The North's 17provinces comprise two distinct areas: the wide plains of the lower north from Nakhon Sawan up to Sukhothai, leading into the mountainous upper north that has long borders with Myanmar and Laos. The great mountains along both borders produce breathtaking scenery, waterfalls, fast rivers perfect forrafting, and are home to many ethnic peoples.
The region enjoys three seasons: hot from March to May, wet from June to November, and cool from December to February. However, up in the mountains "cool" can be extremely cold.
The Thai nation began in the North, initially as city states, which were gradually united under the Lanna kingdom centred on ChiangMai in the 13th century. The process was continued by Sukhothai, the first capital of Thailand. Throughout its long history, there has been strong Burmese and Lao influence, particularly in the upper north, seen in both its architecture and cuisine.
However, the nomadic hilltribes have been a law unto themselves, wandering back and forth across borders. Today, they are more settled in villages across the northern mountains. There are six main tribal groups, originating from southern China and Myanmar-Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Mien, Akha, Lisu - all with their own unique customs and costumes, which is the great attraction for many travellers.
Most travellers head for Chiang Mai, the northern capital, as a base for visiting ethnic tribes, for soft adventure and for shopping. The lure of rafting, trekking and tribal villages is strong in ChiangRai and Mae Hong Son, particularly the adventure village of Pai. Remote areas like Nan and Tak are becoming more accessible, attracting visitors with the promise ofgreat activity and exploration. To the south, the Historical Park at Sukhothai is a must-see for travellers who want to discover more about the history and culture of Thailand.
The North's largest city, Chiang Mai is the centre for tourism, either in the city or visiting hilltribes, elephant camps and trekking amid wonderful mountain scenery.
Chiang Mai is over 700 years old. The old walled city with its moats contains some magnificent temples. Wat Phra Singh is famous for its Lanna-style architecture, beautiful wood carvings and superb murals. Nearby is the ageless Wat Chedi Luang, which lost the top of its massive chedi to an earthquake 400 years ago. Doi Suthep mountain looms over the town, and the highly-revered temple at its peak offers superb views of the surrounding countryside.
The Mae Sa Valley is an easy place to explore with its elephant camps, orchid farms, waterfalls and Queen Sirikit Park. Elephant-lovers may prefer to head to Mae Taeng or Chiang Dao, where you can watch elephants at work and go trekking in the countryside. For the really adventurous, Doi Inthanon National Park, home to Thailand's highest peak, provides trekking opportunities amid wonderful scenery, plummeting waterfalls and a great variety of bird life.
Chiang Mai is known for its outstanding handicrafts. Travellers love to head down the road to San Kamphaeng, which is crowded with cottage industries making woodcarvings, Thai silk, silverwork, umbrellas, lacquerware, etc. Watch the craftsmen at work and also make purchases, or wander around the famous Night Bazaar, where many similar items are for sale.
Thailand ends at Chiang Rai, the mountainous province that touches borders with Myanmar and Laos. This is soft adventure country, where you can enjoy trekking to various hilltribe villages, mountain biking and river rafting.
Popular activities include rafting down the Kok River from Thaton into Chiang Rai town, stopping at tribal villages on the way, or boating along the mighty Mekong River from the Golden Triangle to the ancient towns of Chiang Saen, with its serene temples, and Chiang Khong, the gateway into Laos.
For superb mountain scenery, none can match the impact of Doi Mae Salong or the unusual Chinese town of Santikhiri perched on the peak, with opportunities for some strenuous treks to nearby hi]ltribe communities. Further north, Doi Tung offers great scenic views. However, it is the home of the late Princess Mother, whose Swiss chalet palace and beautiful gardens are open to the public, and the various hilltribe villages that attract visitors.
On the east bank of the Ping River, Kamphaeng Phet was a satellite town of Sukhothai, an outpost buffer against the Burmese intrusion.
Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park features several historic temples within the old walled city, including Wat Phra Kaeo and Wat Phrathat. There's also Kamphaeng Phet National Museum housing sculpted Buddha heads, earthenware and celadon pottery.
Slightly to the north, a second portion of the park features more ancient temples, including the large Wat Chang Rop with its myriad elephant heads on a small hill, annd Wat Phra Si Iriyabot, with Buddha images in four attitudes in front of a pond.
In the hills of Khlong Lan and Mae Wong national parks there are fast rivers ideal for rafting, trekking routes, waterfalls and some rock-climbing stations. Camping is popular.
Founded in the 7th century, Lampang was traditionally the centre of the northern teak industry, which brought many Chinese, Burmese and Western traders to the province. Their influence can be seen in the architecture of many buildings, with houses and art objects made of solid teak found throughout the town The town is famous for its brightly coloured horse-drawn carriages, which are a popular form of transport. Its most important temple, Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao shows strong Burmese influence and once housed the famous Emerald Buddha.
Outside the town, the walled temple of Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang is considered the most beautiful temple in Thailand. Its central zuilutn is made of old teak, and exquisite teak carvings grace the facades of many of its buildings.
Parks, waterfalls, camping areas and forest accommodation are abundant in the province. However, its best-known attraction is the Elephant Training School, Elephant Hospital and Sanctuary, which puts on shows, offers training to be a mahout and hosts an annual khan toke dinner for jumbos.
The city was founded in the 9th century by Mons, whose legendary ruler Queen Chamathewi created the Hariphunchai state that held sway in the region for a few hundred years, until it was absorbed into the Lanna kingdom. Her remains are interred at Wat Chamathewi, built by Khmer artisans and renovated by the Mons. The main chedi is on five levels, originally with a golden top, which was stolen. It is also known as Wat Ku Kut, which means chedi without a top!
The town's main attraction is Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai, built to house Buddha relics on the site of Queen Chamathewi s palace. The 46-metre Golden Chedi is topped by a nine-tiered umbrella of pure gold. There is a museum and a library within the temple's grounds. The district of Pasang is known for its cotton weaving industry and for its beautiful women. Overlapping into Chiang Mai arid Lampang, Mae Ping National Park surrounds the Ping River and features fertile forestland, sheer cliffs, reservoirs, islands and river rapids ideal for rafting.
MAE HONG SON
On the Myanmar border, Mae Hong Son was long isolated from the rest of Thailand by its mountain peaks. Now daily flights into its small airport bring growing numbers of tourists, attracted by the spectacular scenery, numerous hilltribe communities and soft adventure opportunities.
Myanmar has had a strong influence on the province, as can be seen in its architecture. Excellent examples are the two picture-perfect temples on the bank of Chong Kham Lake in the town centre, with their typical Burmese tiered roofs.
Popular spots for visitors are Soppong, which provides access to caves in the area, with the kilometrelong Lot Cave the most spectacular, and Doi Mae U-Kho for the fields of wild sunflowers that bloom in November and December.
The more adventurous visitors head for Pai, the small town that is the centre of trekking industry. Here you can raft alonVcr, trek through the forests on foot or elephant and stay at hilltribe villages.
A remote province, Nari s history has been shaped by its proximity to Laos, and its large hilltribe population are of Lao origin. Nan National Museum, once the home of the Nan royal family, contains a very impressive collection of artifacts, including a black elephant tusk said to have magical powers. Opposite, Wat Chang Kham Worawihan is a royal-grade temple with elephant sculptures around the front.
Wat Phumin is a fine example of Lanna Thai architecture, with a main shrine hall and wihan in the same building. The mural paintings depicting ways of life and culture of the past are outstanding. Outside of town, the 600year-old Wat Phrathat Chae Haeng has a wonderful gold-plated chedi and a wihan of pure Laotian design.
The mountains and scenery of Nan provide a great attraction for visitors, with Doi Phu Kha National Park a favourite spot to see waterfalls and shoot the rapids.
Gateway to the North, where the main highway divides towards Tak and Phitsanulok, Nakhon Sawan is a busy commercial centre in one of Thailand's main rice growing regions. It is also the confluence of four waterways, which merge to form the Chao Phraya River.
Bird-watchers congregate at Wat Woranat Banphot, an old temple notable for its replica Buddha footprint, to view birds at the nearby waterfowl park around Bung Boraphet. This lake is Thailand's largest source of freshwater fish.
With its large Chinese community, Nakhon Sawan goes a bit crazy at Chinese New Year, with an immense festival famed throughout the country for its Dragon and Lion Procession, and celebrations that last for days.
Dating back over 900 years, Phayao is a pretty town located on the edge of Phayao Lake, but well off the normal tourism track. Phayao Lake is the largest freshwater lake in northern Thailand and is surrounded by beautiful hilly scenery. It is a great breeding centre for fish, supplying many excellent restaurants that line its shores. The Fishery Station is the first facility to successfully breed giant catfish.
Wat Sikhom Kham, on the shore of the lake, houses a revered 400-year-old Buddha image. But it is the startling statues of dinosaurs, devils and other images of hell - inspired by both Hollywood films and Buddhist legend - that attract many visitors.
Famous for its crocodiles, Phichit still has a number of crocodile farms around the province. There's even a huge model crocodile in the park next to Bung Sifai, with an auditorium in its stomach!
Muang Kao, the old city park, contains remnants of ancient Phichit, dating back more than 900 years, with some of the old city wall, moats and Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat in good condition. Wat Tha Luang, on the bank of the Nan River, is popular as the setting for the Phichit boat races and festival, held every September.
This strategically-located town and province is a major commercial and transport hub, that was a former Khmer outpost and later the birthplace of King Naresuan.
Phitsanulok is the seat of Thailand's most beautiful Buddha image, Phra Buddha Chinnarat, an imposing gold plated image housed in Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat. The Folklore Museum has a large and impressive collection of local arts and crafts as well as displays depicting local life through the centuries.
The road east to Lomsak passes through some spectacular scenery. Thung Salaeng Luang National Park has many species of flower found nowhere else, great tracts of forest and the famed Kaeng Sopha Falls. There are more lovely waterfalls along the road, the Sakunothayan Arboretum, and the unusual rock formations at Phu Hin Rongkla National Park on the border with Phetchabun.
Phetchabun is rich with waterfalls, rivers and lakes. Dams have been built to prevent flooding and control irrigation, creating popular scenic picnic and recreation areas around the reservoirs.
However, it is the mountains that draw tourists. The rolling peaks of Khao I<hor, known as Little Switzer land, were once a battlefield against communist insurgents. Today, its beautiful scenery and cool weather attracts many visitors, to see the mountain-top army base turned into a museum, and enjoy trekking in the open zoo and non-hunting areas.
The national parks of Phu Hin Rong Kla, with its stunning rock formations, and Nam Nao, whose forests are home to many large animals and birds, are now starting to attract more and more trekkers and eco-tourists
One of the oldest towns in Thailand, Phrae still has some of its old walls and moat intact. It was once a Burmese outpost, and architectural signs of this influence can be seen in some temples.
The province's most famous temple is Wat Phrathat Cho Hae, seated on a small hill east of town with a tall chedi wrapped in thin gold sheet. Ghosts have been at work at Phae Muang Phi, a collection of strange soil pillars created by erosion.
Phrae is known for its wood products, and a number of handicraft villages specialise in wood-carvings. However, Ban Thung Hong is renowned for producing Mo Hom, the blue cotton shirts worn by farmers.
Eco-tourism is beginning to make its mark, with rafting excursions and trekking in Mae Yom National Park, especially around Kaeng Sua Ten rapids.
Founded in the 13th century, Sukhothai was the first capital of Thailand (then Siam), which enjoyed a golden age under King Ramkhamhaeng, credited with creating the Thai alphabet. The superb palaces, temples and monuments of this great city have been lovingly restored in Sukhothai Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-see for all travellers.
Ramkhamhaeng National Museum contains an outstanding collection of the arts and crafts of Sukhothai, including statues, Buddha images and old celadon found within the old city. Important sites inside the old city walls include: Wat Mahathat, the royal temple with a giant chedi built to house Buddha relics brought from Sri Lanka; Wat Sri Sawai with its three Hindu-style prangs; Wat Traphang Thong in the centre of a large pond and its Buddha Footprint; Wat Sa Si, an attractive temple on connecting islands with a large Singhalese chedi. Wat Traphang Ngoen on the Silver Lake is the scene of the Loi Krathong festival.
To the north is Si Satchanalai Historical Park, a restored old city of temples, monuments and statues in the same vein as Sukhothai, but not quite as grand. The area is full of ancient kilns, particularly around Sawankhalok, the birthplace of celadon pottery, and many beautiful pieces unearthed are on display at the Celadon Kiln Conservation Centre.
At over 1,000 metres above sea level, Ramkhamhaeng National Park is an environmental delight, with forest and hills combined with archaeological sites and interesting ruins.
Tak is a large mountainous province with a long border touching Myanmar, giving a strong Burmese influence to the area.
Tak's main attractions are the lakes and waterways that crisscross the region. Popular cruises take visitors from the Bhumibol Dam, whose lake is the largest in Southeast Asia, through to Doi Tao in Chiang Mai. This leisurely cruise passes through spectacular scenery of mountains and waterfalls for over 140 kilometres.
Two national parks along the Mac Sot Road are popular with visitors. Taksin Maharat National Park features viewpoints, streams, cascading waterfalls and abundant wildlife, while Lan Sang has beautiful falls, walking trails and picnic areas. Serious travellers journey further, however, to the tiny village of Umphang, perched on the Myanmar border. This is the start of a remarkable adventure of whitewater rafting, trekking, elephant riding, mingling with hilltribes and the sight of Thailand's most breathtaking falls, Ti Lo Su.
The southernmost of the northern provinces, Uthai Thani only becomes mountain
ous in the western parts - the location of the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary that
merges with the Thung Yai Naresuan Sanctuary to create the largest protected animal reserve in Southeast Asia. The town is located on the bank of the Chao Phraya River.
Wat Ubonsatharam, located on an island in the river, has some beautiful old murals. Wat Sangkat Rattanakhiri houses a very beautiful Buddha image from the Sukhothai period, and the temple is the setting for the Tak Bat Devo festival marking the end of Buddhist Lent.
Originally a port on the River Nan, Uttaradit is a pretty provincial town, whose main temple, Wat Tha Thanon, houses the very sacred Luang Pho Phet, cast during the Chiang Saen period. Wat Thamma Thipatai has huge intricately carved wooden doors, over two metres wide and five metres high.
Lap Lae District is famous for its Teen-Jog design handwoven fabric, while the biggest teak tree in the world can be found Nam Pat District.