Thailand Quickie Guide: Head to the Cultural North or the Beachy South?

Trekking trails or beach vacations—we break it down. | By Margot Bigg  
Railay Beach, Krabi, Thailand
The limestone outcrops around Railay Beach, Krabi, provide the perfect spot for rock climbing for beginners as well as seasoned climbers. Photo: Ben Horton/Alamy/Indiapicture

Thailand might be a small country, but the landscape and cultural diversity between the north and south is significant. From the historical temples of Chiang Mai to the beaches along the Gulf of Thailand, there is plenty to experience. This quick primer helps to align your interests with the country’s geography.

Northern Thailand

Yun Lai Viewpoint, Thailand

Visitors take in a beautiful sunrise from the Yun Lai Viewpoint in northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Song Province. Photo: Twenty-Two Hours/Shutterstock

Why Go?

Travellers seeking a culturally immersive experience are more likely to find what they’re looking for in the north and northeast regions of Thailand. The north is known for hundreds of gorgeous temples and lush forested hills with excellent trekking trails. Motorcycling trips are popular, taking visitors through villages of the Karen hill tribe, nature reserves like Doi Inthanon National Park, and picturesque towns such as Mae Hong Son. It’s in the north that travellers can really slow down and learn about life in Thailand by taking a cooking course; learning the basics of traditional Thai massage in tourist hot spots such as Chiang Mai and Pai; or spending time with rescued elephants at an animal sanctuary such as the Elephant Nature Park.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai’s Saturday Night Market is a colourful array of stalls selling souvenirs and local food. Photo: Nuwatphoto/Shutterstock


Northern Thailand has three major seasons. The cooler, generally dry winter starts in November and carries on through February, with temperatures in the early or mid-20s. Things start to heat up by the time March rolls around. The weather then stays in the late 20s well into May, before the monsoon rains arrive and keep the area steadily drenched through October.

Don’t Miss

If you’re headed to northern Thailand, chances are you’ll make your first stop in Chiang Mai, the country’s second-largest city and epicentre of the region’s cultural and economic life. Try to time your visit to coincide with the Saturday Night Market, when the city’s central “Walking Street” fills up with street vendors hawking everything from rice paper lanterns to fried crickets. And if you happen to be in town during April, join in the annual Songkran festivities, in which participants ring in the New Year by engaging in playful water fights.

Thai Songkran, Thailand

The festival of Thai Songkran, held in April each year, features water fights and parades. The celebrations also have a more traditional element that includes families making time to pray together. Photo: Tim Gerard Barker/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Southern Thailand

Why Go?

Beach vacation seekers can head to southern Thailand, which is all about vast expanses of white sand, excellent water sports, and romantic sundowners. The south attracts travellers from around the world and from all walks of life, from hippie backpackers to families on a luxurious getaway at one of the country’s umpteen posh resorts. Sample fresh catch of the day in Koh Lanta, try rock climbing on Krabi’s limestone cliffs, or get pampered in Phuket’s famous spas while enjoying gorgeous views of the sea. And though beach culture reigns supreme all along the southern coast, there are plenty of opportunities to go on jungle treks, visit temples, and immerse oneself in the laid-back southern Thai culture.


Southern Thailand has two seasons, dry and wet, but temperatures are consistently warm throughout the year, usually hovering around the mid-20s. The rainy season starts in May and continues through November. The west coast on the Andaman Sea gets most of its rainfall during this time, while the eastern Gulf of Thailand coast is at its rainiest from September through December.

Don’t Miss

Vegetarian Festival, Phuket, Thailand

Walking on hot coals is among the many austerities practiced at Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival. Photo: Lim Yaohui/Demotix/Corbis News/Corbis/Image Library

The veg set and those with a taste for the bizarre will enjoy Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival, held over nine days in October. While this annual celebration with its roots in the Thai Chinese community is a godsend for vegetarians thanks to the numerous stalls featuring fish-free delights, the focus is not on food. The festival name comes from the fact that participants abstain from eating meat during this period for spiritual reasons. The highlights include processions and ceremonies in which believers practice austerities ranging from fire-walking to facial piercing.

Appeared in the March 2016 issue as part of “Your Own Private Thailand”.

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