Drive north away from the bustling city of Bangkok or take a short flight, and you'll soon discover another side of Thailand. One in which time slows down and the country's deep traditional roots rise to the surface. Forming a perfect triangle, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Pai crown Thailand's northern provinces. Still, all three have a unique feel — glorious temples, authentic local gastronomy, and natural wonders dot the cities' hilly surroundings, and you don't want to miss any of it. Here are some of my must-visits around the cities of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Pai.
Chiang Mai, The Rose of the North
Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand. Still, with a population of just under 130,000 people, this is a charming green town.
There are over a hundred temples scattered in and around the city, and they're all worthy of spending your morning in contemplation. You might want to start with The Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which is one of the most important temples of Northern Thailand. It is located on top of the Doi Suthep mountain, about 15 kilometers outside the city. Like many temples in the country, there are elements of Hinduism mixed in with Buddhism and an intriguing array of statues, including the god Ganesh. The breathtaking views and the soothing atmosphere of the place alone are worth the visit.
But Chiang Mai is so much more than ancient temples and somehow is known as the caffeine capital of Asia. The coffee venues themselves deserve a separate article. The aesthetically pleasing kind, where interior design and atmosphere are just as important as what’s on the menu. So wake up early, have a fantastic cup of ice-cold, creamy coffee, and a baking treat at the minimalist Baristro at Ping River. The loft-style uses raw materials which emphasise the cement wall and the cool bare columns.
Then drive twenty minutes East, and you'll soon find the larger-than-life MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, a modernist building that contrasts with the region's Buddhist architecture. Here, traditional arts and crafts meet the work of today's most acclaimed Thai artists. This is a side of Thailand that few have the chance to explore.
For lunch, head to the trendy Nimman area for some colourful dishes in Rustic and Blue cafe. What’s really special about the place is its locavore philosophy: seasonal produce and artisan foods reign supreme here, as evidenced in the presentation of dishes such as rosy eggs Benedict on a croissant with beetroot hollandaise sauce, and plenty of vegan smoothie bowl options heaped with fresh tropical fruit.
Chiang Rai, an Imperial City
Founded in the 13th-century and once the Mangrai Dynasty's capital, Chiang Rai has significant commercial and spiritual importance. Chiang Rai's night bazaar and its vibrant energy make the city an authentic gem, but no one misses the white and blue temples despite the many things to see and do.
The beautifully ornamented Blue Temple, known as the 'Temple of the Dancing Tiger,' was reopened in 2016 after being abandoned one hundred years ago. Today it's one of the most beautiful edifications on the planet. The temple is a fascinating fusion of traditional Buddhist values and classic Thai architecture with contemporary design elements. A peculiar fact is that the mastermind behind the Blue Temple was an artist Putha Kabkaew. This artist was a student of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist who created the White Temple. This is why you can notice some similarities between the two temples.
Close to the temple, you'll find the Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House, a gorgeous country house turned into a restaurant, offering indoor and outdoor sitting. It's amongst the most charming dining spots in the city and a must-visit. Lulled by soft jazzy music, you will enjoy Thai and international dishes, breakfastS, and snacks. The place is particularly romantic at sunset and is well worth the trip.
Wat Rong Khun or The White Temple is a more modern undertaking; it was founded in 1997, and it's artist Chalermchai Kositpipat's life work. Inspired by the region's Buddhist temples, this gorgeously ornamented, a pearly-white landmark is worth visiting Chiang Rai alone.
Pai, Hot Springs, and Scenic Views
In Thailand's very north, neighboring the Myanmar border, there's Pai. The small town's laid-back atmosphere, livened by its visitors from all over the world, makes this destination a real treat, especially if you're in need of peace and calm. Tucked deep in a valley, surrounded by endless mountains, Pai seems to exist in its own time zone.
The neighboring waterfalls are every hiker's dream, and for the rest of us, Pai has its hot springs. Drive towards the White Buddha across endless rice paddy fields to find these glorious springs and ponds. They're nature's gift for those who dare explore the untamable northern Thailand.
For many visitors, coming to Pai simply means slowing down completely. Artsy types often go around Pai's many galleries, while others prefer to lounge away on the riverside terraces and at chilled-out bars.