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Visiting Thailand was something that had always been number one on my bucket list. Growing up in New York, I had a strong desire to visit a place that was so different from my life in the US. From its landscape to its culture, Thailand was in many ways the exact opposite of New York City, and I loved that.
In fact, when I began planning my trip around the world, I based the entire journey around being in Thailand for the month of November to experience the Loi Krathong Lantern Festival. This is a once a year weekend of pure magic when thousands of candlelit lanterns float into the sky. I thought this would be the highlight of my trip. However, what I discovered, thanks to my Marco Polo guidebook, was that Northern Thailand offers much more than the lantern festival. It offers truly authentic cultural experiences that are unmatched anywhere else in the world.
Before arriving in Chiang Mai, I sat down for a few hours with my handy guidebook to read about the best things to do in this beautiful country. I love these books because they cover more than others. They are the perfect hybrid between a glossy travel magazine and an informative local guide. The photography is stunning; there is a pull out map, interesting stories, and custom walking tours. It’s ideal for any type of traveler, especially those that love adventure.
Here are the top four experiences you need to do in Northern Thailand based on my experience of living there for a month.
A Chiang Mai Cooking Class
I always say you learn the most about a place through its food. It’s no secret that Thai cuisine is extremely addictive. Though Thai restaurants are found around the world today, there is nothing that compares to enjoying authentic Thai cuisine. Dishes generally include rice or noodles sautéed with fresh vegetables in a wok. It’s a spicy, savory party for your taste buds.
Taking a cookery class is a fantastic way to understand the culture more deeply and bring the gift of Thailand to your friends and family at home. I took a class with Smile Organic Farms that was about $25 for a half-day experience and included learning four different dishes, a take-home cookbook with 50 recipes, and a garden tour in which students could pick fresh ingredients for their meals. The class was located on a farm nestled amongst rice fields about 45 minutes from the Chiang Mai city center.
Experiencing Loi Krathong Lantern Festival
This once in a lifetime festival happens in November in Chiang Mai to celebrate new beginnings. Over the course of a weekend, thousands of candle lit lanterns are flown into the sky, fireworks go off, a traditional Thai parade with majestic costumes glides through the city, and thousands of small flower covered candlelit boats float down the river. There is simply nothing else like it. It’s truly like being in a fairytale.
I timed my trip around the world so that I would be in Chiang Mai for this festival. It is seriously that epic. As someone who has attended, my most important tip is that you do not need to buy tickets to see the lanterns. Many sites advertise a touristy version of the festival that costs about $100 per person. However, a better and more local experience is going to Old Town Chiang Mai and watching the lanterns from there. Thousands of people release lanterns all over the city, and it is impossible not to see them if you’re in Chiang Mai. Don’t go to the ticketed event, simply go to Old Town, buy a lantern for less than a dollar, and release it yourself.
Kayak through Tham Lod Cave
If you’ve ever wanted to go caving, then this experience is for you. One of the many unique activities that peaked my interest while reading my Marco Polo book was a journey to Tham Lot (4 hours north of Chiang Mai) to visit their scenic caves with a river running through it.
The book had a wonderful driving route to get to the caves, which included several stops to make the journey more interesting. A few of my favorites were walking along the treetop canopy at Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens, and exploring the hippie town of Pai. There is also a full driving loop in the book past Tham Lot with tons of other interesting stops that I would have loved to visit if given the time.
However, kayaking in the dark caverns was easily the star of this quick weekend trip to Tham. As I paddled along in my kayak, bamboo rafts lit by lanterns floated past. The passengers were Buddhist monks in traditional wear, a sighting so unbelievable I had to blink to make sure it was real.
To do this experience, I recommend staying at the Cave Lodge and booking their two-hour kayaking trip. The kayaking involves small rapids and two ten foot drops over waterfalls, so only join if you are an experienced kayaker. However, another option is to simply do the bamboo raft tour, which is peaceful and involves no rapids or waterfall drops.
Jungle Trek and Local Tribe Home Stay Experience
Above all, the most incredible experience I had in Thailand was doing a three-day jungle trek. This life-changing journey is something I would have never known about had it not been for my extremely insightful guidebook.
The trek begins each day with a two to three hour hike through beautiful jungle trails, along rice fields, and over small streams. Eventually, the forest clears and a new village would emerge in the distance each night. We would make dinner with the tribe’s people and learn about their town and culture. Then at night, we would sleep in stilted wooden huts. During one campfire conversation, we learned that the homes were originally built on stilts to keep tigers out of homes, and although there are no tigers today, the tradition continues.
There are several trekking companies to choose from. I did a three-day trek with Piroon. It was easily in the top three most memorable travel experiences I’ve ever had. On the last day of the trek, bamboo rafts were built and we floated down the river, swung from vines into the water, and left with life long trekking friends. The experience got me addicted to trekking and I’m already planning future trips!
A trip to Northern Thailand is not complete without a bit of adventure. If you’re visiting the area, I recommend picking up a Marco Polo guidebook. It will provide you with historical, spiritual, and culinary knowledge about Thailand. Plus, they have hundreds of great tips and advice, several self-driving or walking tours, and a fold out map. My trip wouldn't have been as fantastic without out!