Thailand’s northern highlands provide a perfect counterpoint to its sun-soaked beaches. Joanna Booth reports
Thailand’s beaches need no introduction. You know how popular they are and, come hell or high water, UK tourists will continue to want to relax on them. But they’re by no means all Thailand has to offer.
SEE: TEMPLES AND TRIBES
The north of the country is a different but equally appealing world of paddy fields, forest-clad mountains, temples with shining gold pagodas and unique hill tribes.
With regular flights from Bangkok and Phuket, Chiang Mai is usually the start or end point for a short tour of northern Thailand.
It’s the cultural centre of the region, where the 700-year old city walls encircle colourful Buddhist temples with designs reflecting the influences of Burma, Sri Lanka and Lanna, the northern Thai culture.
Though its history is integral to its appeal, it is becoming a very stylish city, with boutique hotels and sophisticated bars and restaurants. Its markets are a must-visit too, with the night bazaar particularly famous.
The Golden Triangle area outside Chiang Rai is a major draw. Tourists enjoy elephant trekking and sailing on winding rivers on traditional long-tail boats.
This spot is where Thailand, Laos and Burma meet. It was once the centre of the area’s opium production and trade, a history documented by the Hall of Opium museum.
The hill tribes have retained their traditions and dress, and visits to villages inhabited by groups such as the Akha, Yao and the Karen are incredibly popular. The last are particular famous for the brass coils the women wear around their necks.
STAY: URBAN AND RURAL LUXURY
Thai hotels are famed for their high quality, and those in the north are no exception.
Premier Holidays’ top-sellers in Chiang Mai are the luxurious 84-room Chedi, a sleekly designed hotel on the banks of the Mae Ping River, and the 198-room Royal Princess, which is in the heart of the night market.
Hayes & Jarvis clients give a thumbs-up for the good value provided by the four-star, all-suite Kantary Hills, which sits in the most up-and-coming area of the city.
However, for those who want the traditions and Lanna culture of northern Thailand to be reflected in their accommodation, the operator has added a village-style boutique, the four-star, 29-room Manathai Village.
Western & Oriental reports that its clients prefer to be just outside the city in the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai, where pavilions overlook terraced rice fields and the hotel features a cookery school and a spa.
Both Western & Oriental and Kuoni recommend two hotels outside Chiang Rai. The Anantara Golden Triangle has an amazing location overlooking Burma and Laos, and right next to the Asian Elephant Foundation, so guests can bathe an elephant, go trekking and take a three-day mahout training course.
The Four Seasons Tented Camp is even more remote, with smart jungle-tent rooms suspended in the trees. Kuoni offers an all-inclusive package that includes all meals and beverages, a spa treatment, half-day mahout training, and an excursion tour of the Golden Triangle.
SELL: HOW TO PACKAGE IT
A tour of northern Thailand can be a standalone trip in itself. Wendy Wu Tours’ Indochina programme includes a 15-day Thailand Highlights tour that showcases the best of Thai culture by focusing solely on the north.
The trip gives clients the chance to stay with a Thai family, have a cooking class and visit hill tribes. They’ll go river rafting, ride elephants, and go to a night market. The trip costs from £2,390 for departures in September and October, including flights, meals, excursions and visas as well as transportation and accommodation.
New for 2012 is Kuoni’s nine-night Treasures of Thailand tour, which starts from £1,779 including flights. Visiting Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Mai Hong Son, Pai, Doi Angkhang and Chiang Rai, the trip includes a long-tail boat ride down the Mekong, elephant trekking, and sightseeing around hill tribe villages, markets, museums and national parks.
However, Western & Oriental is taking a different approach to marketing the area this year, pushing it as part of a multi-centre with Bangkok and a beach stay.
Oscar Lopera, product manager for Thailand, says: “We want to show how easy it is for clients to combine the north and south in under two weeks and come home with a better overall experience of the country in one go. After a couple of nights in Bangkok following a long flight, we recommend clients do their northern tour before heading south for some relaxation.”
Other operators have seen success from this strategy, and many offer short tours in the north. Funway Holidays features five such tours, ranging from a two-day Elephant Driving trip to the five-day Northern Thailand Odyssey, which starts from £679 land-only. Premier Holidays’ website features six sample itineraries showcasing what the operator can tailor-make, and Virgin Holidays offers a four-day private guided tour from £539 in June.
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