In Thailand, there are two kinds of people: people who like Bangkok and people who like Chiang Mai. I first thought of myself as the former but that has recently changed on my second go-around in Thailand. Chiang Mai, the second largest urban center in Thailand (although one would never know it when touching down as it resembles nothing to its larger-than-life, more southward sister, Bangkok) is a sanctuary for the weary traveler hoping to get away from it all. Its more relaxed and peaceful and in the air, there hangs a feeling of tranquility that one wouldn’t expect from a modern-day city. Backpacking folk tend to flock to this northern city as it provides access to the likes of jungle treks, elephant conservation programs, majestic temples, winding roads to cruise along, and vegetarian cafes.
1. Bathe an Elephant
Nowadays, with logging made illegal in Thailand and conservation efforts growing, visiting an elephant camp is a must. At camps that are more ethically-minded, riding is discouraged. However, there are opportunities to care for them, feed them, walk them, and even bathe them, thereby making the learning process super hands-on. The best day I had on my trip thus far, it is not to be missed. We ended up choosing the Patara Elephant Farm as it came highly recommended and it has positive reviews across the board. They have an “Elephant Owner for a Day” package which offers bathing, feeding, riding the elephants bareback into the jungle, and a lunchtime feast. They even have an on-site camera man who assembles a DVD of high-quality photos from the day trip. Its not cheap (5800 THB for one day) but its well-worth the money. You are assigned to your own elephant as well as a mahout giving you a one-on-one experience most people never get to have with an elephant. Book in advance because they keep their number of guests daily quite low.
Not found in most guidebooks, Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls is a great place to venture off to. Located one hour-and-a-half outside of Chiang Mai, the waterfalls are best to be enjoyed during rainy season when the water is gushing down. Flowing within the Sri Lanna National Park means there is no admission fee and plenty of greenery to enjoy a nice little picnic after your trek up. The uniquely “sticky” aspect of the rocks comes from limestone deposits that give the rocks a grip-like texture, making climbing the huge stones even with water cascading down a mindless feat. The biggest issue is getting there so go with a large group of people and split a ubiquitous red taxi, known as songthaew, for 1000 THB for a whole day.
3. Jump off the cliffs at the Grand Canyon
What used to be an old soil quarry is now a large canyon filled with emerald-hued freshwater framed by red-earth cliffs that rise up to 25 meters at its highest points. This attraction is adventurous as it is laid-back. Visitors either jump from the cliff edges into the deep waters or can spend the day relaxing on bamboo rafts that are tethered in place by ropes all throughout the main pool area after splashing around.
4. New discoveries at the Sunday Night Market
Only occurring on Sundays, the Sunday Walking Street Night Market is just past the Tha Pae Gate in the Old City. Atmospheric and tangible revelry are to be found in the market, hailed as one of the best in the country, offering food and handicrafts from a diverse number of vendors. Nothing looks –or tastes the same– for that matter. Allot some time to walk around and take it all in. Most people end up staying until close because of all there is to see and do.
5. Hike up to Doi Suthep
On this trip, I unfortunately didn’t have time to climb up Doi Suthep, but I do remember it fondly when I was in Thailand six years ago. At the base of the mountain are stairs lined with the mythical Naga serpents that act as handrails for the 309 steps that lead you to the temple situated on the mountain, known as Wat Phra Tat. A holy and wondrous place, it is said that Wat Phra Tat was built in accordance to a divine ordinance by Buddha himself. If the copper plated chedi doesn’t take your breath away, maybe the panoramic views of Chiang Mai from atop the mountain will.
- Personally, I think the best massages in Thailand are done in Chiang Mai and my favorite one is Lawanee Thai Massage located on Sridonchai Road close to the Elephant Nature Park office. The staff dress the part, donning the traditional attire of the Lanna, while offering clients affordable massage packages (the traditional Thai massage is 200 THB/hr) as well as small details that add to the experience such as jasmine water foot soaking, complimentary sweet tea, and your own Lanna garments to dress in as well during the massage. Walk-ins are welcome.
- The Chiang Mai Cabaret Show happens nightly at 9:30 pm for 200 THB and that includes a free drink. Its a spectacle of lights and sequined costumes that entertains as well as educates. It does a great job at celebrating the transgender community in Thailand, also known as “ladyboys.”
- Many restaurants in the Old City serve up the best of northern cuisine (Lanna Food) such as The Hanging Feet restaurant where your feet literally dangle above the streetwalkers as you dine on the floor near Ratchamanka Road.
Chiang Mai is mainly about budget hostels where backpackers from all over the world are constantly coming in and out, looking for the most affordable option. That being said, don’t expect luxury. Bunchun Hostel, is a well-known party hostel and frequented by the nicest travelers, although its a bit “low-end” on the sanitary front. Deejai Backpacker has a garden area adjacent to its dormitory property that has a cool bar area as well as a pool. The beds however, are bare minimum and no amenities, are provided save for tissue paper.
👉 Do you have any advice that I’ve missed about Chiang Mai, Thailand? Comment below!