Around my feet grey hands reach out of the depths of hell, grasping, imploring. As I shudder and continue on the bridge to heaven I recognise, with a shock, what appear to be the bladed fingers of Freddy Krueger.
It’s a startling entrance to the Buddhist Wat Rong Kun or ‘White Temple’ at Chiang Rai and only a hint of its offbeat interior. Here, there’s a surreal spacescape populated by Pokemon, Michael Jackson, Lara Croft, Mutant Ninja Turtles and more. Outside, the trees are strung with the heads of superheroes and Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow.
The whole site, down to traffic cones topped with red skulls, is a Dali-meets-Banksy creation from local architect Chalermchai Kositpipat. It’s both bonkers and beautiful.
We spend the night soaking up panoramic views, cocktail in hand, at the smart rooftop bar of the Riverie by Katathani. The waterside resort is just a little out of town (a shuttle ride from Chiang Rai’s popular night market) and also boasts fun family-friendly features like a splash pool. From here though, we’re leaving city luxuries behind to head into a lesser-travelled part of Thailand’s mountainous far north.
Around 10% of UK tourists add a couple of days in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai and perhaps a visit to the Golden Triangle, where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar, to a typical Bangkok-and-beach holiday. Even fewer explore further. Yet the region was all over the news in 2018 when the young Wild Boars football team were recruited from the flooded Tham Laung (great caves).
The north is riddled with caverns and, in dry season, with proper guiding, they make for a spectacular adventure. At Tham Lod in the Pang Ma Pha district between Pai and Mae Hong Son, we wait as our guides pump traditional gas lanterns into action, then follow them into the darkness. They illuminate vast stalactites and stalagmites with dubious similarities to animals and we negotiate sandbag paths and bamboo bridges before boarding narrow rafts on an underground lake.
The gas lamps hiss, and far above us there’s frenzied squealing from colonies of roosting bats. Then we ourselves shriek as huge moustachioed catfish surface alongside us, drawn through the gloom by the patter of pellets we’re throwing into the water. We arrive at a guano-lined staircase and climb to see a teak coffin that proves this complex was a dwelling thousands of years ago.
There’s much more going on underground. Geothermal activity in the wider region means at various places you can stop at a hot spring to soak yourself or boil an egg. At the appropriately named sulphur-smelling Pong Dueat we take a break from the road to see geysers and dip our feet in safer temperatures. Another day, at Phuklon Country Club, we plaster our faces in mineral-rich mud and laugh till it cracks.
T-shirts in the night market rightly boast that getting to the low-key town of Pai from Chiang Mai means traversing a road with 762 hairpin bends. We flop sleepily from side to side in our minibus on our way there but in restaurants en route are rows of resting motorcycle helmets from those taking up the challenge on two wheels.
Our overnight stop in Pai is boutique hotel The Quarter, just a few metres from the market. As the booths offering dreadlock weaves attest, the town is more typically a backpacker haunt. It attracts those looking for a laid-back vibe, cafe culture and glorious mountain views coupled with soft-adventure exploration to the local canyon and caves.
Northern Thailand was once an opium-growing stronghold. With royal help, poppy fields have since been repurposed for legal cash crops. I buy some coffee beans resulting from one such project on a visit to Hloyo Village at Mae Salong, home of the Akha hill tribe.
Escorted by a local dog, we walk past carved fertility symbols sporting oversized appendages. Baskets of chillies lie drying on the low thatched roofs and we’ve a chance to grind them to create a side dish for lunch, while our host turns bamboo skewers of roasting tomatoes on a charcoal fire. Within an hour we’re sitting on a mat to eat what turns out to be the favourite meal of our entire trip, bursting with fresh herbs and spices. It’s made extra special by a view over a lush valley that can also be enjoyed from homestays perched around its rim.
The outlook is even better when we stop off at the Ban Jabo hill tribe village. I pick up some colourful handmade make-up bags from roadside stalls then duck into the bustling open-sided cafe that offers road-weary travellers the chance to dangle their legs over an epic sweep of forested valley.
At Mae Hong Son, we catch sunset at the atmospherically-lit chedis (bell-shaped cones) of the temples above the city before heading a few miles away to the Fern Resort.
A three-star eco-retreat on the Thai-Myanmar border is an unlikely haunt for Hollywood A-listers but Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stayed here when involved in charity work nearby.
The rooms are basic but the whole pretty place exudes a wholesome charm. The narrow path to my thatched bungalow crosses paddy fields that supply the resort with rice.
Frogs and cicadas create the soundtrack for our evening barbecue, and the resort’s friendly dogs lie at our feet as we continue with drinks around a fire pit. In daylight hours, if you can prise yourself from the pool and its paddy field view, they will take you on a canine-guided tour through the surrounding forest.
It’s a far cry from Chiang Mai, where we stay just steps from the famous night market in luxury apartments at the Anantara. There’s another film connection here – a wonderfully spy-themed restaurant inspired by the Kingsman movies starring Colin Firth, with retro artefacts on the walls and private dining behind a hidden door.
We’ve entered a semi-secret world ourselves over the last few days, off the beaten track of most tourists, and it has proved a wonderful discovery.
Book it: Audley Travel has a 13-night trip from £3,850pp. Price includes two nights in Bangkok, three in Chiang Rai, three in Chiang Mai, one in Pai and three at the Fern Resort, Mae Hong Son. Flights, transfers and excursions are also included. audleytravel.com
Michelle Barrett, Thailand and Vietnam specialist at Audley Travel, says: "My highlights were the cave, the Fern Resort and the Akra hill tribe. I’ll be recommending the region to adventurous clients who have been to Thailand before and want authentic insights rather than just the main sites, and who also like responsible tourism.
I liked the eco experience at Fern. It isn’t high-end but you’re in a natural environment that employs local people. It has unspoilt, beautiful surroundings and should work well so long as people know what to expect. They can do five-star luxury on a beach at the end.
Lisa Thurston, travel expert at Premier Holidays, says: "I’d say it would best suit couples 20-30-plus or friends who want to see the cultural side. It’s for second- or even third-timers. Tham Lod was my absolute highlight. I’ve never before got on a bamboo raft in pitch dark in the middle of a cave!
Before, I’d have pushed clients to do two nights in Chiang Mai. Now I’ll be encouraging them to do more up north to see these hidden gems. The Anantara’s self-catering suites in Chiang Mai are good for groups of friends, and the Fern has a really nice atmosphere, though they need to update their bathrooms. About 9 out of 10 Thailand quotes I get want Elephant Hills – it’s always on request – so it was good to hear about Elephant Nature Park, which another group visited.