North Thailand is home to a number of different hill-tribe communities, each with their own heritage and traditions. Bangkok-based photographer and travel writer Chris Schalkx, recently ventured to North Thailand to discover more about the diversity of the region and find out why an increasing number of Thai travellers are being attracted to the area. In this interview, Chris shares his insights and photos from his trip.
You recently wrote a piece for Conde Nast Traveller which explored how the tribal traditions of Northern Thailand are becoming increasingly important, not just with locals, but also with those who visit the area. Please tell us where the inspiration for the article came from.
I’ve always been interested in the North of Thailand. Not just for the incredible scenery, but also for its cultural diversity. It still feels like Thailand in its purest form, home to dozens of tribal communities that each maintain their own rituals, handicrafts and language. With the pandemic putting Thailand on lockdown, I think many well-travelled and intrepid Thais finally made time to discover the riches of their own country. I got inspired by the stories they shared on Instagram and wanted to go see it for myself.
You are an accomplished and talented writer and photographer; how do you describe your style for each? And which do you prefer, words or pictures?
It’d be hard to capture my writing and photography in a certain genre. Both focus on lifestyle and travel, but I write about (and shoot) everything from interior design to cocktails. I do try to focus on stories that haven’t been told yet – sharing new voices from well-known destinations or putting little-visited places in the spotlight. Since I’m very visually oriented, I enjoy photography a bit more.
Chiang Dao was your first stop for the article. Did you have any preconceptions about the area prior to visiting?
I hadn’t actually heard of Chiang Dao until I started researching this story, so I arrived with a very open mind. It was everything I hoped for: lush, laid-back, and chock-full of character.
Chiang Dao is a great place to enjoy slow travel and local experiences. Please tell us more about your own encounters.
William Le Masurier, the British-Thai founder of an adventure outfit called Dek Doi took me under his wing and showed me what his hometown Chiang Dao is all about. He introduced me to friends who run indigo dyeing workshops and ceramic studios, or are part of the many tribal communities residing in the mountains around town. All, in their own way, showed me why this tiny Thai town is such a wonderful place to live.
Locals talk about the ‘good energy’ in Chiang Dao. Did you feel it and why do you think it is such a notable force?
Absolutely – life seems to slow down as soon as you arrive. You’re surrounded by mountains and jungle trails start on your doorstep. Mornings start with a hot-spring visit, days end around a campfire. It’s a natural tonic and such a welcome antidote to the stressors of city life.
While visiting Doi Tao you met many local artisans and witnessed their traditional skills in action. What was the most poignant observation you took from this way of life?
I loved learning about Satu Doi Tao’s mission of preserving traditional crafts (in his case, tribal weaving techniques). Not by sticking to the age-old designs, but by moving it forward to the needs and preferences of the 21st century. When the older generation is no longer able to continue working, their children are more likely to keep their craft alive.
You visited both Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. Please tell us more about the vibe in each.
Both have their charms. Chiang Mai is a modern city with a compact historical centre that’s easily accessible on foot and more cafes, locavore restaurants and craft markets than you can shake a stick at. Chiang Rai, on the other hand, is more spread out, and its most interesting sights and activities require a little more research.
What should visitors expect in terms of accommodation/hotels when planning a trip to Northern Thailand?
While Chiang Mai has a handful of high-end resorts, luxury properties are few and far between as soon as you leave the city. But while many countryside resorts lack the private butlers and infinity pools, they make up for that with heaps of rustic charm and genuinely friendly service.
There is so much to see and do in the north of Thailand but many people still just head to the beaches. Tell us more about what a visitor could do if they factored in a 3-5 day stay here.
A road trip is the way to go. Start with a day of temple-and-cafe-hopping around Chiang Mai, then make your way up north towards the Burmese border, stopping for a jungle trek around Chiang Dao along the way. Follow winding mountain roads all the way to Chiang Rai and meet the Lisu, Karen, and Mon tribespeople who live in the rustic little villages dotting the jungle.
Which was your own most memorable experience on your trip and why?
Waking up with the sound of birds as the sun slowly illuminated the rice fields around my bamboo room at Lisu Lodge in Mae Taeng – I hadn’t felt that peaceful for quite some time.
What is your top tip for a first-time visitor to Northern Thailand?
Get off the beaten track as much as you can. The touristy highlights are, of course, incredible, but tell you only half the story.
Please describe Northern Thailand in three words.
Slow, honest, lush.
What or where is next for you?
With Thailand’s borders still closed, I hope to visit the North a few more times before the tourist crowds come back in. I recently returned from a trip along the Mae Hong Son Loop and have already plotted my next Chiang Mai visit.
Many thanks to Chris for sharing his experiences and photos in North Thailand. Look out for his article in Conde Nast Traveller.
Based between Bangkok and Taiwan since 2013, Chris Schalkx writes and photographs for travel publications including Conde Nast Traveller, The Telegraph and Wallpaper Magazine. Chris is always looking for off-the-beaten-track experiences, local creatives and unique designs from Thailand. Follow Chris on Instagram and Twitter and check out his website here.
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