We sent travel expert, Lauren Bath (@laurenepbath) to experience the beauty of Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son, Thailand filter-free. From must-have meals to recommendations on places to see, Lauren proved that no filters are needed in this beautiful country.
Despite all the destinations I visit, I keep coming back to Thailand. Why? I’d be lying if I didn’t list the food first. I’m an ex-chef and spent many years in Thai kitchens. Thai food is delicious—an irresistible combination of sweet, salty, sour and spicy.
Also, nostalgia! Thailand was the first international destination I ever visited, and I was a late bloomer to travel. I was 26 when I first forayed from Australian shores and Bangkok was a big culture shock, but one that I embraced totally. The smells, the sounds, the chaos, the people, the food frying in the streets. It was so much, it was incredible.
And culture! No matter where you go in Thailand, you’ll see locals doing more or less what they’ve been doing for generations, going about their business. Thai people love to smile, and they love to eat. Everywhere you look you’ll see locals tucked away in small eateries slurping bowls of noodle soup, at markets with bags full of exotic ingredients and bustling through the streets laughing and chatting with friends. (Probably on their way to eat some more.)
Despite my many trips to Thailand over the years, I still hadn’t done much in the North. So, I jumped at the chance to explore Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. With only six days on the ground, I was prepared to make the most of every minute.
My adventure started in Chiang Rai, a mountainous city to the north of Thailand, close to the borders of Laos and Myanmar. Arrival was surprisingly easy, considering my assumed remoteness of the destination. One connection in Bangkok and I was there. FYI, Bangkok has one of the best systems for ‘International to Domestic’ transfers I’ve experienced in the world.
I arrived in the evening, my favourite time to fly into a new city because it means I can go straight to sleep and wake up fresh to explore. I was transported to the delightful Riverie by Katathani , right on the Mae Kok River, and fell into an excited sleep. Thailand here I come…
The next day started how I always love to start a Thailand trip, with a visit to the local markets. It’s true, you can learn more about a country and its people by visiting a market than any other way. A tradition for me is to always have a local Thai omelette for breakfast on my first day, so my mission was to find a vendor.
Don’t be afraid to really sink your teeth into the local food! If it’s cooked fresh, in front of your eyes, you’re guaranteed it will be safe. And, when you can’t find someone who speaks English, don’t be afraid to point and gesture. This is how I’ve fed myself in Thailand for years. In fact, I obtained my coveted omelette by googling a Thai omelette and showing it to a lady at the markets. Hot and fluffy, a Thai omelette is shallow fried in the wok and served on rice. I like to eat mine Thai style, with fresh chillies in fish sauce liberally scattered on top.
With breakfast out of the way, I took my time to explore the rest of the markets and topped up my stomach with a bag of the best pineapple you’ll find anywhere in the world! My remaining sightseeing adventures for day one consisted of a visit to the Doi Tung Royal Villa, lunch at local favourite ‘Khao Soi Vijittra’ and a stop in at the Chui Fong Tea Plantation. Although I loved all three, lunch was a highlight because the food was 100 percent local and authentic (at local prices), but there was an English menu! A win.
Day two was reserved for culture! I had planned a full day of exploration around some of Chiang Rai’s best known, and lesser known, temples. First up was Wat Huoy Pla Kang, an impressive temple complex with a white temple, a giant buddha up on top of a hill and a 9-floor pagoda. I spent my time looking around, but my favourite was the temple. I sat and lost myself to the music for a long time. According to my guide, the monks also serve a free breakfast of traditional noodles every morning, but we were too early! I like to be out at the crack of dawn.
Next, we visited Wat Rong Suea Ten, the stunning blue temple, followed by Baan Dam. Baan Dam is an art museum of sorts, a collection of pieces by Thawan Duchanee and other artists. It wasn’t what I was expecting. The work is dark but intriguing. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, I’m happy to report that a local tea house serves mango and sticky rice (a Thai classic) and nearby vendors peddle sweet, local, mini-pineapples.
Our day finished with a sunset at the unmissable Wat Rong Khun. I opted to visit outside of opening hours because I was mainly interested in the external structure and I wanted to avoid the crowds. The universe rewarded me with a unique sunset—well – unique to Thailand. Despite the heavy cloud coverage, we got some wonderful pops of pink as the sun sank into the mountains. You can explore these, and more, activities to do in Chiang Rai here.
MAE HONG SON
Waving goodbye to Chiang Rai the following day, I was excited to finally visit Mae Hong Son. Mae Hong Son is a sparsely populated, but culturally diverse province that is home to many hill tribes. I had the pleasure of spending three days in the region, and meeting people from Black Lahu and Buddhist Karen Villages.
I’d highly recommend a visit to Ban Jabo as there’s quite a lot to do! I spent time in the famous coffee shop, sipping my Americano whilst watching the fog roll through. I also spent a morning with a local host as she showed me the local farming lands and gathered food for lunch. This was topped off with a climb up to the intriguing coffin caves, a place with a mysterious history and long teak coffins perfectly preserved. (Although the remains have long been claimed by researchers.)
I also recommend a visit to Baan Muang Pam. Here, I learned a lot about how local artisans work and service. I met a herbal medicine man, a bamboo weaver, a wood carver, and a clothes weaver. It was an interesting morning, well spent. There are heaps more activities in Mae Hong Son, so it looks like I’ll be back.
Thailand is an exceptional destination, and a naturally beautiful one, too. I challenged myself this trip to capture the raw and honest moments. I didn’t use any tricky photography skills or photo manipulation or filters; I wanted pure and authentic images to showcase all that I saw.
You can’t help but be captivated by all that you see here. And it’s impossible not to immerse yourself in it all! The food, the arts, the culture, the nature and the absolutely ‘Thai’ way of life.