by Hank Leukart
April 3, 2006
Don’t miss these seven out-of-the-way Northern Thailand must-sees
Visit Thee Lo Su Waterfall, ride a motorcycle, see a political protest, and more.
A woman makes an umbrella at the factory in Bor Sang near Chiang Mai
ost people planning a trip to Thailand easily figure out that Bangkok’s Grand Palace, the Wat Pho reclining Buddah, Khao San Road, and the Chiang Mai night bazaar are must-sees. But what about others places and attractions that aren’t as obvious? Here’s my list of seven, out-of-the-way must-sees in northern Thailand:
Thee Lo Su Waterfall, Um Phang: Waterfalls abound in Thailand’s jungles, so no matter what, you should spend time swimming under one. But Thee Lo Su is the largest waterfall in Thailand. The Huai Klotho river cascades over a multi-tiered 984-ft limestone cliff, and the best part is the cliff-jumping from the top of a couple of the tiers, providing an exhilarating morning wake-up plunge.
A day on a motorcycle, anywhere: I spent two days on a motorcycle: one near the jungles of remote Um Phang, and the other climbing Doi Tung mountain in the Golden Triangle. No matter where you decide to do it, make sure you rent a bike and enjoy a day with the wind in your hair on super-curvy, super-steep roads. It’s even better if they’re unpaved. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.
The Umbrella Making Center in Bor Sang near Chiang Mai: The Chiang Mai night market is famous (you shouldn’t miss it), but the area around Chiang Mai is full of other great shopping opportunities. For almost no cost, any taxi driver will happily take you on a wacky tour of Chiang Mai’s handicraft economy. Chiang Mai taxi drivers get commission for doing this, which is the kind of tourist trap you normally want to avoid, but the charm of this trip is worth it. They’ll take you to The Umbrella Making Center, a small factory where umbrellas are handmade and hand-painted; a silk factory complete with silkworms and looms; and a jewelry factory. Afterward, if you still haven’t found what you want, pick any product and ask to see it; the taxi drivers are knowledgeable about exactly where to go — and it’ll be the only taxi ride you take in Thailand for which the driver doesn’t try to overcharge you.
A Thai political protest: The Thai government still has a long road toward stability (I count seven government coups in the last 25 years), and this is nowhere more apparent than in Bangkok, where political protests abound. During my time in Thailand, the country was bogged down in a fierce battle between Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the Democratic Party. Enormous 20,000-person protests blocked streets and unknown parties planted bombs at polling places and at the headquarters of the Democratic party. While I left Bangkok quickly before the protests reached their height, I did walk through a protest near the Grand Palace. You’ll never have more respect for the U.S. government’s stability — despite its faults — than after experiencing Thai politics.
The Anantara Resort and Hall of Opium in Ban Sop Ruak (The Golden Triangle): The sumptuous Anantara Resort will make you wonder how you spent the rest of your trip in $5 US per night guesthouses, until you see the bill. But by U.S. standards, $170 US per night for the cheapest room is a huge bargain considering the quality of this resort; the service is not as polished as Bangkok’s famous Oriental Hotel (the Oriental makes even some U.S. hotel service look dismal) and their breakfast buffet pales in comparison, but the Anantara’s staff will arrange for anything you ask with a smile on their face. When I arrived in the middle of the night in Chiang Saen with not a taxi available for miles, they sent a car to pick me up, no questions asked. When I wanted a motorcycle for the day, they arranged one for me with locals at a fair price. The spa’s Thai massages can’t be beat (though the Chiang Mai night bazaar is the place to go for the best value), their Thai food is excellent, and their gorgeous infinity pool has a hot tub in the middle of the pool. Don’t stay for more than a day or two — you’ll get spoiled — but make sure that while you’re there, you visit the Hall of Opium across the street. You’ll never learn more about opium production, and the opium den recreations and entrance hall that supposedly simulates the experience of being high are bizarre.
A trip down the Mekong River: I know, my essays about the “slow boat” and the “speed boat” don’t exactly make a trip down the Mekong sound enticing — but really, it’s worth it. The scenery is unbeatable and the rustic, ridiculous experience can’t be duplicated. If you really feel like you have to, you can take a luxury boat, but you’ll be missing out on the grittiness of the fun.
The Mae Sot market on the Burmese border: The Bangkok and Chiang Mai markets get most of the tourist attention (for good reason), but the great thing about the Mae Sot market on the Burmese border is that it doesn’t cater to tourists. The market’s food is brilliant, but the most stimulating part is seeing so many Burmese refugees in traditional dress go through their daily routines. If you’re looking to get away from the tourist-oriented markets, check this one out. Leave lots of time to find the “right” bus when you’re ready to leave — no one speaks English and most of the bus “stations” are street corners where locals know to gather to go to a particular destination.