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Malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases are rare in northern cities, but if you're traveling in the jungle during the rainy season (June to October), consider taking antimalarials. If you're trekking in the mountains or staying at hill tribe villages, pack mosquito repellent. Spray your room about a half hour before turning in, even if windows have screens and beds have mosquito nets.
Chiang Rai and other communities in northern Thailand are generally safe. However, it's a good idea to leave your passport, expensive jewelry, and large amounts of cash in your hotel safe. Keep a copy of your passport with you at all times, as police can demand proof of identification and levy a fine if you don't produce it. Always walk holding bags on the side of you facing away from the street. In a medical emergency, head to Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai. The police hotline is 191.
ATMs are everywhere in Chiang Rai and Pai, and most towns and larger villages have at least one machine. Every bank has at least one ATM, but if there are no convenient banks, head for a branch of the ubiquitous convenience store chain 7-Eleven, where an ATM is invariably to be found next to the entrance. Banks are open weekdays 9:30 to 3:30, closing on weekends and public holidays. All banks have an exchange counter; money can also be exchanged at some outlets in central Chiang Rai. Most businesses and restaurants accept credit cards (usually preferring MasterCard or Visa). Simpler Thai restaurants accept only cash.
Northern cuisine differs significantly from cuisine in the rest of Thailand, although most restaurants serve both. You'll have no problem finding plain khao suay (steamed rice) or fragrant jasmine rice, for example, though locals prefer the glutinous khao niao (sticky rice). A truly northern and very popular Muslim specialty is khao soy, a delicious pork or chicken curry with crispy and soft noodles, served with pickled cabbage and onions; lively debates take place at Chiang Mai dinner tables on the best restaurants to find it.
Another scrumptious northern specialty is hang led, a pork curry spiced with ginger. Chiang Mai's sausages are nationally famous—try sai ua (crispy pork sausage) and mu yo (spicy sausage). Noodles of nearly every variety can be bought for a few baht from food stalls everywhere, and some fried-noodle dishes, particularly pad thai, have found their way onto many menus. Other northern dishes to try include nam pik ong (pork, chilies, and tomatoes), gaeng ke gai (chicken curry with chili leaves and baby eggplant), and kap moo (crispy pork served with nam pik num, a mashed chili dip). Western food is served at all larger hotels and at all international restaurants, although the local version of a western breakfast can be a bit of a shock.
Northern Thailand has the full range of accommodation, from simple guesthouses to five-star resorts. Optimistic prognoses by Thailand's tourist authorities led to a boom in hotel construction in recent years, mostly in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai but also studding the region's mountains with resorts and spas, many of them lacking none of the luxury and facilities of Chiang Mai's top hotels. Chiang Rai, Sukhothai, and Pai, particularly, are witnessing the construction of so-called "boutique" hotels—small, comfortable, and well-appointed establishments of no more than 40 or so rooms. Most of these are built in "Lanna" style, reminiscent of this region's earlier architecture, with the accent on dark teak and white stucco. Some of the top hotels are internationally known for embracing a "contemporary Asian" look, combining sleek lines with decorative Oriental features.
Tours of northern Thailand are offered by Bangkok travel agencies, but it's best to book with one of the many reliable companies in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, which are likely to have a deeper local knowledge of the region. Mountain tours of one or two days, which pack in elephant riding, whitewater rafting, jungle trekking, and visits or overnights in hill tribe villages are popular. They are invariably led by guides with close knowledge of their region and with acceptable English. If you're touring alone or as a couple, you can draw up your own itinerary (omitting, for instance, visits to "Long Neck" villages, a controversial issue in Thailand), but it's far more fun to join a group—and, of course, it's cheaper (B800–B1,000 a day). Tours are also arranged by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (or TAT; www.tourismthailand.org), which has offices in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, and Nan.