Northern Thailand: A Guide

Where the pale blue infinity pool ended, the view began. The lush jungle covered the hills in unpredictable twisted peaks. Amongst the tree tops, teak pagodas burst through the canopy with grand, curved roof lines reminiscent of yesteryear. Down below were fertile rice paddies making a patchwork of greens, the dark emerald and pale lime colours added to the vibrancy of the natural surroundings.

As I savoured my first taste of lunch at a jungle resort, squid ink pasta with sia oua (a spicy northern Thai sausage), the spices seemed to enhance the whole exotic experience. The large ceiling fans cooled the air as we marvelled at the tranquillity and beauty of sitting smack bang in the middle of northern Thailand. What a paradise!

©Rachel Devlin

You see, this part of Thailand has an x-factor that’s hard to put your finger on. It has a very different flavour to the tourist fuelled southern beach towns and the manic energy of Bangkok. But what is it?

Partly it’s due to the lively history of these lands. Northern Thailand boarders on Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and Laos. The area carries a history of conflicts over the lands spanning many hundreds of years. Different cultures claimed different sections and the result was a melting pot of cultures that became what we know today as Lanna culture. Throw into the mix the expansion of hill tribe peoples who migrated from China, Tibet, Myanmar and Laos over the last 150 years for extra cultural colour.

So what? I hear you say.

Well, northern Thailand, probably simply due to distance from modern Bangkok, still maintains old culture Lanna practices and they are prevalent everywhere. The cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are concentrated cultural treasures of Lanna culture. There are at least 300 temples in Chiang Mai alone and are still the centres of the community as well as custodians of the unique history of Northern Thailand. This is the x-factor. This is what makes it so different from other parts of Thailand.

If you walk through the Old City in Chiang Mai (and throughout northern Thailand) you will see temples with Chinese influences as well as ones that look Burmese as well as Laotian. This diversity is also seen in food, art and textiles.

Experiencing Northern Thailand is a rich delight for the eyes and the tastebuds. Cultural histories contain fascinating stories of queens being born from lotus flowers, princes riding elephants to war with invading enemies and Kings being destroyed by the magic power of a woman’s skirt. Even today, many Lanna men do not walk under a skirt if it’s hanging on a washing line.

Yet strangely, the prevalence of this ancient culture that permeates every part of daily life in northern Thailand sits quite happily with a modern lifestyle within the major cities.

Contemporary art, food, architecture and quality infrastructures have made northern Thailand an easy place to visit or even live. The expat communities are large and it’s a popular place for retirees from Australia, England and America.

©Rachel Devlin

If you are planning a trip to Northern Thailand or thinking about moving, the following facts just might help out…

What to do in Northern Thailand

There are so many adventures to be had. For active people there are zip lines, bungy jumping, jungle trekking, caring for elephants, national parks, bicycle riding, motor bike trips, shooting ranges, sporting groups, yoga studios and an assortment of gyms.
History buffs and culture lovers can tour the many museums and old temples and there are fantastic courses run by Payap University’s Life Long Learning group.

Foodies can enjoy the street food that is everywhere, cheap but tasty restaurants and fine dining by top international chefs. There are plenty of foodie Facebook groups to help guide your dining pleasures. Chiang Mai Eats is a very popular source of information for foodies in Chiang Mai.

Arty types can visit the many art galleries around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai which showcase local and international talent. Maiiam in Chiang Mai and The Black House in Chiang Rai are a great beginning. But of course, the local artisans scattered around the local markets are always worth checking out as well.

Long-term visitors can join groups such as writer’s clubs, pottery courses and sketching classes. There is always something to participate in and enjoy. Live music is also pumping in the North, classical music, jazz, rock and roll and traditional music are all available if your ears are ready.

Getting Around Northern Thailand

Oh boy, do you have options! Chiang Mai boasts an international airport and has flights to Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sai (Myanmar border). But if you would prefer to see a bit of countryside, there are busses that also travel to these places. And you don’t have to worry, the roads are very smooth and well-maintained. But don’t forget to ask for the VIP bus, air-con is a must and it won’t break the budget.

Pai is another destination that is increasing in popularity with younger travellers and you can get there by bus. There are lots of curves over the mountains, so be prepared.

If you are looking to travel within a major city, the steadfast tuk-tuks will always be available, and songthaews if you are looking for a cheaper option. Songthaews are a combination of a bus and a taxi, so you may share with someone else going your direction, but they look like little trucks and they can be pretty colourful inside…

©Rachel Devlin

Residents are now tending to lean towards an app called Grab, which is the Thai version of Uber. They are reliable, cheap and the drivers, more often than not, speak English.

Cultural Events in Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand hosts an array of beautiful events and festivals. These are always joyous, celebratory and colourful. Watching the Thai people rejoice in these community events is an experience to remember and participating in these even better.

The absolute best time to be in Northern Thailand is during Loi Krathong. This is a festival where krathongs (floats made from plants adorned with flowers, candles and incense) are set upon a local river. Coinciding with that, the Thai people send thousands of lanterns into the sky. The effect is spell binding and magical. The dates for Loi Krathong change each year, but it is usually held in November.

There is no doubt that Northern Thailand presents a unique opportunity to experience a fascinating, exotic world full of energy, tranquillity, culture and flavour. It promises a holiday of a lifetime for tourists and for people who want to get a retirement visa, a beautiful lifestyle that is unattainable for most Australians in their own country. Northern Thailand is extremely affordable is which one of the main reasons there is such diverse range of expats enjoying rich and fulfilling lives.

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