Ask most people to describe a Thailand holiday destination, and they’ll probably describe the idyllic beach scenes of tourist favorites such as Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi. We’re talking picture-postcard serene islands with palm-fringed beaches - the perfect location to kick back, relax, and soak up the sun. However, these exotic beach holidays are associated with southern Thailand. The mystical mountains and ancient cities of the north offer an equally enchanting yet markedly different experience. Let’s explore some highlights of North Thailand that travelers can discover on our Chiang Mai & Northern Thailand bike tour.
The White Temple of Chiang Rai
Wherever you go in northern Thailand, the country’s profoundly Buddhist-inspired culture is always just below the surface. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the cities of the ancient Lanna kingdom, Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, where golden stupas and crumbling temple ruins seem to hide around every corner.
Thailand’s northernmost city, Chiang Rai, is home to one of Thailand’s most iconic Buddhist temples, the emblematic Wat Rong Khun, also known as the white temple. The site is both a temple and a visually striking art exhibit showcasing the imagination of Chalermchai Khositpipat, a famous Thai modern artist.
He mixes contemporary and classic styles in the gleaming white structure. The sunlight reflects off shards of glass throughout to create a dazzling image on perpetually sunny days. The artist is no stranger to controversy as the religious building mixes typical Buddhist reverence with iconoclasm. The temple comes complete with kitschy references to pop culture as keen eyes will spot Hello Kitty, Elvis, and The Avengers within the grounds.
To the casual observer, the result is an endlessly intriguing discovery while exploring this unique site. In a country of quiet, contemplative temples, this loud, in-your-face, irreverent art exhibition is quite an anomaly.
Cycling Chiang Dao Wildlife Preserve
A significant aspect of the charm of northern Thailand is the lush, tropical greenery of the countryside. No trip to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai would be complete without a foray into the valleys beyond. As you exit the bustling cities, you begin to pass through charming farming villages where the ever-hospitable local Thais always greet visitors with a warm and welcoming smile. Glide on bikes by rolling rice fields, past quaint scenes of water buffalo traipsing through paddies, and spot a statuesque heron as it surveys the scene.
As you approach Chiang Dao, the gentle rice fields give way to dramatic mountainous landscapes. On a morning, with cooler temperatures higher up, a grey mist clings to the limestone peaks that jut out of the jungle setting, making for an awe-inspiring mystical landscape. While biking may present its challenges in this part of the world, with plenty of twists and turns up the steady inclines, the rewarding views are mesmerizingly epic.
One such peak between Chiang Rai and Chaing Mai is the visually imposing Doi Chiang Dao, named after the district and wildlife sanctuary in which it is located. Meaning “city of stars”, Doi Chiang Dao is a mighty limestone peak home to idyllic waterfalls, relaxing hot springs, and some of the deepest caverns in Thailand.
The mountain and surrounding area have become an outdoor activity hub as trekkers, cavers, bikers, and birders come to appreciate the stunning natural beauty and escape the heat of the plains below. The area is also known as “little Tuscany” due to the many vineyards nearby. Why not reward yourself for all that activity by sampling a locally-sourced wine?
Embrace the Heat
Nobody comes to northern Thailand without gaining an appreciation for the rich flavors of the local cuisine. A fair warning here; the locals tend to embrace chili, and even a seemingly innocuous papaya salad can pack a punch.
Bustling night markets with sizzling, smoky street food stalls are a feature of daily life in northern Thailand. Tourists and locals alike converge on the night markets of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai to grab a quick, cheap, delicious bite to eat.
Lanna people are immensely proud of their cuisine, and this is matched with the sense that mealtimes are important. The Lanna equivalent of “how are you?” roughly translates to “have you eaten?” You feel this sense of reverence for food as the atmosphere at night markets is usually vibrant and alive with chatter. People meet to socialize and celebrate the act of eating.
Active travellers and bikers in northern Thailand will find plenty of opportunities to replenish and indulge the senses. Visitors should try the flavourful khao soi, an egg-noodle soup dish with curried chicken garnished with crispy noodles, peanuts, lime, chili, pickles, and other spices. Another local dish, Sai Oua, is northern Thailand’s version of spicy sausage. You’ll generally find plenty of grilled meats sizzling away at barbecues. The locals like to eat the grilled meat with the ubiquitous sticky rice, pairing them with a delicious green chili dip.
For something a bit more fresh, try those papaya salads. Expert chefs toss together crisp green papaya, green beans, tomato, lime juice, palm sugar, fish sauce, and a handful of fresh chillis to create an enticing concoction. You’ll usually see the chef grinding ingredients on the spot with a large mortar and pestle, and that freshness really showcases in the dish.
Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is truly the jewel of northern Thailand, where the old sits alongside the new. The ancient walled city is home to many idiosyncratic temples of different styles to explore. Yet, within those city walls, you’ll find a burgeoning community of artist types with quaint and funky cafes and cool bars to discover.
Besides the city itself, the surrounding valley offers some of the region’s most picturesque countryside scenery. Thanks to the flat plain, cyclists can roll along the Ping River as it meanders its way through the lush greenery to the north, east, and south of the city.
However, on its west side, the city is flanked by Doi Suthep - an intimidating mountain that overlooks the city below.
Hiking through the tropical jungle to the peak is a must for any visitor to Chiang Mai. Sitting at the peak is a stunning golden temple, an iconic pilgrimage site for the city-dwellers below, with its many shrines alive with incense sticks.
Embrace this insight into local life by respectfully observing worshippers as they pay homage to the Buddha. From this vantage point, you can enjoy panoramic views of the valley below before descending the mountain.
You can enjoy these highlights and more on our Northern Thailand bike tour. The 8-day trip will see you cycle 180 miles through some of the region’s most glorious scenery while taking in the beautiful cities of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. You’ll enjoy an itinerary jam-packed with a variety of engaging activities that serve as a celebration of local culture.
And Lanna culture itself is the final highlight.
Exploring Northern Thailand over eight days with friendly, knowledgeable local guides will give you privileged insights into Lanna culture, and allow you to dig below the surface. This goes beyond an appreciation of the fantastically spicy local cuisine or an understanding of the different ethnic hill tribes that make up the population. You'll get to really connect with the region and its communities, returning with a richer travel experience and a deeper appreciation for this slice of the world.
Visitors to Thailand time and again refer to the good-natured hospitality they experience. This is embedded into the local Lanna culture in Northern Thailand and makes for a wonderfully warm experience. It’s always difficult to leave the friends we make along the way - They don’t call it the land of smiles for nothing!