The North

Chiang Mai, the hub of the north, and Thailand’s second largest city is the former capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom. The Night Bazaar, a shopper’s cornucopia, and Doi Suthep, a temple sixteen kilometres outside of town which provides magnificent views of Chiang Mai, are particular favourites with tourists. The old town itself is surrounded by a moat and its ancient temples and history lend itself to great walking tours.

Many superb five-star resorts and hotels such as the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, and the Four Seasons Chiang Mai have opened in and around Chiang Mai proper. The city has an international airport and a number of budget airlines service it domestically.

Along the west bank of the Ping River, just north of the Nawarat Bridge lies a trendy area featuring the Good View, Gallery and Riverside eateries, all are worth a gander as is the nightclub La Brasserie. And Nimanhemin Road has become a hot spot for trendy furnishings and design items for up-market homes and villas. For the kids, the Chiang Mai Night Safari with its wide selection of animals is a big hit.

Songkran, or Buddhist New Year, has a history of being wet, wild and wholly in Chiang Mai as everybody just gets into a gigantic water fight for three or four days in mid-April.

Chiang Mai has long been known for its elephant camps and treks and 100 km south, just outside of Lampang, lies the Elephant Conservation Centre, where you can learn to be a mahout, and the world’s first elephant hospital, run by Soraida Salwala. Lampang is the only town in Thailand to still offer horse-drawn carts as a mode of transportation.

South of Lampang lies Sukhothai, the country’s first capital and home to Sukhothai (meaning the Dawn of Happiness” and Si Satchannalai-Chaliang National Parks, both UNESCO World Heritage sites. Bangkok Airways flies to Sukhothai and it’s a 5-6 hour bus ride from Bangkok, or it can be accessed from the nearby train station in Phitsanuloke.

And if you happen to be near Pichit in early September check out their annual long-boat races, which are always good fun for the entire family.

The Chiang Mai to Pai and Mae Hong Son route has long been popular with backpackers, but now that the road has been paved, it’s much more accessible for everyone. Pai has established itself as the trekking capital of northern Thailand.

Many come to Mae Hong Son to get a glimpse of the Padauang or “long-necked” women, the majority of who live in the village of Nai Soi, 35km northwest of town. The coil around their neck can weigh between 5-22kg and stretch up to 30cm long and there is a long-running debate as to their exploitation for tourist purposes.

Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s highest mountain), situated in a national park, is a popular day-trip destination and a favourite for birdwatchers and naturalists because of its many species of plants, animals and birds. Nearby, the meditation retreat at Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong is quite popular and draws students from all over Thailand and around the world. The circular drive from Chiang Mai, past Chom Thong, the entrance to Doi Inthanon, Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, through Pai back to Chiang Mai is also quite interesting. And a couple hours south of Mae Sariang in the Mae Sot area lie a number of Karen & Burmese refugee camps, where many volunteers have offered their services over the years.

For those heading to Chiang Rai a half-day, long-tail boat trip on the River Kok from Tha Ton to just outside of Chiang Rai is as an alternative means of travel.

Chiang Rai is itself a much more laid back town than Chiang Mai. Traffic jams are not a major concern yet and it still has that small-town feel to it. Trains don’t run to Chiang Rai, but domestic airlines and a busy bus network service it.

The town has a Hilltribe Museum & Handicrafts Centre, run by Mechai Viravaidya’s non-profit Population and Community Development Association (PDA). Mechai, who has been called one of Asia’s most influential people, probably has done more to bring down the birth rate in Thailand and minimize the spread of AIDS than anyone else. He did so by promoting the use of condoms in a humorous way. A branch of his famous restaurant “Cabbages & Condoms” is located in the centre. The museum is definitely worth a visit if you are planning to visit any of the hilltribes.

From Chiang Rai, you can visit the old Kuomintang sanctuary of Mae Salong, now a hill station, teaming with tea plantations, and providing wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. If you get a chance to do this trip by motorbike, by all means, do as you will find it an exhilarating experience. A short trip away from Mae Salong is Doi Tung and the Queen Mother’s Mae Fah Luang Foundation with its beautifully tended gardens.

From there, head north to Mae Sai, where you can visit the Burmese border of Tachileik. The US$10 million Doi Tung Hall of Opium, down by Chiang Saen is a must if you would like to learn more about that drug’s fascinating history. The luxurious Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa is nearby, and it’s now home to Thailand’s annual elephant polo competition.

A little north of Chiang Saen, lies the Golden Triangle where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Ruak Rivers.

Further south and a nice spot to relax for a few days is Chiang Khong. Across the river from this town in Laos lies Huay Xai, where you can take a longtail boat or ferry to Luang Prabang (the whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage site). Chiang Khong is also a major conduit for goods moving between Thailand and China.

The temperatures tend to be cooler in Chiang Mai and the north, so check the weather before you go and be prepared to bring some chilly weather gear.

The Northeast

The Northeast (or Isarn) is known for its friendly people, who make up the bulk of Thailand’s service industry. The area has an extensive network of ancient Khmer temples, the most impressive being Phanom Rung (the largest and best restored Khmer temple in Thailand), Prasat Khao Phra Wihan (located on the Cambodian border) and Phimai (located just outside of Nakhon Ratchasima, or Korat, as its called by locals).

Khao Yai, which is Thailand’s oldest and most famous national park, is situated an hour outside of Korat and is a great place to see varied and many species of wildlife. There is accommodation in the park and nearby Pak Chong also has a number of small resorts.

Further north, the hike to the high-altitude peak of Phu Kradung in Loei Province, one of the most photographed spots in Thailand, is a great adventure. Ubon Ratchathai’s Candle Festival (Buddhist Lent in July), the Naga fireballs near Nong Khai and the Yasothorn Rocket Festival (in late May) are all also worth a look if you happen to be in country at the time.

The best way to travel to Isarn’s ancient temples and national parks is to rent a car and/or a driver, especially if you want to visit Prasat Khao Phra Wihan. This temple provides a spectacular outlook over the plains of northwest Cambodia from the cliff of the Dongrek escarpment.

For some reason that has never been properly explained the Isarn province of Roi Et produces the majority of Bangkok’s taxi drivers. It is also famous for the khaen, a panpipe made up reeds and wood.

Khon Kaen is the centre of the northeastern silk industry with numerous villages producing their own mudmee designs. One town in particular, Chonnabot, is known for producing high-quality silk. Every December the city hosts a Silk Fair, where all the local villagers bring their best wares to market.

The remnants of a civilization dating back 7,500 years can be found in Ban Chiang, about 50km east of Udonthani. Over 50 human skeletons can be seen in the excavation pit along with many pieces of pottery. The museum on site gives a fine historical record of the Ban Chiang era.

The town of Nong Khai has surprisingly been a popular spot for Western retirees to settle down in. From there, you can zip over the Thai-Laos Friendship bridge into Laos, and Vientiane is only a half-hour away. The sculptures in the Sala Kaew Sculpture Park, just outside of Nong Khai are bizarre and fascinating and worth a visit.

The residents of Nakhon Phanom celebrate Loy Krathong by building 6-metre longboats out of bamboo and banana bark. The boats are then elaborately adorned and paraded through the streets, then at night they are illuminated and launched into the Mekong River.

Surin is probably most famous for its elephant roundup, held every November where the pachyderms do everything from playing football to taking part in beauty contests. The elephants walking the streets of Bangkok tend to be rented out by families from the Surin area.

The Pha Taem National Park, about 100 km northeast of Ubon Ratchathani, provides great views over the Mekong River of Laos and cliffs in the park feature pictographs dating back 4,000 years (part of the movie Alexander was filmed here). South of Ubon, in Phu Chong National Park, you’ll find the “Emerald Triangle”, where the forests of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand meet in a sea of emerald green.

The northeast is famous for its spicy Thai salad (somtam), grilled spicy chicken (gai yang) and grilled insects, yes, grilled insects. The region is Thailand’s poorest and suffers from bad drought at times, but it does have a rich and fascinating history, which included US air bases in Korat, Ubon Ratchathai and Udonthani during the Vietnam War.

All the major urban areas in the northeast have domestic flights and can be accessed by road and rail.

The West

Kanchanaburi, and its infamous “Bridge on the River Kwai”, is one of the prime tourist attractions in western Thailand. This quaint little town with its Kanchanaburi and Chung Kai war cemeteries and its JEATH and Thai-Burma Railway Centre museums is a living memorial to the anguish Allied POWs and forced Asian labour had to endure trying to build a railway through to India during WWII. And Hellfire Pass, 80km up the road, built the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce, is a testament to man’s tenacity under the most strenuous of wartime conditions.

Kanchanaburi is a very pleasant place to hang out and relax for a few days as there are many affordable places to stay like the Felix, Cum Saed, Camelia and the Riverkwai Bridge Resorts. A number of guest houses are built right on the River Kwai and its tributaries, and a little further north near Sai Yok (where the river scenes in The Deer Hunter were filmed), the Yoko River Kwai Resort and others provide for a great getaway from Bangkok.

Outside of town, the popular, seven-tier Erawan Falls is a good day trip, and for the more adventurous a trip up to Three Pagados Pass and the Burmese border at Sangklaburi passes through some of this region’s most wondrous scenery. The Mon village of Wang Kha is linked to Sangklaburi by Thailand’s longest wooden bridge.

Thailand’s Tiger Temple (Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno) is also located in Kanchanaburi province. Seventeen fully grown tigers and their cubs live within the temple grounds after being rescued from poachers in the nearby Thai-Burmese border jungle.

Kanchanaburi is only a two-hour journey by car or bus from Bangkok, but the train trip is much more enjoyable and leaves from the Thonburi station three times a day.

Halfway between Kanchanaburi and Bangkok lies Nakhon Pathom, home of Phra Pathom Chedi, the tallest Buddhist monument in the world. It is also home to Sanam Chand Palace, a favourite residence of King Rama VI. The town also lays claim to Thailand’s Human Imagery Museum, where you can see life-like resin sculptures of famous figures in Thai history. And it was the location for much of the filming of the movie, Good Morning Vietnam.

The Rose Garden is a nice place to stay if you are planning to spend any time in this area as it has a Cultural Village featuring elephant rides, displays of classical Thai dancing, martial arts and handicrafts, all surrounded by some 20,000 rose bushes.

About halfway between Nakhom Pathom and Bangkok lies Thailand’s most famous Floating Market, Damnoen Saduak — pictures of which can be seen almost anywhere in the world.

On the Gulf of Thailand side, Hua Hin has long been thought of as the weekend retreat for Thais (the Royal Family maintains its Klai Kangwon residence here), but more and more foreigners have started going there as it is only a 3 & ½ hour drive from Bangkok.

The Sofitel Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas is one of the nicest hotels in the country and served as the setting for Hotel Le Phnom in The Killing Fields. Further on up the highway leading to Bangkok lies Cha-Am, a magnet for young Thais and it is usually packed on the weekend similar to Jomtien Beach in Pattaya.

Just north of Cha Am lies Petchaburi, which is chock full of ancient Buddhist temples. Great sunsets can be seen by climbing Khao Wong, a hill in the centre of town, which is home to one of King Mongkut’s (Rama IV) palaces. Kaeng Krachan, Thailand’s largest national park is 55 km away from Petchaburi. Its twin waterfalls of Pa La-U with their 15 tiers are very impressive sights indeed. The park is also noted for its multiple species of butterflies.

There are a number of excellent golf courses in and around the Hua Hin area, including Thailand’s oldest, the Royal Hua Hin Golf Club. Many of these courses have been promoting golf/spa packages, so you can combine time on the greens, with staying in a fancy resort and partaking in a traditional Thai massage or spa treatment.

The Chiva Som International Health Resort, just outside of town, has been named the Best Destination Spa in the World by Conde Naste and many celebrities fly from around the world to partake in its programs.

Lying further south of Hua Hin, just outside of Prachuap Khiri Khan is Ao Manao, a glorious beach accessed through a Thai Airforce airbase (one of the seven places where Japanese troops landed in Thailand during World War II). In Prachuap town itself, Khao Chong Krajok (Mirror Mountain), is the most noticeable landmark. Its 395 steps led up to a small monastery called Wat Thammikarn, containing relics bequeathed to the state by Kings Rama 1 and Rama IV.

And just south of Prachuap lies the narrowest stretch in Thailand. Starting in Wang Duan you walk across Thailand in a day to the Burmese border. As the crow flies its 11km, but hiking it, depending on your route takes between 15-18km.

Khao Sam Roi Rot National Park (Three Hundred Peaks) makes for an interesting visit given its abundance of limestone cliffs, beaches, and caves. Its coastal marshlands and lagoons make it a great place to birdwatch. Serows have been spotted on Khao Krachom (605 metres), while Irrawaddy dolphins have been seen off the coastline. The Dolphin Bay Resort in Pranburi is a good place to stay if you are intent on doing some serious dolphin watching.

Legend has it King Rama IV died from malaria a couple months after contracting malaria from mosquito bites while observing a solar eclipse with foreign and Thai guests in Khao Sam Roi Yot. The Phraya Nakhon Cave contains a royal sala built for King Rama V, as he stopped over there on his voyages between Nakhon Si Thammarat and Bangkok.

All main areas in the western region are accessible by either road or rail.

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