Thailand is surely most famous for its stunning white sand beaches that encircle each of the islands that are scattered like emeralds around its coastline. Despite the beauty of the crystal clear water and tropical fishes, there are a wealth of places to see and amazing activities to enjoy if you take the time to step inland and experience Northern Thailand. From elephants to history lessons, you're sure to find something for you in the fabulous area of northern Thailand.
Chiang Mai is Thailand's second city set deep in the north of the country, surrounded by forests and mountains and the ideal base if you want to explore the area. The city itself is small but with a rustic charm that captures many people as soon as they arrive. With shops, restaurants and bars galore, you can't run out of things to do here, so much so that some people I was travelling with eventually decided to move here! Make sure you hire a moped and zoom up to the top of Doi Suthep to see the Wat Phrathat temple and for stunning views out over the city. Watch out for the hairpin bends!
Getting there: Chiang Mai is an easy hop from Bangkok, whether you decide to fly up or take the train. When I lived in Thailand I took the train to Chiang Mai many times and would absolutely recommend it as a way of getting around the country. The night train leaves Bangkok in the early evening and arrives into Chaing Mai station at around 9am. For full details on the train times, visit Seat 61 (a brilliant train website) or the Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok when you arrive. You are allocated a wide seat which, at around 9pm gets turned into a bed by the train attendant. I would also recommend you book the lower bunks as they are slightly larger plus you will have a window. If there are two of you travelling this means that you will be sitting side by side with the aisle in between you, rather than opposite one another.
Highlight: It's hard to pick a highlight in such a great city but my day with the elephants has got to be it. Baan Chang Elephant Park was where I did a 1 day Mahout Training course. Consisting of getting to know the elephants before feeding, taking them for an hour long ride into the wood for some more food and eventually washing them, this was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life, let alone just in Thailand. The most important thing about this is that you MUST BOOK ONLINE. In Thai 'Baan Chang' just means 'happy elephant' and simply requesting an elephant experience day at 'Baan Chang' will not guarantee that you go to this camp. Booking online means that you can directly tell them your hotel name and they will come and collect you personally.
Don't miss: A strawberry and banana smoothie at the Funky Monkey Cafe!
Chiang Rai is the perfect base for a visit to the Golden Triangle, the area where Thailand, Laos and Burma meet and the mighty Mekong merges with the River Ruak. This beautiful area of the country is perfect for hiking and trekking, whether you fancy a week long trek or just a short walk through the hills. It is a good area to come and find a boutique hotel and absolutely relax after an action packed trip to Thailand. The city also has a bustling weekend night market and is a hive for local produce and crafts from around the area. If you want to pick up some genuine Thai products on your trip, this is the place to go!
Getting there: Chiang Rai is in the far north of the country and does not have any train links that reach it. If you are missing out Chiang Mai, then it is easiest to fly from Bangkok straight to Chiang Rai but if you want to combine the two, there are plenty of bus services between them each day.
Highlight: The trekking in this area is fantastic but it's who you'll meet while you're walking that will really make this trip a highlight. The hill tribes of the area live simply but are some of the most friendly and welcoming you'll find in Thailand. It's a great of finding out how they live their day to day lives and enjoy Northern Thailand at a relaxed pace.
Don't miss: Khao soi - the tastiest noodle dish in northern Thailand. Made using both boiled and deep fried egg noodles and mixed with cabbage, shallots, chilli and usually pork in a coconut based sauce - the combination of crunchy and soft noodles is fantastic! It's a common street food in the area and although available in other areas of the country, this is definitely the best place to try it.
Khao Yai National Park is the oldest national park in Thailand and is a fantastic place for wildlife spotting. Elephants, muntjacs and bee-eaters are commonly seen but the more rare animals include tigers, sun bears, gibbons, crocodiles and leopards. Doing a wildlife tour is your best chance of spotting any animals; an English-speaking guide will accompany you around the park and help you spot things that you otherwise might miss! There are several lovely waterfalls that can be visited as well as the bat caves where, at dusk, you can watch thousands of the creatures as they launch themselves into the night.
Getting there: From Bangkok you can catch a train or bus to Korat, which leave throughout the day. From there it is easy to get a songthaew (a shared taxi) to the park's entrance.
Highlight: Khao Yai is one of the few places in Thailand where you can still see wild elephants. To get the best chance of spotting them, go on a night wildlife tour and wonder at these marvellous creatures, somehow so different from their tamed cousins.
Don't miss: Khao Yai Winery for a taste of Thailand's finest wine. Perhaps an unexpected place for a vineyard, the wine from this area has been served on Thai Airways flights and is one of the best places in the country for tasting and touring vineyards. With a restaurant looking over the estate, the Khao Yai Winery is the perfect end to any trip up north.
Ayutthaya was made the capital city of Siam in 1350 and by the 18th Century was one of the most important cities in Asia. In 1767, the Burmese invaded and almost the whole city was burnt to the ground. All that remains are the stone relics of the temples and palaces that survived the blaze, situated on their island in the middle of the Chao Praya, Pa Sak and Lop Buri rivers. Although the temples are only ruins, it is still important to dress modestly and respect the various temple complexes throughout the island.
Getting there: From Bangkok, you can either take the train or get a minibus from Victory Monument in the centre of Bangkok. Minibuses usually leave when they are full and take around an hour to reach the temples. The train takes slightly longer but is a great way to see some of the country on your way up to Ayutthaya.
Highlight: Renting a bicycle and riding from temple to temple is the best way to see the city. City maps are available for free and it is a great way to explore if you'd rather be independent.
Don't miss: Just off the island there is an elephant park where you can visit and feed some elephants. It is mainly an overnight park but it easy to visit for half an hour or so and buy a bucket of cucumbers to feed the elephants.
Kanchanaburi is the gateway to the River Kwai and all of the historic museums and relics that surround the area. In World War II, 16,000 prisoners of war and 90,000 Asian workers died working on the Thailand-Burma Railway, more commonly known as the Death Railway. The bridge over the River Kwai, made famous by the film of the same name, is able to be crossed on foot, with several "pull in" areas available for when the train comes. The area has several museums where you can learn about the history of the area, the best of which is the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, next to the cemetery. It is an interesting place to visit but be prepared to learn about the horrors that occurred here.
Getting there: Easy to reach by both bus and train, Kanchanaburi is a regular stop on tours of Thailand, thanks to its bloody history. From Bangkok, the minibuses leave Victory Monument when they are full and are probably the easiest method of transport to the area. Trains leave from Thonburi station in Bangkok which is less central than the main Hua Lamphong terminus. The morning train leaves at 07.50 and the next is not until after lunch so make sure you have time to get there, otherwise take a minibus.
Highlight: The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is one of the most humbling places you can visit in Thailand, with over 7,000 graves of prisoners of war from Australia, the Netherlands and the UK. Some of the graves bear moving personal inscriptions from family members where other merely mark the grave of 'A Soldier of the 1939-1945 war'. It is a moving place to visit and is beautifully maintained - a lasting tribute and resting place for many men.
Don't miss: The Erawan Falls in nearby Erawan National Park are an amazing place to visit from Kanchanaburi, especially if you are there for a few nights. The 7 tiered waterfall has brilliant pools for swimming but make sure you bring good walking boots as the trail to the top can be tricky. Easily reachable to tuk-tuk or public bus.