While Thailand’s southern cities and beaches attract most tourists – Full-Moon-partiers, Bangkok night-lifers – the true gems of Thailand lie a bit further north. Off the beaten path, yes, but all the more rewarding for their remoteness.
Any journey into northern Thailand wouldn’t be complete without exploring Chiang Mai, so we’ll start there. A 10ish hour bus ride from Bangkok isn’t so bad, as long as your bus has enough seats… Last minute tickets often mean standing room only, which gives the intrepid overnight traveler the added benefit of learning how to wedge herself upright and catch some z’s while standing.
Chiang Mai is nestled in the lush, rolling hills of northern Thailand, a mere 80 miles south of the Myanmar border. It’s surrounded by national parks, including nearby Haui Nam Dang and Doi Luang. The city boasts hundreds of beautifully ornate Buddhist temples – called wats, in Thai – including the most famous temple located at the top of nearby Doi Suthep mountain. It’s a trek up the mountain, but the elaborate architecture and stunning panorama view of the city are well worth the effort. And, as with most temples in the area, it is actively used by monks and locals. Befriending a monk is a highly recommended endeavor; they are almost always happy to interact with people from outside the temple, and can even give you pointers on meditation.
The nearby Baan Chang (translates as “elephant house”) center is a very rewarding visit, in a way that attractions based on animals in captivity often aren’t. I was wary at first, but fortunately there aren’t any elephants kicking soccer balls or balancing on platforms – the center is firmly against teaching elephants to perform tricks. Instead, Baan Chang emphasizes teaching visitors about elephants, their habits, lifestyles, and preservation. The highlight is definitely riding bareback through the jungle – part Indiana Jones, part Swiss Family Robinson.
While the culinary options in Thailand are unparalleled, the savvy backpacker might ask herself – where can I find the most authentic Thai food, and what dishes must I try? Any urban area hosts a plethora of street carts ready to deliver cheap, delicious Thai food at any hour. Personal favorite – pad kee mao, a flat rice noodle stir fried with Thai basil and veggies, whose name almost literally means “drunk food.” Rotis, a crepe-like pastry with toppings including bananas, nutella, and other fruit, are also a street-food favorite. Prices for these delicious entrees tend to be from 30-60 baht, or a mere 1 to 2 dollars.
Street carts rule, but the real culinary gems can be found in villages and hamlets that dot the northern Thailand countryside. Village food is prepared communally, with a large woven basket of sticky-rice (kao-neow) placed in the center of a sea of plates full of all kinds of dishes. One staple is a dish based on unripe papaya called somtam that is often loaded with peppers. A non-native (farang) should not be ashamed of her inability to withstand the atomic spiciness of some dishes; Thais are incredibly hospitable and would be upset to have caused a visitor discomfort. So, go easy on the somtam, tiger. Babysteps.
In fact, speaking of Thai hospitality, one of the most important Thai phrases you can learn is em lao, which means, “I’m full.” Otherwise, your host will likely keep the food coming, forever!
And when you make it into the Northeast region – an even less-traveled area of the country – and you’re feeling good about your Thai phrases – guess what! The region has a different dialect. The languages are similar enough that Thais from this region of the country, called Isaan, can understand other Thai speakers, and vice versa. But some words are changed around; for instance, sa bai dee mai (how are you doing?) becomes sa bai dee bow. A little tricky at first, but nothing delights an Isaan native more than hearing a foreigner speaking their language.
Backpacking in northern Thailand requires a large amount of flexibility and initiative, and some of the most rewarding opportunities are unplanned and stumbled upon. Thai weddings, village harvest festivals, secret caves – all you need is an open mind and an adventurous spirit!
Angie Picardo is a writer for Nerdwallet and TravelNerd where you can find advice on travel topics from winter camping to predicting jetblue baggage fees. She is a recent graduate of University of California in Berkeley. Feel free to Ask Angie any questions about Thailand in the comments.