The author was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and also of G Adventures (0207 313 6938) whose five-day Northern Thailand Hilltribes Trek includes a night in a Chiang Mai hotel; three nights accommodation on the trek; all meals; transport from/back to Chiang Mai; a G Adventures Chief Experience officer and a specialist local guide.
Population: 70 million
Languages: Thai and its northern dialect Găm Méuang. Karen, Lahu, Akha and other ethnic minority languages are also spoken in numerous dialects. English is widely understood in the cities.
Time: GMT +7
International dialling code: +66
Visas: Not required for stays of up to 30 days.
Money: Thai Baht (TBH). Credit cards are widely accepted in cities, where there are also ATMs.
When to go
November to February: the north is cool (around 23°C) and dryer.
March to April: getting hotter, with temperatures often above 30°C and sometimes even breaking over 40°C, but less suitable for trekking because of smoke caused by slash-and-burn farming.
May to July: waiting for Aug-Oct monsoon season to start, when the region turns lush and green
Health & safety
See the FCO for latest travel information and entry advice.
Check out fitfortravel.nhs.uk to see which vaccines you specifically may need; it provides a malaria map. There is a risk of malaria – and also dengue fever – throughout Thailand. Pack plenty of insect repellent.
To avoid stomach upsets, follow the ‘peel it, boil it, cook it or forget it’ mantra and travel with your own water bottle, which helps avoid single-use plastic.
Qatar Airways (0330 024 0125) flies to Chiang Mai from Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh via Doha.
Regular bus services link Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. International car hire companies have offices in both cities and there are numerous outfits offering scooter hire. In cities, the tuk-tuks are an easy and fun option but can be more expensive than regular taxis.
Visiting hilltribe villages independently is not recommended. Do choose tours to them with care. Ethical travel specialist company Local Alike offers trips to CBT projects in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and to villages and regions in their orbits. A full-day Path Through A Forest, Baan Suan Pa excursion from Chiang Rai costs US$137 (£105) for up to five people. A full-day Lost Treasure in Chiang Mai tour costs US$75 (£57) pp.
Cost of travel
Thailand is excellent value by UK standards, the more so the further you travel from the cities. You can eat well in good-standard restaurants for no more than TBH400 (about £10), while a Chang beer is around BHT50 (about £1.25)
Tamarind Village. Low-rise, Lanna-style luxury amid garden setting near Chiang Mai old town.
The Legend. Tranquility and lush gardens by the Mae Nam Kok river, just outside Chiang Rai.
Akha Mud House Mae Salong. Comfortable en-suite rooms at a modern, traditional-style homestay in a mountain setting north of Chiang Rai.
Note that all homestays on the hilltribes trek are extremely basic with mattresses on the floor of shared rooms. Washing is with a bucket of cold water and toilets are holes in the ground.
Food & drink
Typical Lanna (North Thai) dishes are milder than southern food, with meat (specially pork) curries, steamed veg and deep-fried things, always served with sticky rice. More familiar Thai food is ubiquitous in the cities; many restaurants assume that foreigners don’t like it too hot; if this is not the case, ask for ‘local spicy’.
In the hilltribe villages, you will be served rice and a variety of simple dishes including pork and veg, and also often offered ‘whisky’, the strong locally-distilled rice spirit.
Further reading & information
Thailand (Lonely Planet, 2020)
Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski (Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, 2007) novel set in Northern Thailand.
Official tourist website.
Exotic birds are profuse in the forests. Look out for the outlandish-looking great hornbill with its bright yellow head and 1.5m wingspan.