Northern Thailand is the land of mountains and valleys. In Chiang Saen by the Mekong was the dawn of Thai kingdoms. And in 1267, king Meng Rai founded the Lanna kingdom in Chiang Rai, Rais capital. Later the same domain placed its faith in Chiang Mai, the new capital. There have been many local kingdoms in the North of Thailand throughout history.
This is an area I fell in love with when I started touring the country in 1998—landing in Chiang Rai, coming from Bangkok, experiencing cooler temperatures mainly in the morning and evenings.
It was a different Thailand compared to the South.
I loved getting on a speed boat on the Maekok river travelling upstream through picturesque limestone mountains to a Lahu hilltribe village. It was a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok.
Another memory I cherish was driving towards Mae Sai between garlic, tobacco and strawberry fields. And I am still very much into mountains covered with clouds and mist in the morning—Phu Chi Faa and overlooking Mae Hong Son, to mention only two experiences.
Living in the North is “easy”
Nature and a sense of a Plaisir de Vivre lifestyle combined with a deep understanding of culture, love of festivals and beauty summarise life in the north on a stereotypical level.
This is also a region famous for handicrafts and creativeness. Umbrella making, lacquerware, wood carving and silversmiths illustrate some traditions.
The North offers no sea, but here we have rivers, waterfalls and teak forests. Everywhere you go, you see white and golden temples and pagodas. Many people come for three days but decide to return for months. Costs are lower compared to Bangkok and Phuket.
What to do in the North?
Expats fill their days with classes for; cooking, massage, hiking, camping, biking, golfing, not to forget boot camps and retreats.
Furthermore, Chiang Mai is now somewhat the coffee capital of Thailand with an increasing interest in cacao and crafted chocolate. In addition, It is easy to find vegan and vegetarian food.
I adored this part of the country so much that I decided to stay. Chiang Mai came to be my home. I wasn’t surprised when Conde Nast Travel named Chiang Mai the most friendly city in the world.
The people of the North
Different ethnic Tai groups live in the North; the dominant group refers to themselves as the cultivators of the land, Khun meaning. As a Tai group, they are closely related to Tai Lü and Tai Khün with regards to the common culture, language and history as well as to Thailand’s dominant Thai ethnic group (in contrast referred to as Siamese or Central Thai).
There are also Thai Yai or Shan people living in the region and groups of Chinese settlers like the Kuomintang soldiers from Southern China via Burma/Myanmar settling in Mae Salong and Ban Rak Thai. And the Haw Chinese that partly came to help and work on the railway to Bangkok from Chiang Mai.
The major groups of the Hilltribe people in Northern Thailand are the Karens, Akha, Palong(Paluang), Lisu, Lahu, Yao, Lawa, and Hmong.
Northern Thai food
Northern Thailand indulges in chilli pastes, tamarind flavoured pork curries like Gang Hangley and the famous egg noodle, curry, soup dish Khao Soi. Read more about where to eat Khao Soi here.
Burma and Southern China influence the cuisine in some sense. This is where the caravans of the Southern Silk road operated.
The northerners have their lap version, lap Muang. You also find pumpkin fries and, of course, sticky rice. The cuisine from the north of Thailand differs some from the rest of the country, using less coconut milk than Central and Southern Thailand. Try a meal at a Kantoke restaurant and indulge in keep mu (deep-fried pork)and sai or sausages.
When to go and experience the mountains and the valleys?
The apparent time to go is during the cold season. The North is lovely just after the end of the rainy season. The air is still evident, nature is green, and it is the time for the light festival Loi Krathong /Yee Peng. Southern Thais and Bangkokians come in droves in late December and early January.
When the temperature drops down to 12 degrees Celsius at night and into mountain areas, you can experience frost and close to 0 degrees. Camping is increasingly popular in Thailand, and the Northern parts see many campers. Winter has the phenomenon of a sea of mist or clouds talee mok in mountain areas.
January is still colder, but gradually, it gets warmer in February. The second week of February is usually the beautiful Flower festival. Many people avoid the smoke and smog of the burning season in late February through to Thai New year in April. This is the most polluted time of the year. And any Northerners that can escape to the South. March is, however, “yellow season”, and many indigenous flowers bloom.
After the party time Songkran, it is a boiling albeit green period when finally the rains come as a relief in May. Rainy season or green season is marvellous with fewer travellers, spectacular cloud formations and a time when the heat slightly wears off.