Understanding life in north east Thailand means revelling in the rustic, earthy nature of the mountainous landscapes, as well as appreciating that all that's ‘golden’ doesn't necessarily glitter. Avoid the infamous Golden Triangle tour box-ticker – it's literally just a speedboat ride – and go for something more with more depth instead. Invest time in the markets, cooking schools and temples of Chiang Rai; explore the mountains around the even less well-known town of Fang; and enjoy the rural sanctuary of Elephant Valley, where you can observe animals in an environment that's wild, peaceful and absolutely unforgettable.
Obviously there's a lot more, this is just to get you started...
There's a genuine provincial charm to Chiang Rai. The banks of the Kok River are largely undeveloped, and night markets are for hanging out with friends and family rather than seeking out souvenirs. There's plenty of Thai hustle and bustle, however, balanced by a couple of fantastical temples offering opulent oases of calm. This is a city that's small enough to get around on foot, but large enough to take a tuk tuk or borrow a bike to get a real feel for the place. Most travellers come here as a stopover before heading out to hill tribe villages, but if you stay a little longer you'll discover a side to northern Thailand that's still more or less unaffected by mass tourism.
There's something about the rooted, rustic nature of Fang that's instantly relaxing. People are friendly and welcoming, and visitors from distant shores are still treated as something of a novelty. Explore beyond the ramshackle wooden houses on the edge of town and you'll find tea plantations and trekking trails leading deeper into the jungle. Thin slivers of smoke rise from the fires of tribal communities living in the mountains. These hill tribes have embraced trekking tourism alongside preserving and promoting their distinct cultural beliefs and traditions. The experiences are genuine, not enhanced for visitors, much the same as the town of Fang itself.
Watching an elephant in its natural habitat is not an everyday occurrence for most of us, and something that many will happily go the extra mile for. Steer well clear of any elephant riding tours, which are neither authentic nor animal welfare ethical, and visit one of the region’s inspiring conservation projects instead. The Elephant Valley Project, just outside Chiang Rai, is exceptional. This is a sanctuary run for elephants not tourists. It's somewhere that people come to observe elephants living naturally, and even volunteer to help out. Don't expect daily performances or photo ops - Elephant Valley is a natural environment where you can contribute to conservation in the best way possible.
A journey through northern Thailand for an eco-focussed exploration of local Lahu traditions and culture in the hills of Chiang Mai.