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Where is best in Northern Thailand?!

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Hi all! My family and I are planning to head to Thailand this December and have room in our itinerary to spend up to 5 days in the North. We are struggling to choose between the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces. We would love a place that is not to over crowded with easy access to great high altitude hikes. We would love to witness some authentic culture and markets in the city (or as close as we can get) without the streets being overrun with too many commercial type businesses. We would also love to see some agriculture fields and or terraces as well as hikes that allow my family and I to visit a hill tribe. If we were to travel to Chiang Rai, we were thinking of maybe spending a day or two in Mae Salong or Mae Sai (which ever location has more of a quite and authentic atmosphere). If we were to travel to Chiang Mai, we considered spending a few days in Mae Hong Son or Chiang Dao. We are also open to looking into any other places in the north that you think may suit our experience better!
Thanks for the help!

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    A difficult choice. Both are very different. Chiang Rai is much, much quieter than Chiang Mai and sees far fewer tourists. There is a terrific walking market on a Saturday night which is more "authentic" than those in Chiang Mai which is a bit of a tourist zoo. The White Temple and Black House are the main tourism draws to CR and both are pretty impressive - some photos on our blog from last year @

    Mai Salong is tea country and, if you rent a car, is a nice drive with great scenery, from Chiang Rai. Not a huge amount to do once you get there apart from a few hikes. I really wouldn't bother with Mai Sai which is just another tacky border town and a long way to go.

    It is a long time since we did some trekking to the minority villages in the north but to see anything remotely authentic, you do need to trek for a couple of days and I wouldn't advise going anywhere near Chiang Mai.

    Chiang Mai has some of the best food anywhere in Thailand, it has some interesting Wats and of course Doi Suthep, the hilltop temple just outside the city.

    Given your interests and the time you have available, if you are happy renting a self drive car, I would spend a night in CM and then drive the Mai Hong Sorn loop see for details.

    Mai Hong Sorn itself is getting more tourists these days but still sees lots of minority people coming into town from the surrounding villages. fern Resort is a great place to stay and, being a little out of town, has some good hikes direct from the property. They can also organise CBT hikes to the surrounding villages. En route to MHS there is Pai, a more developed riverside town but worth a day maybe for some rafting.
    We really liked Soppong, especially the Soppong River Inn. Caves and rivers to explore as well as a great local market. Further on Mai Sariang is a less visited town, very quiet but a real "local" experience.

    Continuing on around the loop takes you through Doi Inthanon National Park. Beautiful mountain scenery. Take some warm clothes as it is one of the few places in Thailand where it gets really cold at night. Plenty to see and do in the area.

    We visited Chiang Dao last year but left early because of the smoke due to the burnings. Shouldn't be an issue in December which is the best time to visit the north. The reason we went there was mainly for the hiking but didn't get to do any because of the smoke but it is supposed to be very pretty around that area. The Chiang Dao caves are quite impressive.

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    'Authentic' people? Everyone is Thai, in Thailand, except the farangs, alien people who may be any color.

    Are teen-agers authentic or only old women with canes smoking tiny pipes? Those girls and ladies with the huge brass rings around the neck, the so-called 'long necks', continue that tradition ONLY for money obtained from gawkers. Would you pay to see Chinese women with bound feet?

    Anyway, I liked Mae Sai, a border town. Lots of foot traffic between the countries, small traders and the like. An extensive and interesting night food bazaar along the main street was outstanding. Can't say Myanmar worth the effort, seemed v dirty and poor.

    Chiang Mai is the center of north Thailand so that should be your first stop. Look and ask around for those treks etc that interest you. Plenty of good walking in CM town, early am is best as vehicle exhaust pollution extreme.

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    Hi Jobin,
    I do not recall mentioning "authentic people" in my question; just simply asking about hill tribes all in good nature. Not at all trying to offend anyone or receive negative feedback. I am just trying to avoid tourist traps in Thailand and based on your post I take it that you see hill tribe villages as one. Thank you for your suggestions on Mae Sai...they are well appreciated.

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