After spending a few days on Koh Samui and Koh Phangan I found myself online, researching ‘off the beaten track in Thailand’. It’s not that we didn’t find the island’s in the south beautiful; parts of the islands were stunning. And we were certainly happy at first to have a few drinks and a dance and spend our days topping up our tans on the beautiful beaches.
The Full Moon Party did however make us feel slightly disgusted and embarrassed to be a tourist in this country. It was even more upsetting to hear the next day that 2 people had actually died at the party. There was something slightly sinister about Koh Phangan, and to be honest after the full moon party I couldn’t get off the island quick enough.
So we were now searching for what we believed to be the real Thailand. We wanted to be around locals, not just tourists. We wanted to escape the crowds and explore parts of the country less visited. Plus we usually prefer being in the mountains to being on a beach anyway. So after less than a week on the islands in the south, we got back on the tourist ferry to the mainland, and got on a long night bus heading North.
In my head, I knew exactly what I was hoping for. I wanted to see temples, mountains, hill tribes, paddy fields, villages of little wooden huts perched on the mountain tops, friendly locals and real Thai food. And we found it.
Here’s how to escape the crowds in Thailand:
After a stop in Bangkok, we first got a bus to Sukhothai. We arrived at our guest house starving, so immediately went out to find some food. We were staying quite a bit out of town and for the first time in Thailand we noticed that we actually had no choice in restaurants but to go local. We found a traditional and rustic little cafe and we sat down on the little plastic red stools with a fan on our faces. We were not quite sure what we had ordered, but it turned out to be delicious chicken, rice and egg.
That evening we headed back to our hotel, the sun was setting and we could hear nothing but crickets. For the first time I felt like I was finally experiencing Thailand as I had imaged; we smiled watching the hundreds of geckos eat the thousands of Mosquito’s outside our room.
The main attraction in Sukhotai is the ancient ruins. So the next day, the guest house owner pointed us in the direction of a dirt track road and said to go that way, through the village, and to get a songthaew from there to the ruins where we could then hire a bike.
We wandered along the dirt track road and entered the village of little wooden houses surrounded by beautiful countryside along the river.
Half an hour later we were almost at the town when we came across a temple, we wandered over to it only to be greeted by a little friendly monk. He didn’t speak much English, but I could tell from his hand movements that he wanted us to show us inside the building! Once inside, he was so excited to show us the temple and insisted of photographs with him in front of everything inside.
The ancient ruins (when we eventually got there) were definitely worth the stop in Sukhothai, plus there were lots of great places to grab a yummy Pad Thai! However it was seriously hot there, so we definitely recommended hiring a bike to cycle around the ruins on!
Another place I loved in Northern Thailand was Pai. We got a minibus here directly from Chiang Mai bus station. Although I must admit the small town of Pai itself is quite touristy, the main attraction is the surrounding area. It is high up in the mountains with fantastic scenery and it is a great place to either chill out for a few days (there is a great pool in the town) or grab a bike and explore the surrounding areas.
Thai Elephant Conservation Centre
One thing I had always dreamed of doing was that I wanted to see Elephants. But extremely aware of the issues of cruelty to elephants in Thailand I searched for a more sustainable option and we visited the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. The centre cares for more than 50 elephants and is located in a beautiful forest. This sustainable option is also lots cheaper than other, more touristy options to see elephants. Plus, there was even an adorable elephant nursery and an elephant hospital and at night we slept in a rustic wooden bungalow in the jungle. We went for a walk in the evening and ended up walking past where the elephants go to sleep at night, there were no other people around and they were completely in the wild.
The conservation centre is near Lampang and can be reached via bus from Chiang Mai. The bus stops right outside, just make sure to let the driver know in advance where you want to get off! Your stay at the Thai elephant conservation centre as well as any overnight stay in a bungalow on site can be booked online in advance on their website for a reasonable cost.
Our next bus further north was also from Chiang Mai and we decided we were going to get off the bus at Chiang Dao. The bus was completely full but a mother and her son moved up in the small 2 person chair and made space for me, I sat there sweating in-between 2 families as people were also sat down the isle. The bus went higher and higher into the jungle, it was so humid, we were glad when it started to rain!
Chiang Dao was a small town conveniently located on our way to the far north of Thailand. A main attraction of this town is a 5km walk away; to a cave I had read about which sounded amazing called Wat Tham Chiang Dao. The walk in the heat seemed long, but a friendly Thai man stopped and let us climb in the back of his van to save us walking.
The cave inside was even more amazing than we imagined. A local lady gave us a tour around it with her lantern as it wasn’t safe to walk it alone in the dark, we had to squeeze through some tiny spaces, it was scary at times as there were some pretty big spiders…
That evening we were approached by the owner of our hotel and invited out for drinks with them for the beginning of celebrations for Songkran. Another example of how friendly and welcoming the locals are in this part of Thailand, we instantly accepted, excited at the idea, and hopped on the back of their scooters to a little spot by the river where we sat on a bamboo mat with a little table and to our happiness a large amount of beer.
We met their friends and they ordered lots and lots of Thai food, mainly fish, and lots and lots of beer and whiskey. The evening was relaxing and lovely, I was so glad we had come to Chiang Dao.
We were now in the far north of Thailand. So north that from here you can see the Burmese mountains! We got another local bus to Tha Thon, direct from Chiang Dao.
In Tha Thon we stayed in a local lady’s house. Just as we arrived she had to go away for the weekend so they left us in charge of the house! The next day we got up early and took their bikes out for a ride, we went through some lovely countryside and past cute little villages. There was also a local morning market which we visited and if you’re feeling active, you can climb up a small mountain to see the wonderful views which overlook the Burmese mountains.
From Tha Thon we then got 2 buses to take us to our final stop in Northern Thailand. The first bus took us to Chiang Rai, we only spent the afternoon here but it was lovely and another place that seemed far away from clicking cameras and herds of tourists. The next bus took us to our final stop; Chiang Khong at the Laos / Thai border. During this part of the journey I saw my first glimpse of hill tribe people and their villages perched high in the mountain tops. After a 1 night stopover in the border town we then continued the journey into the mountains of Northern Laos, where we continued to enjoy the mountain scenery, traditional villages, friendly locals and moments away from all the crowds.
So that’s how we escaped the crowds in Thailand. Have you been to Thailand? Did you find somewhere truly authentic too? Are you thinking of going but would like further advice?
Please share your recommendations or questions with me in the comments below!