My first stop was Bangkok.
This being my third time visiting the Thai capital. With each visit I’ve progressed to look beyond the bustling chaos that is presented upon the surface of this big busy city and delved deeper into the activities and hang-outs of a true Bangkok inhabitant. This including feasting at shack style eateries, shopping in local markets and trying my hand (and foot) at Muay Thai.
I left Bangkok with the feeling that there are endless sights, things and activities to see, do and try, both authentically as a local and arranged as a tourist. Either way, I enjoyed scratching the surface of this vibrant metropolis and am confident this will not be my last visit but my third and counting.
Next I flew to Chiang Mai, transitioning from the country’s core capital to the cultural capital of the North – or as referred to locally – ‘the rose of the North’.
Chiang Mai is structured around a charming old town which is bordered by ever-expanding suburbs. The old town and surrounding suburbs are markedly separated, both by a physical moat and part-demolished stone wall, and culturally by history and building style.
The old town includes a multitude of impressive temples to get lost in (literally in my case), with Wat Phra Singh perhaps being the most renowned due to its formation founded in dazzling gold. Especially eye-catching/blinding when the sun goes down. Another element of the old city after dark is the ignition of the city’s lively nightlife, with its intimate collection of bars ranging from live reggae music to blaring cheesy chart tunes spilling out of the infamous Zoe in Yellow bar. The only shortage here is time as all bars have to close by midnight by law.
Outside of the old town is where a majority of the city’s accommodation is located, at no shortage. It is also where you will find the bustling Saturday night market which includes an abundance of cheap and cheerful street food along with all the usual (un)essential souvenirs you could ever imagine.
From elephant sanctuaries to cooking classes there is always something to do in Chiang Mai, and equally, nothing if your preference. It offers the perfect mix of adventurous activities and rest and relaxation. Some recommended activities include a day trip to the sticky waterfalls, an immersive visit to the 3D museum ‘Art in Paradise’ and dinner at Dash to sample the best version of the local dish, Khao Soi.
After Chiang Mai I took the bus up to Pai.
This journey could well be the influence behind one of The Beatles’ biggest hits, as it is quite literally The Long and Winding Road (for 4 hours up a mountain). Anti-motion tablets recommended.
Pai is a sleepy, hippy town which comes to life at night. Among others, ‘Don’t Cry’bar is the place to be, it’s open late with a warming fire pit and busy dance floor to make up for temperatures lost up North.
Pai offers an abundance of natural beauty at its fingertips. Just a short journey from the main town can bring you to hot springs, waterfalls and an impressive canyon, which is even more picturesque at sunset – just a shame that everyone else thinks so too – get there early to ensure a front row seat. The giant white Buddha up the hill close to Pai town itself is also worth seeing as the sun goes down behind it, causing its surroundings to blush beautiful shades of pink and red.
One thing Pai does very well is provide perfect platforms for Instagram fanatics. It knows its market and plays it well. The finest examples being the strawberry farm ‘Love Strawberry’ and the neighbouring coffee joint ‘Coffee in Love’. There is also an Amsterdam inspired ‘IamPAI’sign to pose against Pai’s beautiful landscape – the perfect place to capture pictures and publicity simultaneously.
When it comes to food in Pai, one rule applies, the simpler the better. Some of the best dishes I tried were from the endless rows of street stalls. Once you start you can’t stop, the possibilities are over-enticing and under-expensive, so much so that it’s not a question of how far your purse-strings can stretch, more your waistband.
The main mode of transport in Pai is bicycles or scooters, it is a great place to practise your scooter-skills if, like me, you are a two-wheeled novice (although I opted for the bicycle this time round…) The roads are relatively quiet and the relaxed pace of life in Pai means (most people) are not racing past you like in the bigger cities.
Accommodation in Pai is charming and authentic, from my experience. I stayed at ‘Suan Doi Backpackers’ which had a cosy village feel, made up of wooden huts overlooking a well-groomed garden. It also had a friendly bar and communal fire pit alight in the chilly evenings to bring together like minded travellers over a local Leo or chosen Chang beer.
My final stop in Northern Thailand was Chiang Rai.
I travelled back to Chaing Mai from Pai, spending a few more nights exploring the city before catching a bus to Chiang Rai from the local bus station.
The main attraction in Chiang Rai is the impressive artistic White Temple – Wat Rong Khun – the main pull of my visit to this small city in the far North of Thailand. I only spent one night in Chiang Rai so did not manage to get a proper feel for the place, but from general impressions, it’s a lot less tourist-led than Chiang Mai with a South Korean influence, mainly on cuisine.
If venturing to Chiang Rai I would recommend staying at Mercy hostel – clean and modern with huge bathroom facilities very privatised comfortable beds and a communal swimming pool – in a central location at a reasonable price.
Other sights to see in Chiang Rai include: The Black House (Baan Dam), Singah Park and the gleaming golden clock tower.
While the South of Thailand offers infinite island paradise and plenty of partying, the North is not to be overlooked. It encapsulates so much history, beauty and culture that challenges anyone to resist its captivating charm. I guess the same applies here for me as Bangkok, this visit to Northern Thailand will be my first and counting.