Dated, dusty, and unashamedly antiquated, the North of Thailand often plays second fiddle to the likes of its more colourful, influential counterparts. Phuket and Krabi boast powder-white sand beaches, sun-blushed glows, and turquoise seas; Bangkok is the ultimate sensory feast of sights, sounds, tastes, and smells; even seedy Pattaya scores its niche as the hedonistic haven for a whole bevy of vices.
So where then, does that leave old-world charms like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, whom, beautiful as they may be, have nothing tangible to speak of? Save for a temple here and a market there, there is really kind of nothing in these sister cities that stands out as a touristic ideal in terms of sights or attractions. People often come here wondering why they do. In fact, it’s really no surprise that these two silent treasures remain such a well-kept secret: ask any Thailand travel alumni about their time spent in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, and the most likely response you’ll get is, “We didn’t.”
It’s not a classified fact: you don’t come to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai to see or do things – even Chiang Mai’s famous Tiger Kingdom (which I personally don’t endorse) can be found in the more easily accessible Phuket. And unless it holds a personal significance to you, travelling all the way up to Chiang Rai for a glimpse of the White Temple can prove quite the test of commitment for most.
Image credit: Mild Delirium
Then why, on good Earth, should anyone still consider these as options when planning their Thailand route?
Because with Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, you don’t come here to see. You don’t even come here to do. You come here to feel.
The next time you toy around with the idea of travelling to Thailand, skip the usual suspects. Bangkok, Phuket, and Krabi will always be there; and especially if you’re guilty of being a repeat visitor to the millionth degree, give yourself a chance to try out a new travelling experience this time. An experience that may not necessarily bring you the best plethora of shopping, food, temple or architectural options – but an experience that will help you gain a little more insight into your own soul.
Here are seven connections to make on your trip to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
1. Connect with culture
As they say, if you want to build a connection that lasts, connect with culture.
And that is true. The one most singular charm of Northern Thailand lies in its people. Between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai lie an exotically rich tapestry of cultures, their communities abuzz with a mellifluous blend of urbanites, suburbanites, and hill tribes living in a world and time far removed from our own.
Connecting with locals of this region gives you more than just good conversation; it’s an invitation to glimpse into the authentic way of local life that is way beyond a tourist’s typical peripheral – something you will be hard-pressed to experience in culturally diluted cities like Phuket and Bangkok. Food is cheap, transport is cheap, and everything is bare and simple to the point of being slightly inconvenient. It’s the perfect cultural adventure.
Take it as an opportunity to not just hear stories or forge relationships, but also learn and find common threads of similarity even within differences. After all, no matter how varied our lineage may be, there will always be some universal truth that binds us all together as humans.
2. Connect with nature
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are probably two of the better places to unplug and connect with what we have very little of back home: Nature.
Do a little research, it’s not difficult to find your way to enchanting panoramic views, spectacular landscapes, lush rice paddies, and crisp fresh mountain air all year round. There is a quiet awareness that envelops you when you put down the clutter of everyday life, and it is an intrinsically rewarding way to regenerate your own soul.
For starters, check out Phu Chi Fah or Doi Mae Salong in Chiang Rai; or the very peculiar Bua Tong Sticky Waterfall in Chiang Mai.
3. Connect with history
To experience a domain like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai is not just beautiful, it’s historical. Unfortunately, these understated cities come with little global recognition for its hefty heritage – one that runs as far as 700 years back. So exotic and varied is their past from the Thailand we know, that even the country’s inhabitants of the North see themselves as ‘Thais with a difference’. They have their own language, their own customs and traditions, their own culture; and the best part of it all is that they don’t look like they’d be trading it off for commercial tourism anytime soon.
If anything, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai will significantly alter your beliefs that history can only be found within the four walls of a museum. These cities are living exhibits in their own right – walk the streets and you’ll not just feel an inner sense of peace that is far and wide absent from its bustling sister cities of the Central and South; but also, a richer depth of history that is still vibrantly, thrillingly alive.
4. Connect with tastes
Image credit: Dietrich Ayala
The fact that food in the North costs at least 2-3 times cheaper than that in its more touristic sister cities is reason enough why it’s better. Luckily, that’s not our only reason why.
Dining in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai is mostly an unassuming experience. Expect none of that trendy, gimmicky fusion-type, haute cuisine; here, food is cooked from the soul and served up simple and rustic, with strong intense flavours that hint of Laotian and Burmese influences.
Move the Tom Yam and Pad Thai aside when you’re here and suss out the real stuff, like Khao Soi or Som Tom or Sai Oua. These culinary treasures are authentic to the North and rarely make it out of the region – and even if you do find it in other parts of the country, probably isn’t as great.
5. Connect with experiences
Image credit: Mark Fischer
The truth is, when it comes to planning for these two cities, the best itinerary is often a blank one. Ditch that checklist – even if it’s a checklist of ‘Experiences to Have’; and be brave enough to take on the streets with nothing but a map and a travel guide in tow. A deeper, more profound adventure awaits when you’re not dissecting every hour down to the last second; so sit back, relax, and fully feel the magnitude of everything that’s happening to you, around you – both the good and the bad. Having a structured grand plan is a sure-fire way to snuff out a lot of spontaneity here; after all, aren’t the most wonderful experiences always made up of a string of smaller, unexpected happenings?
Don’t charge into Northern Thailand demanding to be shown things. This is a region that will take you by the hand and reveal itself to you softly, slowly, quietly – but only if you let it.
6. Connect with travellers
Image credit: Sascha Kohlmann
And this is something that applies universally: meeting new people off the beaten path will give you the strongest, most memorable connections you will ever make while travelling. For one, you’re both already kooky on the same level for deciding to go where few have treaded; and two, kookiness aside, you’re probably also like-minded on quite a spectrum of things. Don’t be afraid to start the conversation, share a few stories, and laugh about mistakes. Nothing else makes travelling more meaningful than a couple of new friendships made.
Check out traveller connecting apps like Backpackr, Wandermates, SoloTraveller, Tripr, or Travello – they’re like platonic versions of Tinder for travellers, but without the stress of having to impress who you’re going to meet.
7. Connect with yourself
That said, don’t forget about yourself. Connecting with other people is inherently experiential, but don’t feel like you have to actively eyeball every other traveler who passes you by as a potential new acquaintance. Especially if you’re on the road solo, this is one of the rarer moments in life where you fully get to be with yourself, unplugged; to take in brand new environments on your own and create brand new, undiluted experiences that have not been tainted by the prejudices of someone else – all on your own. If you have a special interest, pursue it. If you want to seek out the locals, go for it. If you ever think you are alone just because you don’t have someone beside you, think again.
Making that important connection with your own person is most parts fun, exhilarating, intensely personal, and highly rewarding; but a lot of it also comes with good effort, realistic expectations, and to a certain extent, an unwavering determination to live the little things and not let tiny details weigh you down.
For what it’s worth, it’s your one best shot at discovering the most important thing there is to discover in this world: You.