A young Thai girl sitting on floor in a bright orange outfit holding a musical instrument.

Young Thai girl and her musical instrument

My first memory of a personal meeting with the Thai people is their ever-present smile! This natural friendliness is a part of the Thai culture that is tied to Buddhism, which is the principal religion in Thailand.

Therefore, despite the beauty and history of this unique country, it is the graciousness and warmth of the people of Thailand that is always remembered.

The adventure, excitement and uniqueness of Northern Thailand draws travelers, but to experience it, one must go to Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand which is located nearly 500 miles northwest of Bangkok near the mountains that lead into Burma.

Chiang Mai is a cultural center with many museums, more than 300 ancient temples, and uncountable historical artifacts from the hill tribes. Seeing all of these wonders could take weeks, but it would be a real shame not to journey into the surrounding countryside and experience other adventures.

Probably the best way to get into the “swing” of things is to drive about an hour north of Chiang Mai into the high mountains to visit a nomadic tribe known as the Khamu. More than a century ago, they migrated to this part of Thailand from Yunnan Province in China and Laos and managed to evade civilization for many decades.

man in forefront following a elephant with a rider atop its head.

Riding elephants is memorable.

Coming to Thailand without experiencing a day of personal contact with the Southeast Asian elephants would be a travesty. These sacred creatures are as important to the history of Thailand as the railroads to North America. Elephants are a symbol of royal power in the Thai culture and an important ingredient in Buddhist art and architecture.

After one look into the soft, friendly eyes of an elephant, you will fall in love. As you speak softly, while feeding it a basket of fruit, the special bond will grow as you realize that this huge animal is warm and sensitive with a zest for life and a sense of humor. Then, you learn how to properly mount and ride the elephant … not in a chair, but on its head.

The head and trunk of an elephant above muddy water.

An elephant playing in the water

This can lead to a ride up into the hills to a gorgeous waterfall with a large pool at the bottom where all the elephants can cool down and play in the water. Being with them and feeling the invisible connection with the largest animal on the planet is a magical experience that will never be forgotten.

Not more than one hour north of Chiang Mai is a rich, green agricultural valley where time seems to have stood still. The people wear traditional clothes and speak an ancient Chinese dialect that even native Thai people don’t understand. This valley has become a sanctuary for Lisu traditions and is a perfect blend of how to maintain the tribal heritage while allowing responsible tourism. The area is a perfect place to enjoy tribal culture in a tranquil setting with vistas of farm fields and nearby mountains. Travelers can also venture out to experience exciting soft adventures. These might include mountain biking through gorgeous fields, villages, and along the river, whitewater rafting or simply mild hiking.

Bill and Chris leaning against a tiger laying on the ground.

Me and Chris playing with a tiger in north Thailand

Leaving the mountain people of Northern Thailand and historical Chiang Mai is difficult. The smiling faces, warm hospitality, elephants … and an occasional tame tiger makes everyone yearn for just one more day!

Photos: by Bill Vanderford