Known as the “Rose of the North”, Chiang Mai is filled with fun things to do (and things to avoid). Presenting a bucket list of the most fun things to do in Chiang Mai.
Table of Contents
Stay in a beautiful Lanna style resort
One of the most pleasant Chiang Mai consists of slow traveling at my resort. The Northern Thai city has a wide range of accommodations and some of them are quite spectacular. My most exotic (and expensive) stay in Chiang Mai was at a beautiful Lanna style private resort. The villa, which was made of organic materials came with my personal lily and koi pool, an open bathtub on my private rice field, a parasol-shaded porch and an intricately carved wooden bedroom with a classic 4-poster bed. The mornings there were scented with lilies and in the evenings, thousands of fireflies and croaking frogs descended upon the little villa.
Or opt for an amazing organic farm stay
I once stayed at organic farms in Chiang Mai. Actually, it was an hour’s drive from the city and the Thung Dong Farm settled amidst lush green wilderness, pools, and farm animals. It was indeed a tiny piece of heaven. Phrao Organic Farm is the other farm stay I have stayed at, though a smaller operation than Thung Dong, it was more intimate, homely and charming.
Chiang Mai old city walk
Chiang Mai’s historical center is my favourite place in the city. I love meandering within the old walls, marveling at the wats or very old wooden Lanna style houses, sampling juices from different street vendors and catching my breath under Thai cherry tree blossoms. The sublime nostalgic charm and the flower-filled winding lanes of Chiang Mai have an aura of life in vignettes and provide some very beautiful photos.
Indulge in the lavish handicrafts of Chiang Mai
Even now, the erstwhile Lanna Kingdom is surrounded by teak forests, high mountains, biodiverse dense jungles filled with wild animals, fast flowing rivers and endless stretches of terraced rice fields. In olden times because of the navigability of Mae Ping River, Chiang Mai used to be a major trading town between Southern China and Burmese seaports. This made the town flourish and the kings had enough wealth to lavish on arts and wats. Handicrafts like woodcarving, painted bo san parasols, and intricate silver work were much patronized and are still popular today.
Explore the Chiang Mai wats selectively
To make the DIY Chiang Mai wat tour more pleasant, divide it into two parts – the old walled city and beyond the old city. The walled city or the historic part of Chiang Mai has some of Thailand’s most beautiful Buddhist religious monuments and most of them can be explored by foot. While I found my peace at the wild Wat Umong, outside the city, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Bupparam and Wat Chiang Man inside the Old City were also pretty impressive. The wild Wat Umong ranks at the top when it comes to selecting the most peaceful wat of Chiang Mai and there is something very spiritually powerful about the monk chant ringing through the cool darkening forests. Even the omnipresent crickets seem silent at that time and the prayers made me feel one with the universe. Chiang Mai has more than 200 wats and you can simply drown in them. While the most popular ones within the old city it is advisable to study about them a bit before exploring, create your own favourite wat list and then walk around.
Take a crash course on Buddhism and other monk matters
Chiang Mai is the hub of Buddhist learning and many wats of the city offer interesting monk chats. These sessions are usually conducted by novice monks who wish to brush up their English speaking skills by interacting with foreigners and in return offer some information on the intricacies of Buddhism and details of life as a monk. You can also learn Buddhism in Chiang Mai through various courses offered at the wats. Wat Umong offers excellent meditation courses, which are held in the middle of the forest.
Walk along the Mae Ping river
Most of the hip and happening restaurants, cafes and clubs of Chiang Mai are located along the Mae Ping river. In the evenings, that area comes alive with people and music pours out from endless karaoke bars, jazz cafes, and live music houses. You can also stumble upon pop-up night markets there and the mobile bars can quench your thirst if all that walking gets you parched. Of course, Thailand’s famous street food is available there at every nook and corner.
Go for a micro flying and ziplining
On one of my trips to Chiang Mai, I booked myself into as many adventure sports as the region had to offer. Micro flying was my first adventure and I had woken up very early in the morning for that. The adventure package came with pickup and drop facility and I shared my transportation with a bunch of farm animals. We drove nearly 14 kilometers out of Chiang Mai and I huddled at the back of a farm truck with baskets of prickly pineapples and scratchy live chickens as co-passengers. At the destination, a large farmhouse doubled up as a flying school and a little tarmac was smoothened out between coconut groves. The owner of the outfit was a retired Australian commercial pilot who also happened to be my instructor. After a slightly bumpy take-off, he expertly guided the light plane over the lush landscape of Chiang Mai and it was a gorgeous panorama to behold. Chiang Mai offers a huge range of adventure tours and among them, ziplining, microlight flying, bungee jumping is the most popular. Sky Adventures and Flight of the Gibbon are the most famous companies operating and these tours can be booked directly, through countless tour agencies in the city, or through the hotel.
The Flight of the Gibbon
My other very memorable Chiang Mai adventure was zip lining with Flight of the Gibbon. The programme starts with a morning drive to Mae Kompong (base of Flight of Gibbons) and the tiny village is very picturesque. At the base, small groups are assembled quickly by the guide/instructor who also informs about the safety equipment and procedures. A small trek leads to the starting point, from where a steep climb up the wooden platforms takes one to the treetops. The first jump is the scariest and after that, it is a whirr of fresh greenery, open space and a lot of thrill. A vegetarian lunch is included in the package and it comes with pick-up and drop facilities.
Head towards Doi Inthanon National Park
Imagine this: moss and lichen hanging like curtains and a pretty fledgling cloud forest full of fragrant conifers, masses of blooming rhododendrons and brilliant wild orchids. The cool air smells amazingly of the green moist earth and you can enjoy your afternoon tea under the moss-festooned dew dripping branches. A tiny museum, souvenir shop, and restroom stand at the summit of Doi Inthanon National Park, which is also the highest point in Thailand and the park is very popular among bird watchers.
The relaxing, arty pleasures of Chiang Mai
I have visited Chiang Mai a couple of times and have always had a ball. The city has a lot to offer. Think intensely relaxing cheap massages, great food, and photo walks. I love the University area of Chiang Mai which is full of golden shower flowers, a young student crowd, and awesome cafes. In fact, the Cafe Baan Din Dee inside the University Art center grounds is my favorite hangout place and I adore the relaxing artsy vibe.
Visit an orchid farm in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai loves its flowers and nearly all streets and highways leading to the city house numerous plant nurseries. Potted .rubber trees, brilliant bougainvilleas, frangipanis, and orchids dapple the streets with rainbow colours. The Orchid Farm I visited was small, but carefully tended and had the exotic blooms crowding every available space. Jewel-hued, with stains-like patterns, the orchids came in stunning shapes and sizes. The farm had a hothouse that was crammed with different varieties of orchids and there was a small vintage automobile exhibition pavilion at the back. There was also a cafe and a souvenir shop selling glass-encased orchids, pinned insect collections, and very touristy Orchid Farm t-shirts.
The bamboo rafting in Chiang Mai takes place at the small Mae Wang river which is set in the deep countryside. Wooden restaurants, shops, and a few resorts dot along its bank and the river flows swiftly through a tunnel of green bamboo and blackberry trees. The rafts are pretty basic, with bamboo shafts latched together into a platform and accommodate six people. A guide rows from the front and it is relaxing just to float down the lovely river amidst bird calls, dragonflies, and crickets. Wet and relaxing it is a refreshing nature break and is perfect for a hot day in Chiang Mai.
Visiting the Hmong hill tribe village
Hmong belong to indigenous hill tribes found in northern Thailand and have a very unique culture. Traditionally, agriculturalists, their wooden huts cluster along the hill slope overlooking their paddy fields and massive sows roll under the houses. Among the Hmongs, marriage and pigs went hand in hand and the larger number of pigs a woman of that tribe possessed, the better her prospects at getting married. The Hmong village which I visited had much better facilities than the long necks Karens and some villagers even possessed cars. Since I was there for a few days, I explored the area a bit. My favourite part was a short trek up the hill, past bamboo forests, rice fields, and rocky escarpments to get all hot and sweaty enough to jump into a secret emerald green pool. The water came from a small waterfall and a very slim river flowed under bamboo bridges and slippery boulders. Trees drooped on the water making the bank shaded and I used to spend my day swimming in the deliciously cold water, sampling fried shrimp sold by local vendors, and dozing in the mellow late noon sun.
The lesser known fun things to do in Chiang Mai
Lake Rama IX and Huay Tung Tao Lake make great relaxing day trips from Chiang Mai. Still relatively not popular with foreign tourists, most of the locals hang out at the umpteen lake bars, firing range, horse stables, and restaurants on stilts. Angling tours are also organized at the lakes (both day and overnight trips) and they are great for chilling out with a beer, catching the sunset, eating fried local fish and shooting some breeze. Tried and tested Teak Tree Lake is a reliable company to go on a CM angling trip. For more romantic dining options, choose one of the wooden restaurants (Mit Mai Tree is the best) on Lake Rama IX and enjoy local cuisine, under a sky full of stars. Get a bamboo tattoo or sak yant from a monk in Chiang Mai. A traditional sacred tattoo, yak sant is performed only by an Ajarn or a Buddhist monk tattoo expert, who is trained in the ancient script. It is believed that a yak sant tattoo acts as an evil eye and protects the wearer.
Chiang Mai activities to avoid
- Khantoke Dinner – One of my most boring Chiang Mai experiences was the traditional Khantoke dinner and dance. A traditional formal dinner of the Lanna kingdom (Northern Thailand and Laos), khantoke involves sticky rice and a huge number of traditional dishes (vegetarian options are available for vegan and Muslim diners) served on a small pedestal. Elaborately served, the khantoke platter contains a lot of food. It is a traditional meal that is specially served during khantoke is traditionally served during festivals, weddings, housewarming parties, funerals, and other social functions. The Chiang Mai khantoke dinner programme which is offered as evening entertainment to the tourists includes pick up and drop facilities, elaborate dinner, traditional Thai dance shows, and hill tribe performances. Though not cheap, expect mediocre food, monotonous Thai dances were monotonous, and below-average service below. The only saving grace of my khantoke evening was the energetic hill tribe dance performances with elaborate costumes, interesting musical instruments, and fire juggling.
- Tiger Kingdom – Highly controversial and seemingly unethical, Tiger Kingdom is another travel experience I regret participating in Chiang Mai. I visited there on a private tour and found the park horribly wrong. While nothing seemed out of place and there was no visible/telltale sign of cruelty or unethical practice, I could not help but wonder as to what methods were used to turn the magnificent full-grown tigers docile into kittens. The young ones were playful little things, nibbling and gamboling around but the adults were strangely silent and immobile. It was not natural at all for these ferocious beasts to behave such and cruel stories of the tigers being drugged, beaten to submission, old, infirm animals killed for traditional Chinese medicine, and scientific experiments seemed horribly true.
- Elephant Trek – The elephant farm that I visited in Chiang Mai was a few kilometers down the Mae Wang river. At first sight, the animals looked healthy and unscarred, but they were horribly chained. The elephant trek is brief and goes through the surrounding forests. The jumbos amble gently and are trained to stop at certain village shops for the tourists to buy bananas for them. Though not a glaringly unethical practice, the elephant trek did not make me very comfortable due to the tough bondage of the animals.
- Long Neck Karen village visit – Long Neck Karen hill tribe village visits are often condemned as human zoos, and that too for a reason. These visits are hectic, with no interaction with the local community and it is believed that the Thai government refuses to allow them to seek asylum elsewhere, for fear that it might affect the local tourism industry.
How to reach Chiang Mai and other travel tips
Since it is surrounded by hills and reaching Chiang Mai by public transport needs some pre-planning. The red songthaews are the best value for budget or solo travelers and many people prefer hiring drivers or taxis. Dual pricing is there at National Parks, museums, and other popular sites across Thailand. So expect to pay more than the locals.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE