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Until the early years of the present century, northern Thailand was effectively isolated from the rest of the country, a region of wild, densely forested mountains where elephants worked in the teak industry along the Burmese and Laotian borders and old temple-filled town like Chiang Mai, founded in 1297, that were part of the ancient Lanna Thai Kingdom. The first railway linking Chiang Mai with Bangkok only opened in 1921, and good roads did not come until several decades later.

This long isolation helps explain many of the characteristics that make the north so appealing to visitors today : a sense of traditions not merely preserved but vitally alive, gentle customs that reveal themselves in countless ways, distinctive differences of scenery, architecture, language and food.

Tourists can explore the charms of Chiang Mai, where life moves at a different pace from Bangkok, ornate temples rise on almost every street, and the shops are filled with handicrafts native to the region and still made by traditional methods handed down over generations. There are woodcarvers who produce and endless variety of decorative figures, panels, and furniture, as well as other artisans who create fine lacquer bowls, silverware, homespun cotton and silk, delicate embroidery, and hand-painted umbrellas. All these crafts, along with many others, can be found at the famous Night Bazaar in the center of town.

Chiang Mai is also noted for its frequent festivals such as the Winter Fair at the end of December, the Flower Festival in February, Songkran (the old Thai New Year) in April, and Loy Krathong in November. Most regular activities cease during these gala events, which attract people from all over Thailand as well as from abroad.

Other notable northern towns include Lamphun, once known as Haripunchai and founded by Mons in the 7th century; Lampang, where picturesque horse-drawn carriages still ply the streets; Mae Hong Sorn, nestled in a secret valley of exceptional beauty; Chiang Rai, a popular base for treks into the hills; and Chiang Saen, at the tip of the so-called "Golden Triangle" where Thailand's borders meet those of Laos and Myanmar.

Lovers of adventure can take an elephant ride through the jungle or watch the great animals being trained at one of several camps, go for a boat ride along the scenic Kok River from Chiang Rai, climb Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand which is now surrounded by a national park, or go on treks to remote hill tribe villages. There are seven principal tribal groups and they are among the most exotic attractions of the far north, each with its own special culture and spectacular costumes that include a profusion of silver jewelry and magnificent embroidery.

The food of the north is as distinctive as its culture. Instead of the soft rice of the central region, a steamed glutinous variety is preferred, traditionally kneaded into small balls with the fingers and used to scoop up more liquid dishes. Northern curries are generally milder than those of central and northeastern Thailand. The influence of neighboring Myanmar is evident in such popular dishes as gaeng hang lay,a pork curry that relies on ginger, tamarind, and turmeric for its flavor, and khao soil, a curry broth with egg noodles and meat, topped with spring onions, pickled onions, and slices of lime. A favorite regional specialty is a spicy pork sausage called naem, eaten in a variety of ways and probably the delicacy northerners miss most when the move to another part of the country.

The traditional form of meal in the north, especially when guests are being entertained, is called a khantoke dinner khan meaning bowl and toke a low round table. Diners sit on the floor around the table and help themselves to assorted dishes which, besides glutinous rice, may include one or two local curries, a minced-meat dish seasoned with chillies, a salad, fried pork rind, and various sauces and condiments. If it is in season, dessert is likely to be lamyai, or longan, a delicious Iycheelike fruit for which the north is famous.

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