Thailand's second city offers shopping and crafts to rival its capital, but within a much more compact and friendly framework. Chiang Mai has 400,000 people and an easily-walkable city centre, at the heart of which is the famous night-bazaar. The 'rose of the north', as it's dubbed, is the perfect place to spend some time learning about the Thai way of life - including cookery or massage courses - or simply to relax and shop after a trekking trip. The town also boasts river-cruises, gardens and zoos, and the usual plethora of colourful temples, which give an insight into its heritage as the capital of the historic, semi-independent kingdom of Lanna ('a million rice-fields'). Don't miss Doi Suthep, a 14th-century pilgrimage site approached by a flight of 290 Naga (dragon)-flanked steps - or a funicular railway if you prefer.
The region's other raison d'être is the superb mountain and river scenery stretching away to the Burmese (Myanmar) and Laos borders, abounding in natural wildlife and peopled by hill-tribes. Almost every visitor takes part in some kind of trek, usually a multi-day combination of hiking, rafting and elephant-riding, with the result that some of the trails turn into production lines in high season.
Equally exotic is the 'Golden Triangle' where Burma, Laos and Thailand converge, north of the burgeoning town of Chiang Rai. It's famous for the now-defunct opium trade, but today is of more interest for its hill-studded countryside and its access to the mighty Mekhong river.
One of Chiang Mai's best regional dishes (which you won’t find in your local Thai takeaway) is khao soi, a delicate coconut-curry soup with crispy fried egg noodles and a big dollop of smoky dried chilli on top. The classic is made with chicken, and it's always served with a little side dish of pickled cabbage, tiny sliced shallots, and a big squeeze of lime. It is said to cure hangovers…
Wat Phra Sing is the most famous of Chiang Mai's temples, but we found the adjacent Lai Kham chapel much more atmospheric, with exquisite wood-carvings and northern-style murals. The monks and apprentices are friendly and chatted to us in English.
Photo by JJ Harrison
Kids will love floating down the Kok river in a bamboo raft from Tha Ton to Chiang Rai (especially if you overnight at a jungle hut en route, or visit Ruammit Village to feed and ride elephants.)
We recommend the treks and tours run by Asian Oasis, based around their charming and award-winning Lisu Lodge. They offer everything from soft-adventure day-trips to a 4-day jungle trek. We opted for a 3-day multi-activity combining hiking, rafting, tribe-visits and an elephant ride, staying in Lisu Farm and the basic, remote 'Lahu Outpost'.
Northern Thailand is amazing for birding so be sure to pack your binoculars. Grasslands reveal bushchats and stonechats, and between November and January the Mekong is used as a flyway by bar-headed geese, ruddy shelduck, greylag geese, mandarin ducks, terns and migratory waders including swan geese and baikal teal.
Cruising along the wide and misty Mekhong river - over the border into Laos - aboard a restored barge is magical. The best section is from Pakse to Khong Island, stopping to visit the pre-Angkorian temple of Vat Phou and the 'Niagara of the East' waterfalls at Khong Pha Peng. You will need to book this in advance, and have your passport and a visa.
Photo by Hiroo Yamagata