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A journey through northern Thailand feels like venturing into a different country from the one ruled by far-off Bangkok: the landscape, the language, the architecture, the food, and even the people of this region are quite distinct. Chiang Mai is the natural capital of the north, but Chiang Rai is developing rapidly. Both cities are not smaller versions of Bangkok, but bustling regional centers in their own right. Just beyond each of them rises the mountain range that forms the eastern buttress of the Himalayas, and the region overall has some of the country's most dramatic scenery. The northernmost part of the region borders both Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, and improved land crossings into Laos from here have made forays into that country popular side trips.