman has a grey skirt on she is unmarried, for colour she is married. Everything they eat, wear and build is provided by themselves. They are completely self reliant (apart from medical care). Daro told us that one woman who had injured her leg and needed to go to hospital attempted to pay using fresh honey they had collected. This was refused by the hospital, obviously. Luckily the nurses who cared for her paid on her behalf, but this does not happen often. In most cases the tribes are seen as outcasts in the city, like gypsies would be seen in the UK. Though this doesn’t seem to break their spirit since they were so kind and welcoming to us foreigners! We paid them directly for allowing us to cook food (which we bought at a market on our way there) in their home and we left them.
Chiang Mai’s Old Town is a small square in the centre of the city. But, it is packed full of temples! I spent an afternoon walking through the streets and stopping at a few of them. Honestly, at this point, most of the temples look the same and you get a bit sick of all the ‘donations’ they keep asking for.
After a while I headed towards a massage parlour, which are almost as numerous as the temples. Female inmates are given massage training and are able to get work at specific parlours in the city. I thought this was a really great scheme for keeping women in the city from reoffending. Unfortunately, I got dragged into a different shop just a couple away from where I was headed. As a heads up for anyone considering a Thai massage – don’t! It is not the relaxing, soothing experience you’re looking for. Think visiting a chiropractor who hates you and you’ll be close to a Thai massage.
We had been looking forward to visiting Pai for so long. Everyone we had spoken to loved it there. However, I think Pai is one of the many places in Thailand that used to have a specific charm that has now been lost to tourism. Upon arrival it seemed to replicate Khao San Road or Magaluf with groups of drunk rowdy brits with their tops off and beer in hand. Where was the relaxing hippy vibes we had been promised?!
It wasn’t until we got to explore around the town we saw what other people did – the natural beauty surrounding it. Some of the close attractions such as Pai Canyon (at sunset) and the Bamboo Bridge were still very disappointing. With SO MANY tourists crowding at one spot, the magic disappears. You really get a sense that these places have been altered specifically for tourists and have lost their original appeal. I wouldn’t recommend Pai for these sights. Look a little further though and you’ll be rewarded.
One of the beauties of Pai is the many natural hot springs within 20km of the town. Brad and I chose one that was close by and that we had heard you could bathe in and hopped on our bike. On the way though we saw a sign for a different hot spring and in the interest of spontaneity, we took a detour. The road we took was beautiful, winding across the valley and through the fields. Around 20km later we found ourselves at Muang Luang Hot Springs. You can tell you’re there since you can see steam rising into the sky from about 1km away – it’s not fire, it’s water!
We were practically alone at this natural spring which was fantastic. Also, since it’s further away it’s been left almost completely in its natural state. You can walk straight up to the point the water is bubbling out of the Earth’s crust (just mind not to actually touch the water since it’s a whopping 90 degrees Celsius!!). We dipped our feet in much much further away where the water was just cool enough.
Moving on to Tha Pai Hot Springs (our original destination) we stripped into our swimwear and eased ourself into one of the pools downstream. The pools have been created leading downstream from the source for tourists to bathe in. All the water is completely natural, just the actual pools have been manmade. However, it is super relaxing (for about 15 minutes) to soak in these nutrient rich waters. The temperature in the pools is similar to a bath that is still a bit too hot to get in, but you carefully slide in anyway. Very relaxing and even these springs were less busy than I had anticipated!
Tham Lod Cave
Dedicating a day to head to Tham Lod Cave was a great decision! Not only is the cave amazing, but the journey is pretty cool too. The drive is along the Mae Hon Son loop for around 50km. It takes you up, down and around some stunning roads with views out across the hills and valleys. About halfway you reach a viewpoint, perfect place to stop for a rest (and a snack). Make sure to pick a powerful bike if there’s 2 of you on board though, since we did have to push our little scooter up a couple of steep corners!
We have seen a fair amount caves during our journey so far, so the challenge to impress us is getting bigger. However, Tham Lod did just that. The inside of the cave is insane with stalagmites/tites a metre in diameter stretching from top to bottom. We were thankful we picked up some fish food for the bamboo raft journey inside the cave (to get from cave 2 – 3) since the catfish and barbel swimming alongside us were ginormous!
On top of the impressive scale inside the cave, the company operating at this attraction employs local women as guides. They speak limited English but I still thought this was a great way to incorporate the local community in a way that will have them directly benefit from having this cave on their doorstep.
If you are lucky enough to be near the cave at sundown you will witness thousands and thousands of swifts entering the far side of cave! I hear it’s incredible.
Our final stop in Northern Thailand and for most, an uneventful one. Chiang Rai is only small and within the city there isn’t an awful lot to do. But that’s why you don’t stick to the city! We decided to hire a pickup truck for 24 hours so that we could get out and explore.
Doi Khao Khwai is a temple situated on a hill just on the outskirts on town. It is actively used by monks and not visited much by tourists. We decided to head there for sunset as a way to get used to driving again! The views from the top were beautiful, of the city and the mountains in the distance. Two monks were doing a walking meditation outside the temple and the peacefulness of the moment was perfect. Definitely an underrated spot for sunset in Chiang Rai!
It would also be a sin not to mention Heaven Burger. It’s all in the name really, the best burger I’ve had in a very long time. Plus skin on Parmesan chips that are sooo moreish – mmmm! We ate there twice and both times were insane.
It is true that after a while all temples blend into one. I mean, how different can they really be? Is it really necessary to keep seeing them? And the answer is no. No, they are not that different and no, you don’t need to keep seeing them, with one exception – the white temple. This absolute masterpiece was designed by an artist with a very particular style which shines through in abundance! It is truly breathtaking with contrasting white and sharp, haunting edges.
What I was surprised to hear from people we had met is that not everyone is aware of the most unique part of this temple. The inside chamber is elaborately painted. The back wall has a beautiful skull painting, quite dark-themed which matches the exterior. But when you look closely you will spot a few familiar faces! A ton of modern, pop culture characters have made an appearance! You can see the likes of Pokemon, Harry Potter, the hulk, Star Wars, pirates of the Caribbean and so on. Then you have a depiction of the twin towers on fire and even Mt Vesuvius. They have all been seamlessly integrated into the painting. It gave me serious office wall inspiration! Definitely not something to be missed.
Phu Chi Fa
The purpose of us renting a pickup truck was so that we could make the journey to Phu Chi Fa. This is a mountain that officially is across the border in Laos. However, the only access is on the Thai side of the border. We awoke at 3am to drive 2 hours up some very steep roads with tight hairpin corners. It was hard going, even in a pickup. The smell of burning rubber as we wheel spun up the hills was delightful…
Once you reach the top and make your way up to the viewpoint though, all is worth it! Sunrise from the top of this mountain is magical. You are way above the clouds with only the tops of other mountains in the far distance. Sunrise still steals my favourite time of the day. EVEN THOUGH we were joined by a couple of hundred Thai tourists eager to get the perfect selfie (give me strength) it still managed to be a peaceful morning.
Everyone enjoys sunset because they are already awake. Sunrise requires a bit more thought and effort. But it is completely worth it!
North Thailand has been different, full of nature and mountains (and car sickness). But also very commercialised, moulded by tourism. It is beautiful but we honestly felt it lacked authenticity. Perhaps now you just need to search a little bit harder to find the spots that are still in their natural state! Challenge accepted!
Now, onto Laos.