There’s definitely more to Thailand than pristine beaches, week-long parties, and beautiful temples. Head north to Chiang Mai and you’ll discover two different worlds – both old and new, simply waiting to fascinate visitors upon their arrival.
Formerly the seat of the kingdom of Lan Na, Chiang Mai technically means ‘New City’ – for good reason. That’s because a bustling urban landscape has grown around the ancient city, mixing modern amenities with the old serenity of its former self. If you care enough to leave the busy metropolis, you’ll find a bunch of exciting activities and gorgeous sights that are not on usual travel guides.
So, ready to see what Chiang Mai has to offer? Check out all cool and fun things to do while you’re in the ‘Rose of the North’.
1. Have Fun Learning at Lanna Folklife Museum and Chiang Mai Zoo
Also called the Lanna Heritage Centre, the museum is a great starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the city’s rich history. Located at Prapokklao Road in the Old City, you can’t miss its newly renovated white colonial-style exterior. Aside from historical artifacts, you can also find out about everyday traditional living through their exhibits of life-size wax dolls.
Love wildlife? Then don’t miss a visit to the Chiang Mai Zoo – home to about 400 various species of animals, such as tigers, chimpanzees, hippopotami, pandas, and rhinoceroses. Sitting on 200 acres of land in the foothills of Doi Suthep, you can get up close and personal thanks to their sustainable and creative enclosures. There are ramps and walkovers, as well sites perfect for picnics!
Both attractions are very kid- and family-friendly! So if you’re looking to begin your visit on the right note, don’t forget to include these two in your must-do list.
2. See the Long Neck Karen Tribe
A Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority of Myanmar, this tribal group fled to Thailand due to past political unrests. Today, they are self-sufficient and use profits from tourism to help their community. It’s advised that visitors study a bit about their background before booking a tour, to truly understand issues related to indigenous tribes. It’s also best to hire a guide who can translate for you, in case you have some questions.
3. Visit Doi Suthep
There’s no shortage of amazing Buddhist temples while in Chiang Mai. But perhaps the most beautiful – and most famous – is Doi Suthep. In fact, there’s a saying that goes: ‘If you haven’t seen the view from Doi Suthep, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai’. Not counting the spectacular view of the city on a clear day, both tourists and locals go here for Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple, its bright gold, white, and red exteriors gleaming like a star atop the mountain.
Seeing elephants in their natural habitat is like every traveler’s dream. But instead of riding them, go instead to sanctuaries or rescue camps where you can safely watch elephants play. If you’re lucky, the caretakers may even let you help in feeding and bathing them! Be a responsible traveler and do your own research regarding these gentle giants.
5. Watersports at Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon
Earlier visitors may remember an old limestone quarry where you can cliff-jump from 50 feet onto blue waters created by monsoon rains. While you can still do this at the old part of the ‘canyon’, there’s a newly developed Grand Canyon Water Park right next to it. It may be pricier, but you get to enjoy heart-pumping activities, such as ziplining, zorbing, and wakeboarding to mention a few. There’s also a floating obstacle course to test your inner ninja skills!
6. Shop at the Night Bazaar
You can’t just visit Chiang Mai and NOT shop! Aside from various shops open during the day, don’t ignore the stalls when they set up their wares for the night. Watch as the streets light up to all kinds of goods – from fake designer bags, fresh fruits, handicrafts, to unique souvenir items. Bartering with vendors is encouraged.
7. Participate in the Loi Krathong and Yi Peng Festival
If you’ve ever marveled at those beautiful pictures of floating lanterns in the sky, then head north of Thailand to experience this one-of-a-kind event. Loi Krathong and Yi Peng are two separate festivals that are now celebrated at the same day. Loi Krathong is when decorative floating vessels made of plants and flowers are released into Ping River, thanking the gods for rain and a good harvest. While Yi Peng is when locals release their own wish lanterns, called khom loy, to symbolize hope for a brighter future.
8. See a Cabaret Show
Believe it or not, you can enjoy a fantastic cabaret show right at Chiang Mai! Choose from the fun and fab ladyboy cabaret show at Anusan Market, or be entertained at the friendly Ram Bar. Take a seat, have some drinks, and let the dancers melt your worries away.
9. Get Massaged by a Prison Inmate
For travelers who want a unique, off the beaten track experience, then a massage from a qualified lady inmate from the Women Correctional Institution could be up your alley. Not only will you receive a relaxing traditional Thai massage, you’re also helping these ladies earn wages just in time for their release date.
10. Eat Khao Soi
Just when you think you’ve eaten your fill of Pad Thai or Green Curry, here comes this lesser known traditional dish. This delicious coconut and curry soup includes chicken, lime, chillies, and topped with crispy egg noodles for a surprising mix of textures and flavors. Never leave Chiang Mai without eating Khao Soi!
11. Get a Sak Yant from a Monk
For some people, usual souvenirs just don’t make the cut when it comes to remembering all the cool and fun experiences they’ve had during their travels. If you’re one of them, then perhaps getting a sak yant (yantra tattoo) from a Buddhist monk or Ajarn could be just your thing.
These tattoos are said to be magical and unique to your needs. Aside from giving you luck, certain designs could mean protection, good health, love, or strength. It’s definitely something to look into if you want a worthwhile story – and ink – to take back home.
12. Visit the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs
Grab a friend – or two – and go exploring the countryside. On your way, make sure to make a pit stop to San Kamphaeng Hot Springs. It’s not a well-known tourist attraction, so it really beats all the crowded ones. There are hot and cool mineral baths where you can soak your tired, aching feet in. You can even join the locals in boiling eggs in the super hot pools!
13. Take a Thai Cooking Class
What better souvenir to take home with you than culinary knowledge of your favorite Thai dishes? Pick a cooking class that takes you to a local market and helps you prepare at least three dishes. Most of these classes are held in an organic farm, too. So you can bet a nice atmosphere while stir-frying those noodles!
14. Visit the Doi Inthanon National Park
This National Park is home to Thailand’s tallest peak – Doi Inthanon. Sometimes called the ‘rooftop of Thailand’, the mountain stands at 2,565 metres above sea level. The best times to visit it between November to February. Even if you won’t be rewarded with excellent views due to thick mists that usually cover the summit, it’s still a worthwhile attraction. You won’t find a better combination of exotic birds, flower gardens, waterfalls, caves, and pagodas to make your stay meaningful.
15. Go Cafe-Hopping
If you love coffee and would like to bask in the coffee culture of Thailand, then there’s no better place than Chiang Mai. Get your fix from various fun-themed cafes, ranging from cuddly cat cafes to tranquil forest-themed ones right in the heart of the city. Grab a homemade Panini, sip a bear latte, or treat yourself to some tasty passion fruit cake – whatever you’re craving for, it’s just a few footsteps away.
What do you think? Do any of these activities tickle your fancy? Curious to try any of them yet? If you are, then book your tickets to Chiang Mai and discover a whole new way of experiencing Thailand.