Most people know Thailand for its stunning beaches and postcard-worthy tropical islands, but in recent years more and more have started to venture northwards checking out destinations like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
However, Northern Thailand isn’t just about these two major cities – in fact there are hundreds of hidden spots throughout this mountainous region that are hardly seen by most tourists. If you want to get an authentic Thailand experience, the best way is to break off the beaten path and visit any of these seven destinations.
Hidden away in the mountains of Mae Hon Song province about four hours from Chiang Mai lies a small alpine lake and hill tribe village often called the “Switzerland of Thailand”.
The road to reach Pang Ung is steep and windy keeping Thai tourism to a minimum, let alone foreign tourism. The best way to enjoy this place is to rent one of the tents located along the lake and get up early to watch the sunrise.
When you’re finished, head down the road to Ban Rak Thai – an enclave of Chinese immigrants that escaped China during the Cultural Revolution. They have now opened up a series of tea shops around another small lake just minutes from the Burmese border.
Ban Muang Pon
If a rural homestay with delicious Northern Thai food sounds fun, check out Ban Muang Pon Village also in Mae Hon Song province.
There are several homes in this village offering clean comfortable accommodation (even by western standards) with two meals a day. The majority of the villagers here are Tai Yai – a group of hilltribe people originally from Burma with their own language and culture distinct from Thai people. While English isn’t spoken by every host, some teach English in the local school and can easily communicate with visitors.
The hosts will also help with local excursions in the area and even accompany their guests to visit hidden waterfalls that only locals know about. Read a full trip report on Authentic Traveling.
Nan is one of the most distinct provinces in Thailand. Surrounded by mountains, it has been isolated from the rest of the country for centuries allowing a unique culture and separate kingdom to develop until Nan finally integrated with the government in Bangkok in 1933.
The best way to experience Nan is to spend Saturday night in the provincial capital to see the Saturday Night Market. Nan is known for being the only place in Thailand growing a distinct herb called “makhwaen” similar to Sichuan pepper. This herb is generally used to treat coughs and sore throats, but the people in Nan like to put it on fried chicken and pork. It gives these traditional Thai snacks a unique spicy flavor that cannot be found outside this province. These treats can be found in the market on Saturday.
Before or after the market, make time to visit the Wat Phumin – home of the famous Thai murals seen on calendars and postcards throughout Northern Thailand. And if you’re feeling adventurous, rent out a motorbike and explore many of the lesser known locations in other parts of the province like Ban Bo Kluea or Doi Phu Kha National Park.
Lampang Elephant Conservation Center
No visit to Northern Thailand is complete without seeing elephants. But with all the issues surrounding the ethical treatment of these animals, it’s hard to find a place you can trust. The Lampang Elephant Conservation Center (LECC) is about an hour from Chiang Mai in the neighboring province of Lampang, and it comes highly recommend in terms of ethics.
The LECC is the only elephant center run by the Thai government. It has been a leader in research and medical care for Thai elephants starting the first mobile elephant clinic treating the sick free of charge. The best part is this place is generally visited by Thai people so it will feel well off the beaten track for most westerners.
Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat
Most foreigners have never heard of Lampang province, and most people from Lampang have never heard of Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat. This beautiful temple complex hidden away in the steep limestone cliffs of Northern Lampang province is possibly one of Thailand’s best kept secrets.
There is no public transportation to this temple so the best way to visit is with your own car or motorcycle. Once visitors reach the end of the road, there is a steep hike up a series of stairs to the summit offering beautiful views of the rice fields far below. If the walk tires you out, there is a lovely coffee shop on the way back down offering Thai lattes with an incredible view.
Staying in a Tree House in Thong Pha Phum
The best place to sleep in Thailand without a doubt is in one of the tree houses in Thong Pha Phum National Park in Kanchanaburi Province. My best memory of Thailand was taking a trip to this little-known park hidden away in the mountains along the Thai-Myanmar border. It is extremely difficult to get to due to the treacherous road leading into the mountains, but after arriving you can stay in a tree house equipped with running water and electricity high up in the peaceful fog covered mountains. The tree houses are not only authentic but comfortable as well.
Besides the forest accommodation, the rangers at this park lead an overnight hike to a surrounding mountain that is said to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Read more about the treehouse and see a short video tour here.
Wat Tham Seua
Many foreigners come to Kanchanaburi Province to see the Death Railway or visit the beautiful Erawan Waterfalls. But most Thais actually come for Wat Tham Seua, a temple and important pilgrimage stop for Thai Buddhists to “make merit”. They usually do this by performing certain religious ceremonies at the temple, praying, or donating money. One of the most popular (and fun) ways to donate is by using the large conveyor belt that drops coin into the Buddha’s bowl.
Besides the main statue, there are several other temples and a large tower to climb up offering sweeping views of the surrounding area.