Looking for things to do in Chiang Mai? The adventure capital of the Nepal is the gateway to the Himalayas.
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 on wooden platforms is forbidden. 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. 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 cap their number of guests daily.
Cost: 5,800 THB for one day (approx. $192 USD)
Hours of Operation: Morning session (7:30 AM – 3:30 PM) and afternoon session (1:30 – 6:30 PM) — travel time included
Cheaper alternatives: Elephant Nature Park is more affordable elephant rehabilitation center and does not allow any form of riding.
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.
How To Get There: Organize a large group of people to join you and split a ubiquitous red taxi, known as songthaew, for 1000 THB (~$33 USD) for a whole day. You can ask your hotel/hostel if they can recommend a songthaew driver.
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. The Grand Canyon Chiang Mai 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. They recently upgraded the canyon into a pop-up waterpark featuring inflatable slides and obstacle courses, a zip line, amd you can also go wakeboarding.
Where? 244 Moo 1, Nam Phrae, Hang Dong District, Chiang Mai 50230, Thailand
Cost: 450 THB (~$15) for adults, and 350 THB for children. (~$12) You can rent a locker for 50 THB and will need to put down a refundable deposit of 100 THB for a locker key.
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. Pick up artsy postcards with a cup of fresh fruit juice in hand.
Where? Rachadamnoen Rd, Tambon Si Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
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 studying abroad in Thailand in 2008. 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 Wat Phra Tat temple situated on the Doi Suthep mountain. 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.
Where? 9 Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
- 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.
- For vegans interested in a homecooked meal, as well as cooking classes, Morning Glory on 34 Prapokklao Road serves up fantastic Thai vegetarian food, like ‘som tam’ and ‘tom kha’ and can substitute fish sauce for a vegan-friendly condiment without compromising the flavor.
- People travel to Thailand to receive the art of sak yant, or sacred Buddhist tattooing, performed usually by well-respected monks known as ‘ajarn’ meaning teacher. These tattoos actually talismans, meant to protect the wearer from harm. If you are looking for a sanitary establishment, visit Sak Yant Chiang Mai, and book at least 2 weeks in advance during the high season between Nov. and Apr.
- 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. Also on 112 Ratchamanka Road is Huen Phen Restaurant, the longest running khao soi restaurant in the city, serving up tart and creamy bowls of curried noodles.
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. As this guide is for budget travelers, do not expect luxury while staying at these establishments,
Bunchun Hostel (24 Sriwichai Rd) is is a well-known, happening hostel and frequented by the nicest travelers, although its a bit “low-end” on the sanitary front (I got bed bugs) while staying there. For comfort, splurge on the air-conditioned private room and do not forget shower slippers. There’s always someone in the common area, doubling as an art gallery, and there’s usually a nightly outing among guests. The massage salon I suggested in the ‘Honorable Mentions’ is right up the street. Dorm beds start at $14 a night/private rooms at $45 per night.
Deejai Backpacker (156 Rachamanka Rd) is where all the backpackers come to party. The 24/7 uniform is none other than a bathing suit. This hostel is split into two parts; one with a garden area adjacent to its dormitory rooms 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. Bring a lock for your personal belongings and bed sheet to make your stay a little more comfortable. They have a great in-house tour service, organizing trips to the likes of Pai and Chiang Rai, as well as shared computers. Dorm beds start at $14 a night/private rooms at $45 per night.
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