Northern Thailand Travel Tips0
How long do I need in the north?
Many people ask me how long they need in the North – my personal answer would be ‘it could never be long enough!’ My first visit to Thailand 4 years ago was to the North, and I have been living here for the past 2 years. For those restricted to a travel schedule though, at least 2 days is needed to cover the basic sightseeing of Chiang Mai (the capital of the North) although you could spend a week and not have covered all that the city and it’s surrounds has to offer. If you want to explore the countryside beyond Chiang Mai a recommended 3 days is needed to fully appreciate Chiang Rai province, and a further 5 days for Mae Hong Son.
What is the best time of year to go?
Winter in Thailand is from November – February, which is also the tourism high season here. Travellers prefer to come during these months as the temperature is slightly cooler, it is also the best weather for trekking. Whilst many people avoid rainy season (May-Sep), there are advantages -this is when the fields and nature are at their most lush green. Most of the time the rain will come in short spurts, it does not rain heavily all day. Summer time (March-April) is the worst time to come, when temperatures soar to mid-late 30′s. This is also when farmers burn the fields, so air quality is very bad and visibility of the mountain views masked by smoke. Note that prices for many things such as tours,accommodation,flights are much higher during high season, so it can be cheaper to travel in the low season.
Is it recommended for kids?
Northern Thailand is a fantastic destination for kids, in fact it offers something for all ages. Soft adventure and outdoor activities, nature and animals are sure to keep the kids entertained whilst opportunities for cultural exploration together as a family can an enriching experience for all.
Most major to mid size towns in the North are well connected by local bus routes, so its possible to get around by bus, however to explore outlying areas and small villages then you will need your own transport. In some of the more developed and touristic towns there will be motorbikes for hire, if you want to hire a car it is best to do so from Chiang Mai.
Destinations in mountainous or more remote areas, will not have any form of transport so it’s advisable to have your own transport here too. Local buses come in 2 classes – air conditioned or fan. Air con buses are slightly more expensive but worth paying the extra baht for as they have more leg room and seating is more spacious. Overnight buses in Thailand are very comfortable, seats recline to about 150 degrees with enough leg room for the average height person. The only things to watch out for are the air-conditioning which they tend to put on high and karaoke songs which they like to keep you entertained with at high volume.
There are various ways you can travel around Northern Thailand – independent travel, group package tours, or something in between such as a private tour. Which one you opt for will depend on how you like to travel and your budget. Independent travel (the cheapest form) is obviously for those who don’t like to be restricted and prefer to explore by themselves, commonly done by backpackers on a low budget. The downfalls can be that whilst you may cover many areas with an open schedule, your travel experience will be purely observatory, you won’t know about the meaning and culture behind places without the knowledge of a local guide. Package tours are for those who feel less comfortable exploring a place on their own and like to have everything pre-planned, the disadvantage being that every aspect (hotels, transport, itinerary) is fixed including the amount of time you can spend at a sight, not good for those that don’t like to be rushed. A private tour combines the best of both independent and package travel in that you can tailor the itinerary to what you want to see and do, without the restrictions of a fixed schedule, basically you are the boss.
Your trip to Northern Thailand could combine a mix of styles, for example for tourist areas such as Chiang Mai city which are easy to get around by with public transport where a lot of the attractions have explanations in English then a guide and private transport is not required. For sightseeing in outlying Chiang Mai (adventure activities, national parks, waterfalls and temples) you may want to consider hiring a taxi or song tiaw for a day. Then for excursions to the countryside beyond Chiang Mai, which are not so easily done on public transport you could hire a car, driver and guide for a tour.
Northern Thailand offers an amazing array of hotels and guesthouses from budget backpacker to 5 star boutique hotels. If arriving during low season it is not necessary to book beforehand, although you may get better rates if you book online. Many hotels in Chiang Mai can be found on online hotel booking agents. In rural parts most hotels/guesthouses (unless they are high end well established ones) are not available on any of the online hotel booking agents, you might be lucky if they even had their own website, so a phone reservation is the best way. During high season and any national holidays booking beforehand is advised as places get full pretty quickly.