Traveling Northern Thailand

I fell in love with Northern Thailand when I first went there in 2015. I loved it so much that I even went back the next year before heading to Laos and Cambodia. Here’s an entry on golden temples that glow under the sun by day and stars and lanterns by night, the majesty of riding an elephant, and a glimpse into a culture so welcoming I felt I must have already been here before (in another life).

A celebration at a temple in Chiang Mai.

Northern Thailand Travel Itinerary

Thailand is a country with a pronounced north-south divide: southern Thailand is known for sun, those picture-perfect beaches, and flaming spicy food, while the north is all about architecture and temples and art, mountains and rice fields, rural life and hill tribes.

Chiang Mai is the star attraction of Northern Thailand, but other cities like Lamphun, Lampang, and the mountains of Mae Wang have much to offer the traveler looking for more off-the-beaten track places in Northern Thailand.

A map of the best places to visit in Northern Thailand.

1. Chiang Mai Travel

A golden temple in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is one of the most magical cities in the world. It’s one of the only places I’ve ever been where the masses of tourists don’t deflate the mood. Everyone who comes here is transfixed by the old walled city, and somehow, it still feels like you’re being let in on a big secret.

A wat in Chiang Mai. “Wat” means “enclosure, and temples are symbolically set apart from the secular world with a dividing wall.

When I was a kid there was this made-for TV movie I loved called “The Night Train to Kathmandu.” The story goes like this: an American girl is forced to move to Nepal with her family, where she falls in love with a local boy who turns out to be the prince of an invisible city in the high Himalaya. They steal away so they can be together, and at the end, a beautiful city appears out of thin air, and she leaves to join her prince and reign over the hidden kingdom.

That’s what arriving in Chiang Mai feels like. As if the city has chosen to reveal itself to you.

Chiang Mai shines day and night. During the day, the golden spires and rooftops of 300 Buddhist temples glow under cloudless skies. At night, the temples switch on white lights and lanterns adorning their gardens and grounds. Golden facades radiate a magnetic warmth into the dark.

At Wat Chedlin, a temple near the center of the old city, we were invited to participate in a Buddhist ceremony. The monks placed incense and candles and small bouquets of marigolds in our hands, and signaled for us to followed them as they circled the stupa and placed their offerings on the alter. I wasn’t sure why they invited us to join them, but it felt in keeping with the kindly spirit of this place.

The next day, we went back to Wat Chedlin to see it by day, and this time we were greeted by a young monk who stopped to chat. He recognized us from the ceremony the night before. He shared his story with us about growing up in rural Myanmar and dispelled some myths about monastic Buddhist life (no, he wasn’t a vegetarian, and yes, he used Facebook – we’re now FB friends, in fact), and we told him about life in Germany and America. Wat Chedlin was a special place for us.

Chiang Mai was also night markets and street food and gourmet coffee shops. Cooking classes  and massage and meditation. Further afield beckon elephant sanctuaries and hill tribe treks and mountaintop temples.

Wat Chedlin, where we were invited to participate in a Buddhist ceremony and chatted with monks from neighboring Myanmar.
By night, the Chiang Mai temples are lit up in soft white lights.
A night market in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is famous for its street food scene. It’s so good, there’s no need to go to a restaurant.
The ruins of Wat Chedi Luang, a temple complex in the center of Chiang Mai.

2. Mae Wang Travel: Elephants and Hill Tribes in Northern Thailand

A little over an hour west of Chiang Mai is a mountainous region called Mae Wang. Along the way, we passed through increasingly rural towns, each with its own golden temple. The kinds of places that only see tourists stopping on their way to somewhere else. The country road starts slouching upwards into the mountains before Mae Wang, where we stayed at an eco lodge called Chai Lai Orchid.

Playing with a baby elephant at Chai Lai Orchid.

Chai Lai Orchid is adjacent to a “traditional” elephant camp, where mahouts (elephant trainers) use bull hooks and usher tourists into wooden cages strapped to the elephants’ backs for rides. Chai Lai Orchid is trying to do elephant tourism in a more humane way.

At Chai Lai Orchid elephant camp in Mae Wang, outside Chiang Mai.

Admittedly, elephant tourism in Southeast Asia is a complicated affair. In most places, elephants are not treated well: they are made to work in dangerous industries like logging, or they are paraded around and ridden by tourists, always under the threat of the steel elephant hook.

At Chai Lai, the elephants walk freely throughout the lodge’s grounds under the gentle guidance of their mahouts. They get bathed down in the river several times a day, and mahouts offer visitors short rides on the elephants – bareback.

Climbing on an elephant is a humbling experience. You sit barefoot just behind their ears, with legs straddling each side of the elephant’s head. You hold yourself up with your hands pressed into on the fleshy pads on the top of their head. This helps steady yourself as the elephant below plods along. The motion rocks back and forth like a rowboat in the waves. It doesn’t feel immediately dangerous, but I was very aware of how small and rickety and vulnerable I was, bobbing atop the vastness of the elephant’s body.

Elephants!

Chai Lai Orchid also arranges for treks through the mountains, passing through hill tribe villages and waterfalls. We were there in the winter, and the greenery of the hillsides had retreated from the cooler weather, but there were also signs the jungle was about to spring back to life.

On the way back, we rode on bamboo rafts, lazing down the river back to Chai Lai Orchid, where the elephants were blissfully bathing in the water. When a baby elephant plops itself down in the water, joy just washes over its face. The river sloshes over the riverbank like an overflowing bathtub.

A mother elephant and her baby taking a river bath.
A morning elephant ride in Mae Wang at Chai Lai Orchid eco lodge.
A trek through the mountains of Mae Wang, Thailand.
A hilltribe village during a trek through the mountains near Mae Wang.

3. Lamphun Travel

Worshippers at Lamphun’s Wat Phra That Hariphunchai.

Lamphun is the quiet provincial capital, located about an hour south of Chiang Mai. For a city of just under 15,000, Lamphun has a temple far more impressive than the city’s current stature might suggest.

Wat Phra That Hariphunchai is a sprawling temple complex with a brilliant central stupa that dates to the 9th century. In earlier times, Lamphun was the capital of the Mon Hariphunchai kingdom, before it was annexed by the Thai Lanna kingdom, which had its center in Chiang Mai. It’s also considered a place of spiritual significance: imprints of four footsteps in a stone at one corner of the temple are said to be proof of a legend that the Buddha passed through here.

We had the place basically to ourselves, exploring the grounds alongside the locals.

A monk vacuuming at a temple in Lamphun.

What’s so interesting about temples in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand, is that they’ve living communities. They’re not just these sacred places where you take your shoes off and tiptoe around to the solemn chorus of chanting monks. There’s that too, but there’s also monks vacuuming out temples and sweeping the grounds. On the perimeter, vendors set up shops where they sell sundry religious necessities (incense and relics and candles) but also secular goods (food and clothing and knick-knacks). Offerings placed by worshippers at the altar (meant for the monks) include such earthly delights as cookies, instant noodles, Coca Cola, and new vacuum cleaners. People pose for pictures, meditate, chat.

At temples like Lamphun’s Wat Phra That Hariphunchai, spiritual practice seems plain ordinary. Maybe that’s why it’s such an integral part of everyday life in Thailand.

Lamphun’s Wat Phra That Hariphunchai temple complex.

4. Lampang Travel

Traveling to Lampang was like going back in time – at least to a time before Thailand was on the tourist map. Lampang is considered one of the best preserved old-time Thai cities, and it’s a big destination for Thai tourists, but not so much for foreigners. It’s so authentically old-timey, in fact, that it’s often used as the backdrop for Thai movies set in the past. Adding to this atmosphere is the click clack of wooden horse-drawn carriages riding down the street alongside cars and scooters. The pace is deliciously slow.

The city is also famous for its dozens of temples, including several beautiful wooden temples representative of the Lanna architectural style. At the suggestion of our Airbnb host, we rode a horse-drawn carriage pulled by a gentle horse and kindly elderly gentleman from temple to temple.

This was the place where I felt we had a real glimpse into daily life in Thailand. Men fixing carriages in the street. Elderly women sharing a snack on a park bench. Groups of senior citizens at a dance class on the river. Monks praying and talking on cell phones. Restaurants with no menus in English. (But when Whitney Houston came on the radio at the restaurant, they all started singing along.)

Just outside of Lampang, we also visited the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. Under royal patronage, the center houses over 50 elephants and provides veterinary care for all Thai elephants. For visitors, though, it’s more like a zoo, where elephants live in pens and participate in daily circus-like shows. I preferred the elephant experience at Chai Lai Orchid for obvious reasons.

During the drive back to Chiang Mai from Lampang, the traffic built steadily until we came to a standstill along the old city walls. Back to another kind of reality, but still a glorious one.

Other destinations in Northern Thailand include Chiang Rai, with its White Temple, a hippie party down called Pai, motorbiking the famous Golden Triangle, and crossing the border from Thailand to Laos at a laid-back border town on the Mekong called Chiang Khong.

A golden temple in Lampang.
Our humble driver and horse-drawn carriage in Lampang.
An impressive wooden temple, Lampang.

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