Travelling up by rail through the central plains, there’s no mistaking when you’ve reached the north of Thailand: somewhere between Uttaradit and Den Chai, the train slows almost to a halt, as if approaching a frontier post, to meet the abruptly rising mountains that continue largely unbroken to the borders of Burma and Laos. Beyond this point the climate becomes more temperate (downright cold at night between December and February), nurturing the fertile land that gave the old kingdom of the north the name of Lanna, “the land of a million rice fields”. Although only one-tenth of the land can be used for rice cultivation, the valley rice fields here are three times more productive than those in the dusty northeast, and the higher land yields a great variety of fruits, as well as beans, groundnuts and tobacco.
Until the beginning of the last century, Lanna was a largely independent region. On the back of its agricultural prosperity, it developed its own styles of art and architecture, which can still be seen in its flourishing temples and distinctive handicraft traditions. The north is also set apart from the rest of the country by its exuberant festivals, a cuisine which has been heavily influenced by Burma and a dialect quite distinct from central Thai. Northerners proudly call themselves khon muang, “people of the principalities”, and their gentle sophistication is admired by the people of Bangkok, whose wealthier citizens build their holiday homes in the clean air of the north’s forested mountains.
Chiang Mai, the capital and transport centre of the north, is a great place just to hang out or prepare for a journey into the hills. For many tourists, this means joining a trek to visit one or more of the hill tribes, who comprise one-tenth of the north’s population and are just about clinging onto the ways of life that distinguish them from one another and the Thais around them (see The hill tribes). For those with qualms about the exploitative element of this ethnological tourism, there are plenty of other, more independent options.
A trip eastwards from Chiang Mai to the ancient city-states of Lampang, Phrae and Nan can be highly rewarding, not only for the dividends of going against the usual flow of tourist traffic, but also for the natural beauty of the region’s upland ranges – seen to best effect from the well-marked trails of Doi Khun Tan National Park – and for its eccentric variety of Thai, Burmese and Laotian art and architecture. Congenial Lampang contains wats to rival those of Chiang Mai for beauty – in Wat Phra That Lampang Luang the town has the finest surviving example of traditional northern architecture anywhere – while little-visited Phrae, to the southeast, is a step back in time to a simpler Thailand. Further away but a more intriguing target is Nan, with its heady artistic mix of Thai and Lao styles and steep ring of scenic mountains.
To the west of Chiang Mai, the trip to Mae Hong Son takes you through the most stunning mountain scenery in the region into a land with its roots across the border in Burma, with the option of looping back through Pai, a laidback, sophisticated hill station that’s become a popular hub for treks and activities. Bidding to rival Chiang Mai as a base for exploring the countryside is Chiang Rai to the north; above Chiang Rai, the northernmost tip of Thailand is marked by the Burmese border crossing at Mae Sai and the junction of Thailand, Laos and Burma at Sop Ruak. Fancifully dubbed the “Golden Triangle”, Sop Ruak is a must on every bus party’s itinerary – but you’re more likely to find peace and quiet among the ruins of nearby Chiang Saen, set on the leafy banks of the Mekong River.
East of Chiang Saen on the Mekong River, Chiang Khong is an important crossing point to Houayxai in Laos, from where boats make the scenic two-day trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Until recently, there were passenger boats from Chiang Saen up the Mekong between Burma and Laos to Jing Hong in China, and this service may resume again if the security situation improves (see Wat Phra That Chom Kitti).