Thailand’s northern region is largely mountainous and covered in dense jungle. Many important rivers emerge from the area including the Nan, Ping, Wang and Yom, which converge at Sakhon Sawan to form the Chao Phraya which runs through Bangkok. The soil here is fertile and farming is widespread. Over the centuries, the north has supported a number of civilisations, and continues to be a significant centre of population today.
Attractions that you’ll encounter in this area include historical parks, mountains, dams, lakes, elephant training camps and, of course, a number of important Buddhist temples. In the listings that follow, provincial locations and distances from main towns and cities are indicated. It’s a good idea to consult a road map or see here for more detail. We’ve covered all the highlights that haven’t already been featured in their own sections or pages on the site, listing those in the far North first to Chiang Mai.
Doi Tung (Chiang Rai)
This is a mountain that’s located in the Mae Fa Luang district, just under 40kms north of Chiang Rai city. From highway 110, a left turn onto road number 1149 which takes you to Doi Tung. Sites along the final stretch include villages of the Akha and Muser hilltribes, and also the Mae Fa Luang Garden and the Doi Tung Palace. There are spectacular view points along the way to the top, and at the summit you’ll find the Phra That Doi Tung religious site, at around 2,000m above sea level. Open: 07:30-17:30 (daily).
Mae Salong (Chiang Rai)
This hilltop settlement with stunning views is noted as a tea growing region with a distinctive Chinese character, having been settled by KMT refugees who escaped the Maoist takeover in the forties. It’s a nice place to stop over for a night and is easily accessible from Chiang Rai…more on Mae Salong
Doi Angkhang (Chiang Mai)
This remote corner of the north juts into Burma and offers a real frontier wilderness experience. These highlands are an unspoilt mountainous area with a few resorts, hilltribe villages and Royal Projects. Once an opium growing area, it’s now a popular yet untouristy getaway in the north.
Wat Phra That Hariphunchai (Lamphun)
Built around 800 years ago during the reign of King Arthitayarat, this wat is dominated by a 150ft tall golden chedi. Its appearance today is basically the same as in 1443, after its last restoration. This temple is a reverred place of worship, and its importance is reflected in many architectural details. These include the brick doorway arch embellished with intricate designs, the lion sculptures flanking the arch, a square-shaped chedi and a Khmer-style Buddha image. The Hariphunchai National Museum is located opposite the wat, where you’ll find exhibits and displays highlighting the archaeology and history of Lamphun. Open: 06:00-16:00 (Wed to Sun).
Utthayan Muang Kao Phichit
The remains of a town more than 900 years old, dating to the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods, were unearthed in this park originally located on the banks of the Nan River. The ancient town, known as Muang Sa Luang, was surrounded by a city wall and moat. Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat is found at the centre and features a large, bell-shaped chedi containing hundreds of votive tablets. The remains of a wihan are found in front of the main chedi, and you’ll see dozens of smaller chedi throughout the site. Open: daily.
Kwan Phayao (Phayao)
This is the source of livelihood for many people of the upper northern part of Thailand. Kwan Phayao is the largest of the freshwater fish habitats in the north. The area is particularly scenic, and as sunset approaches the colours can be stunning. Recreation sites are spread along the banks, as are food stalls. Open: always.
Wat Luang (Phrae)
This ancient temple dates to the founding of the city of Phrae, although it has been restored several times since then. Major features of the complex include the wihan and the chedi – which enshrines a relic brought to Wat Luang from Burma – and also a museum, where you’ll see a Buddha statue that’s 500 years old and also an ancient Lanna-style wooden construction. Open: daily.
Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (Lampang)
Located in Thung Kwian forest around 30kms from the city of Lampang, this facility is the only one in the world where elephants are taught to work in the timber industry. Visitors can see training demonstrations and performances two or three times each day, and also ride on the back of an elephant to see the surrounding habitat. Wooden elephant carving is also demonstrated. Open: 08:00-15:30 (daily), website.
Bhumibol Dam (Tak)
The largest dam in Thailand is named after the current King (Rama IX), and is located around 50kms north of the provincial capital. The dam, which is on the Mae Ping River, has created a very large lake that extends as far as Chiang Mai province. There are a number of accommodation options near the dam.
Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park (Kamphaeng Phet)
This UNESCO World Heritage site incorporates the architectural remains of three ancient settlements. Muang Chakangrao is located on the east side of the Ping River, Muang Nakhon Chum is on the west side and Muang Trai Trung is located a little over 10 miles to the southwest of the city of Kamphaeng Phet. Open: 09:00-17:00 (daily).
Wat Phra Si Mahathat (Phitsanulok)
Known as Wat Yai (big temple) by local residents, it’s located on the eastern bank of the Nan River within the city of Phitsanulok. The bronze statue of the Buddha in a seated position housed in the wihan here is often referred to as the most graceful and beautiful in the country. The image, known as Phra Phutthachinarat, attracts hundreds of visitors daily who come from all over Thailand, and other countries, to pay their respects and also to make merit. Open: always.
Sirikit Dam (Uttaradit)
Around 50kms from Uttaradit city, in Tha Pla district, you’ll find the Sirikit Dam, named after the current Queen of Thailand. The dam, on the Nan River, is around 800m long, and has created a massive lake surrounded by scenic hilly terrain. In the cool season, which is roughly December to January, the area around the lake bursts into bloom. Accommodation is available nearby, as are boats to take you around the water. Open: daily.
Si Thep Historical Park (Phetchabun)
Remains of this prosperous town, dating from the 11th-18th centuries of the Buddhist era, give an idea of the extent of the size of Si Thep. The settlement was the link between the Khmer kingdom to the east and the Dvaravati kingdom to the south. In all, more than 100 structures once stood here, built of bricks and laterite. Ponds were strategically located throughout the site, and remains of many can be seen today. Artefacts that have been recovered include architectural pieces such as decorative lintels, plaster designs and the sema stones used to indicate the boundaries of Buddhist temple areas. Human skeletons bearing ornamentation have also been recovered during excavations. Open: 08:30-16:30 (daily).
Bung Boraphet (Nakhon Sawan)
This is the country’s largest fresh-water lake, covering an area of more than 120 square miles. In addition to its appeal to tourists, the lake also serves as a nature study site. The southern part of the area has been set aside as a water fowl sanctuary, where hunting is prohibited. Open: always.