By Laura Gelder | December 2018 | 5 minute read
Thailand’s north is set to receive more attention in 2018, as the Tourism Authority of Thailand focuses on growing the market to this rural region, harnessing its natural and cultural attractions and a broad range of adventure activities.
“Chiang Mai is ideal for those seeking soft adventure like visiting elephants and rafting, while Chiang Rai provides a peaceful and laid-back experience - these two cities are Premier Holidays’ most popular destinations”
DAVID CARLAW, HEAD OF FARAWAY PRODUCT AT PREMIER HOLIDAYS
Chow down on Khao Soi: This signature Chiang Mai dish is a mild curry-flavoured egg noodle soup, usually containing chicken, topped with a handful of crispy fried noodles and accompanied with shallots, lime and fragrant herbs
Meet an elephant: There are numerous camps dotted around the region offering the chance to meet, feed and maybe even wash these gentle giants. Luxury choices include Anantara Golden Triangle and Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle
Hit the water: The precarious art of bamboo rafting is a fun way to navigate the region’s rivers but there are also opportunities to kayak and white water raft
Tribal trekking: Numerous ethnic groups inhabit the mountains of northern Thailand and trek parties often stay overnight in a village, meeting the villagers, learning about their way of life
Sundown bargains: Chiang Mai’s night market is a popular spot for souvenir shopping, with colourful hilltribe-designed fabrics, wooden carvings, t-shirts, jewellery, fake designer goods, food and more
Tempting temples: The region’s religious landmarks range from glittering golden stupas like Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai, to crumbling ruins like Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya, or the blinding white Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai
A slice of Pai: This adventure tourism centre is nestled within beautiful green hills near the Burmese border, offering activities like white water rafting, kayaking and mountain biking plus a buzzing local arts and music scene
Protected paradise: National parks in the region include the walking trails of Doi Inthanon National Park; the cave paintings and dramatic gorge at Ob Luang National Park; and the waterfalls of Erawan National Park
Pedal power: Whether it’s the steep hills and bright green paddies of the countryside or the narrow sois of the cities, Thailand’s north is cycle-friendly for all
Bird’s eye view: At 2,565 metres in height Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s tallest mountain. It is known as The Roof of Thailand and is topped with the region’s holiest temple
The rural charms of Thailand’s north are certainly not a ‘hidden gem’ but the region’s full potential is yet to be realised by many Brits, who still flock to the islands and beaches in bigger numbers. This trend could be challenged with the launch of a new campaign at this year’s World Travel Market - ‘Open to the New Shades of Thailand’, which will support the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s (TAT) Amazing Thailand Tourism Year 2018.
Aimed at both first-time and repeat visitors, it will target specific market segments such as luxury travellers, couples/honeymooners and families.
Speaking at WTM, TAT Governor, Yuthasak Supasorn, said: “This campaign is designed for Thailand’s future customers – we want to open up rural Thailand, grow the market and get new visitors.”
Thailand’s north can be classified as anything above Bangkok, which includes the ancient capitals of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya (the latter just 80km north of the capital), both bursting with royal ruins and ancient temples dating back to the 12th century.
More commonly though, it’s the far north that travellers head to – flying into Thailand’s second city Chiang Mai. This cultural capital is set on a river and crammed full of gleaming temples, bustling markets, restaurants and bars. The Old Town’s crumbling ramparts and moats are where most major hotels are centred but other areas are springing up. The trendy Nimmanhaemin district in the west of Chiang Mai is brimming with boutiques, coffee shops and nightclubs frequented by students.
Further north, close to the Myanmar/Laos border is much sleepier Chiang Rai. This former capital of the Mengrai Dynasty has an impressive collection of temples, art, language, cuisine and music.
To the west of Chiang Mai is the Mae Hong Son province and the twisting mountain roads of the 375-mile Mae Hong Son loop. Driving this is a great way to take in rustic Thailand, stopping overnight at charming towns and villages. Highlights include the limestone cliffs and caves of Chiang Dao and Pang Oung Reservoir and its surrounding countryside, known as ‘little Switzerland’.
Tour operators are finding new ways to get visitors exploring further afield, including Diethelm Travel with its new self-drive tuk tuk tour. Starting with driver training, travellers go on to explore the region in their own iconic Thai vehicle with activities along the way including a temple blessing, bathing elephants and trekking Doi Inthaon National Park. The focus is on ‘what the locals do’, with home-stay accommodation and meals in roadside snack bars.
Elephants are a big draw in Thailand but they are endangered and any elephant that is ridden must first be tamed using a brutal ‘breaking in’ process. The TAT doesn’t promote elephant riding but it’s still easy for tourists to stumble upon places that offer it.
Says Christian Sutton, Director of Product and Contracting, Diethelm Travel Thailand: “We only offer our agents a small selection of excursions which have been inspected such as to the Tong Bai Foundation, which provides an intimate experience limited to only 10 people, twice a week.”
Hill tribe trek
Night seems to fall even more quickly in the hills of northern Thailand. One minute we were watching the children play amongst the chickens and the next minute they’ve disappeared, their brightly-coloured clothes fading into the dusty dusk. In fact, it seems that everyone has disappeared.
I suppose there isn’t much to do when the sun goes down, I muse a little later, lying on my thinly-woven mat and listening to the comforting sounds of the pig shuffling under the stilted hut which is my home for the night in this remote hilltribe village.
But suddenly, somewhere further away, I hear muffled shouts. A group of us decides to investigate, weaving our way through the village by the light of a torch, getting closer to the single hut which appears to be the source of the noise. A warm light seeps out of the cracks in the bamboo walls and a low, excited chatter now emanates from inside.
The door opens and we’re beckoned inside where the whole village is crammed together around a tiny retro-looking TV, watching the football of course! It doesn’t seem to matter how far into the mountains you trek – everyone still wants to talk about Wayne Rooney
Airlines: Qatar Airways' new four-times weekly seasonal service will operate between Doha and Chiang Mai using a wide-bodied aircraft from December 2017 until May 2018.
Accommodation: Movenpick will open in Chiang Mai next year. Once owned by the heir of the Prince of Chiang Mai, the property is located at the corner of Loikoh and Changklan roads. The hotel will feature a Thai fusion restaurant, an all-day dining venue, wine bar, a variety of shops, wellness facilities, a spa, pool and fitness centre.
Tour Operators: Premier Holidays has a new half-day experience tour of Chiang Rai on a classical rickshaw. The tour operator’s new Smart Choice brand for 2018 offers value accommodation in great locations including, in northern Thailand, the Dusit Princess in Chiang Mai, which sits near the Night Market, and the Dusit Island Resort in Chiang Rai, offering some of the best river views in town.
Where to book it
Diethelm Travel Group’s Northern Thailand Self-Drive Tuk Tuk Adventure is priced from THB 30,193pp. Travellers can enjoy a one-day tour or choose an extended group programme for 11 days with a stay in Pai.
Cycling specialist Spice Roads offers, amongst many other tours, the five-day Chiang Mai Family Explorer tour from THB 35,500 per adult and THB 28,400 per child aged five to 11. Experiences include sleeping in adobe hut, visiting an organic farm, kayaking on a lake, boiling eggs in a natural hot spring and bathing with elephants.