With its rich tapestry of culture and heritage, Thailand’s northern region has long been a prime tourist destination. Despite overdevelopment in parts, especially in major cities and towns like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, the North has managed to maintain its mystic charm. From geography, history, and people to cultural heritage, arts, and architecture, both traditional and contemporary, the beauty of the North runs deep.
The lay of the northern land is made up of a diversity of terrestrial bodies. Mountains rising from the lower Himalayas slope down into fertile valleys. Fault lines are found along these ranges, causing the occasional low- to mid-Richter scale quake, strong enough to crack roads and cause no small degree of panic. Four internal rivers—the Ping, Wang, Yom, and Nan—support local agriculture, mainly sticky rice, while the Mekong forms a natural life-giving border around the northern and eastern regions. Canyons, cliffs, and waterfalls abound. The area is full of superlative destinations, such as Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s tallest peak, where frost can occur on a very cold day, and Thi Lo Su, Thailand’s largest and highest waterfall.
Beyond beautiful topography, the North has long been the crossroads where cultures and communities converge. The local Lanna culture, named after the “Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields,” was influenced from geographical neighbours Burma, Laos, and China. The population is a mixture of Tai-Lao ethnic subgroups, such as Tai Puan, Tai Yuan, Tai Yong, Tai Khern, and Tai Lue, as well as Khon Meung, the town dwellers.
Through the trading of opium and other less nefarious goods, Haw Chinese, descendants from the Uyghur along the Silk Road, came through the mountains of the Golden Triangle. With them arrived other minorities and hill tribes, such as Hmong; Akha, or E-ghaw; Yao, or Mien; Lahu, or Muse; Lisu; Karen; and Phee Dtong Lueng also called the Mlabri. They dress in exotic, colourful costumes and accessories, especially the Kayan Lahwi, or Padaung, the so-called “long-neck” Red Karen with their brass-coiled neck rings.
Northerners are renowned for their fair skin, delicate look, smooth complexion, and slight build. Traditionally, women would wear their long locks in a bun and men’s thighs and derrières would be covered in tattoos, making them resemble long scuba shorts. The tattoos are hardly seen nowadays, but the hairstyle is common enough. In any case, it comes as no surprise that these northern beauties are so admired that young women are often sold or intentionally made to work in the skin trade. Girls from the Dok Khum Dtai area of Phayao are found working in Haad Yai, all the way down in the southern province of Songkhla.
According to Dr Vithi Phanichphant, an expert in Lanna culture, although modern northern women may seem demoralised, customarily, the Lanna society was a matriarchal one. The dating and wedding rituals were in favour of women and the practice of polyandry was the norm. As the head of the household, women were in control, and men worked the fields for them. This standard is still seen among many hill tribes in the North and in Xiang Tung in Myanmar.
Traditional Lanna beliefs blended local wisdom with animism and Buddhism. While the worship of ancestors is important in the home, Buddhism and monkhood is the apex in a man’s life. Lhae Sang Long or Hae Loog Kaew ceremonies among the Tai Yai in Mae Hong Son display how important novice ordination is. Young boys painted with make-up and bedecked in the shiniest clothes parade on horseback along the way to the temple, living symbols of Prince Siddhartha when he fled from the palace to become an ascetic.
Festivals like Songkran and Loy Krathong are widely celebrated in the North. Yii Peng and its Loy Khome rites, floating candle-lit paper lamps to send away sadness and sorrow, are a sight to behold. But now they are performed with cautioun, because the lamps are a fire hazard, capable of setting aflame wooden houses or getting stuck in a plane’s wing.
Unlike the speedy brogue of southerners, northern dialect is gently spoken. Like their lifestyles, everything moves at a slow and unhurried pace, even the lingua franca. However, the traditional Lanna language is now found mainly in manuscripts. Their sensuous and voluptuous writing was influenced by Burmese, Mon, and Lao styles.
Many kingdoms occupied parts of the North before Siam even existed. The Chiang Saen, or Yonok Nakorn, left a set of ruins in Chiang Rai. Hariphunchai heritage is found in Lamphun while Kaelang Nakorn left its legacy in Lampang. With Chiang Mai as its capital, the Lanna Kingdom ruled the North during the reign of Sukhothai and Lan Xang in Luang Phra Bang.
Before the reign of King Rama I, the Siamese invaded the Lanna Kingdom and brought one very important Buddha image, the Emerald Buddha, from Chiang Rai to Bangkok. One of the consorts of King Rama V also came from Chiang Mai, Princess Dara Rasmi, famed for her beauty. The marriage of politics between the two sealed the deal during the colonial era. Around this same time, the British had arrived in Burma and were eyeing the teakwood across the border in Thailand, the beginning of six decades of unregulated deforestation.
Nowadays, natural forests are either protected or depleted. Old professions such as forestry and coal mining are scarce. Since sticky rice fields have been cemented by highways and buildings, businesses like boutique hotels and coffee places are booming for tourism.