This is a guest post by Jenna Meade.
Thailand has more to it than alcohol and the seedy side of Bangkok and Pattaya. Take the road less travelled and soak up Thailand for all that it’s worth. Biking it, bus hopping, taking the train or sitting in the back of a truck (proceed with caution) – whichever you choose, make sure it takes you away from the tourist hotspots. Though the touristy areas are fabulous, there comes a point when you don’t want to feel as if you’re at a cattle mart.
Here are just a few places and events around Northern Thailand to get those feet itching for some adventure.
Phi Ta Khon Masks. Photo by Robert Pratt, from Flickr
1. Dan Sai, Loei Province
If you are thinking of heading to the Isan region of Thailand (the North East), aim to be there for the Phi Ta Khon Festival
. Phi Ta Khon, or the Ghost Festival, celebrates the return of Veesantara Jataka (Buddha in his former life as a prince) to Dan Sai after being presumed dead. When he arrived home, the people of the village broke into such festivity that it woke sleeping souls.
Today, the people of the village dress in handmade ghost masks and take to the streets in procession. Students walk in their uniforms and a cavalcade of locals dress in traditional gowns – not to mention the hoards of colourful ghosts dancing with phallus shaped sticks; a cultural symbol of fertility and longevity. They continue till they reach Wat Phon Chai
, a beautiful red and gold temple. Dan Sai’s street bursts to life with music, street food and a rocket show. The journey to the sleepy town alone is worthwhile. The stunning backdrop of rocky mountains will make you feel minuscule in comparison.
Shadow puppet seller. Photo by Robert Pratt, from Flickr
From Bangkok Northern Mo Chit 2 Bus Terminal, you can take an overnight bus. It takes 8-10 hours, so you might want to break up your journey or think of hiring a car/bike. You should buy tickets at the station or through your hostel/hotel.
People on the street selling bus or ferry tickets. They’re usually, if not always, some sort of scam.
Chiang Khan. Photo by Thanate Tan, from Flickr
2. Chiang Khan, Loei Province
Chiang Khan is a small town beside the Mekong river. It has held on to its architectural heritage with its slatted timber shops and houses, balconies stitched by clothes lines to the opposing building, narrow streets and unpaved dirt paths; all oozing with character. If that wasn’t enough, the symbol for the town is a bicycle.
Hipster alert: the men are moustached and the women are decked out in alternative couture and killer sleeve tattoos.
The town has a cluster of coffee shops, kitsch nik nak shops, and hand made t-shirt and postcard vendors. If the hipster scene isn’t your style, there are two viewpoints nearby where you can look over the Mekong river, feed some monkeys and climb up to a temple that looks over to neighbouring Laos, Kaeng Khut Khu and Phu Tok.
Chiang Khan. Photo by Thanate Tan, from Flickr
Buses from Loei run regularly and cheaply too. It’s possible to hire bikes – worthwhile, considering the beautiful scenery you’ll get to take in.
This is a dengue/malaria area. Although it’s not necessary to take malaria tablets, you can’t immunise against dengue. Try to cover up, wear mosquito spray and buy some Tiger Balm to apply to areas where you’ve been bitten. Tiger Balm relieves the itch but doesn’t prevent mosquito bites.
Wat Chiang Mai. Photo by Paul Arps, from Flickr
3. Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a well-known go-to-spot. However, it’s the classier option, away from the urban smog and bustle of Bangkok. Chiang Mai is serene, nestled in the lush landscape of the north with stunning architecture and beautiful views over the Ping river.
Chiang Mai is teeming with activity, but at a relaxed pace. You can browse through the weekend night bazaars, take a cruise along the Ping, or chill out in one of the many bars and restaurants. You’ll find cuisines from all over the world, but with a Thai twist. Chiang Mai is also a great place to go trekking, zip lining and join pilgrimages to Doi Suthep. It’s a hub for well- seasoned travellers; somewhere you could easily fall in love with and never want to leave.
Go to Doi Suthep, and see Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
. To get there you can take a taxi/mini van referred to as songthaew. If there are only a few people it will be a lot cheaper, or if alone, you can wait for others to come along and share the mini van. It sounds dodgy but it’s completely normal, trust me. It should be 200 baht split amongst however many people. Or you can rent a motorbike – though be careful, as it’s a steep and winding road. Once you reach the top you will have stunning views over the city, and of course the temple. Here you will see a staircase embellished so beautifully, it’s like walking along a rainbow. At the top of it stands the temple, that is if you can see it past the immense towers of gold. In the temple you can receive a monk’s blessing.
Wat Chiang Mai. Photo by Paul Arps, from Flickr
From Bangkok you can fly to Chiang Mai cheaply in under 4 hours. Or if you want to keep costs super low it’s a 9 hour journey by bus with the option of travelling overnight. This works out well for saving on accommodation and time; pack in the most out of your holiday.
It’s recommended that you don’t contribute to on-going animal welfare problems in Thailand. Tiger Kingdom, Elephant Treks, and monkey sanctuaries are often described as fun and completely cruelty free. This is not often the case, or if ever. If it is something that you want to do you should research the company, look at reviews, and research the issue itself. Tourism through animal brutality is something that needs to stop.
The White Temple. Photo by Leon, from Flickr
4. Chiang Rai
One of the main attractions in Chiang Rai is The White Temple: Wat Rong Khun
. To get there you can organise a mini van from your hostel or hotel in Chiang Mai for the day. Or take the public bus from Chiang Mai bus terminal to Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai bus terminal will have songthaews that take you to the temple.
The temple is probably one of the most stunning pieces of modern architecture in Thailand. It’s not an actual temple but a privately owned art exhibit designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat in the early 1990s. The area is composed of nine buildings, all of which symbolise heaven and hell. The most prominent of these buildings is the bridge into the gate of heaven, under which a lake of alabaster hands reach up, each one frighteningly distinct from the next.
Inside the temple, the white walls turn into fiery depictions of hell, Osama Bin Laden, anime characters and other fictional and non- fictional characters. You have to see it to believe it. As tacky as it may sound, it isn’t. It’s novel and something that the Thai go to see in their droves.
Chiang Rai. Photo by Thanate Tan, from Flickr
It’s recommended that you go here as a day trip. Taking the bus from Chiang Mai to Rai is a 3 hour bus journey. You can also go on an organised tour from Chiang Mai; it will take 2 hours max by car.
Be sure organised tours take you straight to the temple and nowhere else, like a geyser or a local market. Be firm and say just the White Temple. This is another money gimmick that you need to be aware of.
Pai Canyon. Photo by James Antrobus, from Flickr
5. Pai, Mae Hong Soon Province
One might go as far as to say that Pai is a mini Khao San road, but a million times quirkier, and a whole lot calmer. Situated in the north near the Myanmar border in the Mae Hong Son Province, Pai is a destination that attracts Thais and what are fondly called – or at least one would hope so – Farangs (foreigners).
It’s a quaint town that’s received a lot of attention recently. The journey to it is breathtaking. Windy roads that grow ever closer to the clouds, and such dense greenery it seems almost impossible for a town to even exist within it. Up in the hills, coffee is cultivated and oh my, it tastes good.
Pai is surrounded by Thailand’s most fertile soil, natural formations such as Pai Canyon, hot-springs, waterfalls and strange strawberry farm resorts. The canyon is pretty extensive but only partially walkable. It is worth the trip to see the caramel colour formation and to feel a hit of adrenaline as you hop from rock to rock. Try getting there for sunrise or sunset to take in a breath-taking view. The canyon, much like any of the other temples or natural formations, is best reached by renting a motorbike or scooter. This can be organised at a cheap rate in the town, and you can always buddy up with someone to split the cost.
Pai. Photo by Shinsuke Ikegame, from Flickr
If Chiang Khan is a hipster haven then Pai is a hippy’s delight. Try the vegan café: Earth Tone
. It makes the most incredible dairy free chocolate desserts and sells hemp clothing. There’s also a quaint restaurant, The Witching Well, that sells alternative medicines while serving delicious rustic foods. There are nightly bazaars brimming with handmade jewelry -stones sourced from around the world apparently – tasty corn on the cob buttered and salted, green honey teas in bamboo cups, and various kinds of pad thai and the like. The Pai River is dotted with comfy bars, where you can lay down on some cushions or hammocks. For the monsoon period, beautifully coloured canopies extend over to give some shelter.
If Chiang Khan is a hipster haven then Pai is a hippy’s delight. Try the vegan café: Earth Tone. It makes the most incredible dairy free chocolate desserts and sells hemp clothing. There’s also a quaint restaurant, The Witching Well
, that sells alternative medicines while serving delicious rustic foods. There are nightly bazaars brimming with handmade jewelry -stones sourced from around the world apparently – tasty corn on the cob buttered and salted, green honey teas in bamboo cups, and various kinds of pad thai and the like. The Pai River is dotted with comfy bars, where you can lay down on some cushions or hammocks. For the monsoon period, beautifully coloured canopies extend over to give some shelter.
Pai is also known for its music festivals, its biggest being the Reggae festival. Smaller gigs take place regularly and are free of charge in Edible Jazz Café and Bar
. With such an array of varied cuisines and things to do, Pai is contained enlightenment.
From Chiang Mai, songthaews will be waiting at the bus terminal to take as many people that fit into it. If it’s full you just need to wait for the next one to come along. It’s an amazing journey, but expect windy roads, and steep mountain edges –- you just have to put all of your faith in the driver.
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