In photos: 15 experiences you shouldn't miss when in Northern Thailand (Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces)

Bangkok and Pattaya in the South are considered as the main drawers of tourists lusting for beaches and islands and local metro vibe experiences when in Thailand. The Northern areas on the other hand have a range of "different" things to-do and to-experience to offer. Imagine elephants, unique ethnicities, tea plantations, the long-neck tribe people and vast temple complexes.  

The north, especially the provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, are still touristy but are not as inundated with tourists as the tourism capitals of Thailand.  

Being a traveler more drawn to nature and culture than the metropolis and city destinations, I find my recent visit to Thailand in the north more engaging and full of learning than my other trip to the capital. 

Here are the 15 experiences you shouldn't miss when in the North, especially in Chaing Mai and Chiang Rai:

1. Get high on tea at Chiang Rai's Tea Plantations

Your Northern Thailand trip won't be complete without sipping a tea at one of Chiang Rai province's many dreamy tea plantations. 

Head to Doi Mae Salong and have your sip of different varieties of tea at 101 Tea Plantation.  Their tea shops have attendants that demos tea brewing techniques and lets you try some of their bests. The plantation prides itself of bagging the first place in world's best tea during the World Tea Festival in 2004. 

Tea plantations like the 101 are not only places for tea fanatics and agriculture buffs. Generations of stories abound in these tea plantations fields that used to be plantations of opiums and used to nest many troubles. Today, tea agriculture is a vibrant industry that helps not only the traders but also the hill tribes that are now workers in the plantations. 

2. Walk on Hanging Bridges and be amazed with and flower gardens at Mae Fah Laung Garden

Mae Fah Lung is a 10-acre land of beautifully landscaped flower gardens in the mountain of Doi Tung in Chiang Rai. This area is an eye-candy for flower lovers and a perfect site for instagrammers looking for the "perfect spots"! 

One notable artwork in this site is the "continuity" sculpture by the late Misiem Yip-In-Soi. The Princess Mother of Thailand gave the sculpture its name in prayer for continuity of success of all her projects.  

The gardens used to be a route route for opium and heroin trades involving even the locals. Presently, the same people involved in the illegal trade are now working in the gardens and living a better life. 

To add spice to your flower adventures, try the treetop walk and be in the natural presence of tall trees while holding on to swinging bridges. 

3. Learn about the Princess Mother' of Thailands interesting life at the Doi Tung Royal Villa

The tour around the Royal Villa, the former home of Srinagarindra, the Princess Mother of Thailand, is a tour about love for country, family and love for the Thai people. The tour will let you wear a player with a headphone where a narrator tells you stories about the Princess Mother and the Villa in your preferred language. 

The Royal Villa was built in 1988 using recycled teak and pine woods. The villa was built in support to the Princess Mother's projects aiming to change the lives of ethnic minorities who were once part of the illegal opium poppy farming and trade. The same people and their families are now among the workers who maintain the Villa and the whole Mae Fah Lung gardens. 

4. Discover Doi Mae Salong's unique ethnicity

Beautiful landscapes, friendly locals and unique ethnicity - the things that remind me of Doi Mae Salong. The village in the northwestern region of Chiang Rai is right along the border of Myanmar. After the Chinese  Civil War,  a group of Chinese, soldiers lived  near the borders still ready to fight anytime. They soon found their way to Mae Salong and settled there after granted the permission by the Thai government. The village is still ethnically chinese hence the very Yunnanese Chinese food and cultural practices..

At Doi Mae Salong also lives people of different tribes. I met this friendly lady dressed in interesting ethnic dress. All I heard of her name was Kukhu. Not sure if I heard it right after asking her. She is a member of the Indigenous Akha people, one of the 5 hill #tribes living in Northern Thailand, mostly in ChiangRai and Chiang Mai or near the golden triangle. She was walking on the roadside donning their traditional dress when we approached her for a conversation and a photo. She willingly obliged. But, unlike in some touristy places where locals ask for a fee after a photo, she led us to her roadside makeshift shop and showed us stacks of tribal dresses and souvenir items made from tribal weaves. We then had the most fulfilling purchase that day.

5. Food tripping for Yunnanese dishes in Doi Mae Salung 

Along with the scenic landscapes and the people, one of the things that reminds me of Doi Mae Salong is the food! Since the village is also home to small ethnically Yunnanese Chinese people, it is not surprising to see restaurants offering Yunnanese menu more than Thai. 

6. Wonder in temples full of arts at Wat Rong Khun or better known as the White Temple.

Obviously, it's being white is the reason why it got the moniker. 

The temple is a contemporary, unconventional, privately-owned temple area considered as an art exhibit. The whole compound is full or art pieces. In fact, the Buddhist temples are already part of the artist's creations. 

The temple was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a famous Thai visual artist. He rebuilds the temples and build his artwork around the building from hi own pocket. Being a Buddhist himself, Kositpipat built the temple to become the center of Buddhist learning and meditation. The construction of the temple and all his artworks is still ongoing. 

7. Be with the Buddhists, living or dead, at Phra Sing temple 

Wat Phra Singh also known as “The Monastery of the Lion Buddha” is considered as one of the most attractive in the North. It is considered as an active temple as monks live in the compound to practice and lead people in their faith. 

The Wat Phra Singh is home to a number of very old Buddha images. It is also where wax monks that looks hyper realistic is housed. 

8. Learn about recycling and nature conservation at Elephant Poo Poo Paper Park 

This private facility in Amphur Maerim,Chiang Mai is now among the top destinations for tourists for its main drawer point - the elephant poops!

The Poo Poo Paper Park is an ecofriendly interactive shop, park and museum. The tour around the park takes around 45 to 60 minutes. The best part for me is when we made our own sheet of poop paper and decorated our own poop paper fan.  

9 Learn how to care for elephants at Thai Elephant Home 

The care center takes care of 20 rescued elephants and conducts different tours with interactions with the elephants. Part of the tour are elephant feeding, basic of mahout training and bathing. 

I have issues with elephant riding so I'm not posting photos of the activity here. But meeting the elephants, bathing them and the overall interaction with them is one experience that is unforgettable for me. 

Part of the profit from the tours goes to the support to support elephant breeding, jungle reforestation, local job creation and educational scholarships.

10. Learn about traditional weaving and making of Thai dessert with the women of Baan Pong Huai Lan

The village women lead the community-based tourism that introduces tourists to the Thais' traditional way of life. The women of this Lanna village in Chiang Mai teaches tourists about weaving using the traditional looms and cooking dessert using coconut and other local materials. Tourists get to eat their products afterwards. This activity is among the projects of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej geared towards sufficiency and sustainability of living of the locals.   

11.  Learn about the art of umbrella making and painting at the Umbrella Making Centre

Touring the facility in San Kamphaeng Road, Chiang Mai allows you to interact with artisans and learn about the process of making umbrellas, paper lamps, and fans among others. 

Umbrellas of all shapes and sizes abound the area. Another interesting thing to do here is to get your dress or anything you want to be painted by the umbrella painters. At a minimal fee, you get to have your apparels or gears painted by the umbrella artists themselves. 

12. Ride a tram and tour different nations' agro-tourism showcases in the Royal Park Rajapruek

The Royal Park Rajapruek is just huge! It's like a complex with different complexes inside it. It was said to have been built to commemorate the 60th anniversary of His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Accession to the throne as well as His Majesty 80th birthday. This is another destination for the flower lovers and architecture buffs!

The complex showcases a large number of plants and varied kinds of agricultural exposition. Even for the non-flower lovers, you will be able to appreciate all the blooms that are well taken cared of in controlled environments such as airconditioned rooms and mini domes. The temples and cultural buildings representative or participating countries are must-see part of the park too. A tram service takes tourists around its vastness. 

According to, " Thai Tropical Garden is the area which showcases the diversity of Thai tropical plants. The whole areas is inside the greenhouse and represents a handful type of desert plants, herbs as well as Thai traditional houses and nursery plant pot. Gardens for the King is the area where both Thai government and private sectors present their garden arrangements that followed and made use of His Majesty’s theory on managing agriculture and gardening. Besides, another feature is an international garden zone which presented by 24 participating nations. " 

13. Feed the giraffes and other animals like in the wild at Chiang Mai Night Safari 

This one's for the kids and the kids at heart. Chiang Mai Night Safari provides a thrilling experience of roaming around the the habitats of different animals. Highlight tours are, of course, during the evening. We were there on daytime but still enjoyed the zoo tour though. Best part is feeding the giraffes and ostriches and other animals uing bare hands with cut vegetables and fruits provided for tourists as part of the safari tour. 

The park was said to have been modeled after the Singapore Night Safari. According to the local tourism website, "Apart from touring the three animal zones – Savanna Safari, Predator Prowl, Jaguar Trail – via an open-sided tram or on foot, enjoy a range of activities designed to keep you entertained throughout your visit, from hand-feeding wild animals and petting tiger cubs to a laser light show and ‘dancing’ fountain."

14. Visit the iconic Doi Suthep temple, the landmark of Chiang Mai

They say "If you haven't tasted Khao Soi or seen the view from Doi Suthep, you haven't been to Chiang Mai." Well, maybe true enough. Because this iconic temple is actually too good to pass up. 

Most unforgettable moment here for me are ringing the gigantic monk bells and seeing monks in parade while intimately praying while walking around the temple. 

Chiang Mai tourism website said, "This regal mountain overlooks the city from the northwest, providing commanding views from its summit. Aside from its dominating presence on the horizon, Doi Suthep is the home of some of the most deeply loved symbols in the Kingdom." 

15. Have light moments with the Long Neck Hill tribe people

We visited the Ban Huay Pa Rai Hill Tribe Village to meet the long neck women of Karen tribe. It was a short but sweet encounter with them as we had light moments together even through exchanges of sign languages. We met Ma Chang, a shy but friendly Karen. She's the one with the longest neck (29 rings) among the women in the 17-household village of Karen people in Ban Huay Pa Rai in Chiang Mai. 

The Karen, one among the nine tribes in the area, are a tribal group who have historically lived in the hills on the Myanmar side of the border. They fled to where they are now to escape political and tribal troubles in Myanmar. They are not officially Thai residents but are considered refugees in Thailand. 

The tribe people are best recognized for the elongated necks of their women. The necks are supported by heavy brass rings which symbolize beauty, their role within the community and their family's wealth.

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