Northern Thailand tour
(3-4*) & most meals as per itinerary.
(Visas & local tips not included.) Return flights from the UK from £500 & optional single room supplement £320 (Fully licensed, ATOL protected.)
Description of Northern Thailand tour
Our 2-week Hidden Thailand tour takes you by road, rail and river from the vibrant, ever-fascinating capital Bangkok through some of the least-known, yet most spectacular, landscapes of the kingdom.
Along the way we’ll discover the back streets, local markets and street-life of Bangkok, as well as its famous sites and explore the atmospheric ancient temples and lotus ponds of World Heritage Sukhothai. From here we continue north to historic Lampang, the centre for the 19th-century teak trade and home to an impressive stock of period architecture, and picturesque Phayao Town with its lakeside setting and waterfront cafes.
Onwards and upwards we reach the dramatic Phu Chee Fah Range overlooking the Mekong and forests of northwest Laos and head into Chiang Rai Province and the Golden Triangle itself. In recent times notorious for opium caravans and drug warlords today these rugged hills are famous for their bucolic scenery, tea and fruit plantations and colourful hill-tribe minorities.
This fascinating and varied tour includes a unique, behind the scenes look at Bangkok; sunrise over the Mekong from the ‘Gates of Siam’ and sunset amid the crumbling splendour of the ancient capital of Sukhothai. We’ll also take in Lampang’s famous Elephant Hospital, walk around the 13th-century ramparts of old Chiang Saen and travel by boat down the Kok River from mountain-top Mae Salong – founded by fleeing remnants of the Kuomintang’s ‘lost army’ after defeat by Mao in the Chinese civil war – to Chiang Rai Town and on to our final destination, charming Chiang Mai.
Ancient history, more recent history, everyday life and culture and of course the opportunity to meet plenty of the particularly friendly residents and sample the world-renowned food. Combined with some truly awe-inspiring scenery Hidden Thailand makes for a wonderful tour of the country’s famous sites plus many of its lesser-known secrets.
1. A unique tour of Bangkok's famous sites and everyday life by public transport
2. Sunset at World Heritage ancient Sukhothai with its atmospheric lotus pools and ruined temples
3. The picturesque, historic and charming Mekong towns of Chiang Khong and Chiang Saen
4. Visit the remote and awe-inspiring Phu Chee Fah mountains for dawn at the 'Gates of Siam'
5. Scenic boat trip through the forests and mountains of the picturesque Kok River
6. Local markets, street and village life, lashings of great food, including regional specialities
1. Add on a 4-day mini-tour to Kanchanaburi and stay on floating raft houses on the River Kwai
2. Fly from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang to explore this World Heritage Town
3. Head to Koh Chang or Koh Mak for some quality post tour island time
4. Cross the Burmese border to discover the myriad hill-tribes and mountain scenery of remote and rarely visited Shan State
Note groups sizes are 2 to maximum 12 persons with most meals (local-style) included and accommodation in 3 to 4* hotels.
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1 Reviews of Northern Thailand tour
Reviewed on 11 Apr 2012 by Lorrie MarchingtonGreat guides. Both Wi and Aor were great company and very knowledgeable.
Hotels: Queen’s Garden hotel not up to western standards and we couldn’t walk anywhere from there. However, food and staff were good.
Hotel Mae Salong Villa – really uncomfortable bed, mainly because of thick lumpy duvet – too cold without it, but too hot and uncomfortable with it. Thin blanket would be better. Food here was much more expensive than the other places we stayed, and it felt a little like a rip off. Small pots of steamed rice are charged for. I had the speciality – lamb, but this was all it was. A huge piece of meat (enough for 4 people) but no vegetables at all. Least favourite place to stay and eat.
Chiang Rai Wangcome. Nice – great bed and bedding.
Karinthrip Chiang Mai. Nice place to stay though the rooms were very dingy even with the lights on.
Baan Suan Hotel Thaton. Lovely place.
Bangkok Viengai. Not an area for us – we hated the hellish streets around – crowded with the worst types of European visitors to Thailand. Would have preferred a quieter area.
The most disappointing thing for me was the visit to the Elephant camp. (Mae Tang). I was surprised we went to such a place with a responsible travel company. The elephant show was so sad – elephants made to perform. The little elephant being made to draw was showing real signs of stress – we left at this point. Similarly, the elephants that were tied up were swaying (something we understand to be a sign of stress). Finally, the elephant on which we rode around the camp was struggling all the way to walk. I am not sure if it was ill, or old and tired, but it was painful to watch him struggle on. It still brings tears to my eyes when i think of all this. Lonely planet seems to mention some genuine elephant conservation places in northern Thailand, it would be better to skip the elephants or to visit one of these places.
Finally, i guess we didn’t like the tourist places that piled them high and processed people through – this would include Mae Tang. We avoided eating at another elephant camp and loved the small individually owned eateries and markets that Wi took us to.
Read the operator's response here:
Thailand, and to a degree Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, see the employment of elephants in the tourism industry. There is a huge population of domesticated elephants in Thailand, many of which have been domesticated for generations. They were used for transportation of goods and people, by the military, as well as for working in industries such as logging and agriculture but are now practically never used in any of these fields.
Domesticated elephants generally breed more rapidly, have a much lower death rate amongst the young and live to be older than their wild counterparts - due to better conditions, sufficient food and lack of predators.
It is unfortunately extremely difficult to rehabilitate Asian elephants born in captivity, to live in the wild, plus the current Thai wild elephant population is relatively stable and probably more or less optimal for the amount of remaining forest cover.
Keeping domesticated elephants is very expensive so, unless they are able to be employed in the tourism industry, there is absolutely no solution for many owners other than to have their animals put down. Many unemployed mahouts bring their animals into tourist cities such as Phuket, Chiang Mai, Phnom Penh begging to tourists. ("Buy some bananas for the elephant?") It is not uncommon to see a poor elephant walking down an 8-lane highway heading into downtown Bangkok and we strongly discourage the practice of feeding elephants in towns in this way, although clearly alternative sources of employment for the mahouts and their animals need to be provided.
Having elephants play football to entertain tourists is certainly not an ideal solution but, in view of the above, and indeed lack of any reasonable alternatives, we would certainly condone the use of elephants in the tourist industry. Out of the thousands of mahouts in Thailand, there may well be some less scrupulous than others, but in our many years of experience of visiting elephant camps, the vast majority seem to be very well run and the animals very well cared for.
If we ever have bad reports of a particular mahout then he gets reported to the management of the camp, and if we ever suspect the management of condoning such activities, the camp gets reported to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. (Since it is a key aspect of tourism in Thailand. TAT are genuinely concerned to ensure that all elephant camps are run correctly.) Elephants that are subject to excessive coercion are not going to be suitable for tourism anyway and an elephant that is scared is very dangerous - to his mahout let alone anyone else. Elephants are also notoriously stubborn animals and it is nigh on impossible to teach one of them to do tricks that it is not happy doing. So finally – the majority of elephants employed in the tourism industry are well looked after and no more mistreated than any other domesticated animal be it for example cat, dog or horse.
PlanetOur Hidden Thailand tour is a small group, low impact guided tour of off the beaten track regions of northern Thailand. We limit the number of participants to a maximum of 12 persons accompanied by a licensed Thai tour-leader well-versed in sustainable tourism practices along with, where applicable, local guides sourced at the destinations.
We believe such small-sized groups create less impact both on the environment and on the local communities visited during the tour as well as giving a higher staff-guest ratio which facilitates the imparting of relevant information. This includes environmental guidelines as well as cultural dos and don’ts while creating the potential for more genuine interaction with said communities and residents encountered along the way.
In emphasizing the lesser-known destinations as well as the famous ones the tour helps to spread the financial benefits of tourism to areas that don’t usually receive tourist groups, thus stimulating employment in such areas as well as relieving pressure on the more popular sites.
Limited numbers also permit us to dispense with hired (bus) transport as much as possible and so we employ public transport – local buses and taxis – for shorter journeys while the longest transfer involved – Bangkok to Sukhothai –is done by train. Our Bangkok day tour is conducted using entirely public transport.
Entrance fees to historical sites – including ones not normally on standard tourist itineraries – contribute towards site management and protection as well as staff salaries. These include Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai, Wat Chalerm Phrakiet (Lampang), Chiang Saen Historical Park and Mae Fah Luang Botanical Gardens.
We also include visits to national parks and protected areas such as Phu Chee Fah Forest Park, Phayao Lake and Phu Sang and Lam Nam Kok national parks.
We’ve now introduced large drinking water containers on all transport so guests can refill personal flasks instead of single-use plastic bottles.
PeopleSmall group sizes allow us to use correspondingly smaller accommodation options and we endeavour to select locally-owned, run and staffed family-style hotels employing genuine responsible tourism practices. It also allows us to use small cafes, street food and markets for meals and drinks breaks – off limits to larger groups – which is of direct benefit to local communities as well as providing a far more authentic eating experience and interaction for our guests.
All staff are fully-licensed Thai nationals and accommodation used is small scale and locally owned and staffed. Drivers and local guides are fully briefed on sustainable and responsible tourism practices.
Off the beaten track destinations on this itinerary include Lampang, Phayao, Phu Chee Fah, Chiang Saen and Mae Salong. In the latter we also include a visit to a community-based tourism scheme in a village of the Akha minority while in the former we visit and donate to the Lampang Elephant Hospital.
A specific project relating to this tour is our own support for a kindergarten and day-care scheme in a border village near Mae Salong. The project is entirely organised and managed by our All Points East Thailand office with donations from guests and involves providing financial and material assistance to a nursery school providing day care and basic education for nursery and pre-nursery age kids thus allowing both parents to take up full time employment. Materials include educational items as well as blankets, mattresses and mosquito nets etc. Children are from underprivileged minority – mainly Akha and Lisu - and Shan refugee families from Myanmar. The village is very remote so, although it isn’t practical to include on our itinerary, we organize a non-profit annual visit for anyone wishing to join. (More details and photos of this scheme can be found on our website.)