When you think of Thailand, your thoughts might naturally drift to visions of pure white shores, emerald green lagoons, and dramatic limestone rocks jutting out of the sea. And while the country is famous for being home to some of the most beautiful islands and beaches on the planet (we’ve all seen those inspiring wall posters of Phuket) it also boasts some of the most luscious green rainforests, stunning waterfalls, and ancient temples the world has to offer – not to mention elephants. We’re talking about Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, and a place that should be on everyone’s ‘bucket list’, whether you’re a nature lover, a culture vulture, or a thrill-seeker looking for your next big adventure.
1. Visit Elephant Nature Park
There is something quite magical about watching wild animals roam free in the great outdoors, just the way nature intended, and that becomes possible at the award-winning Elephant Nature Park in the north of Chiang Mai. The park is home to 75 rescued elephants from all over Thailand, which have suffered unimaginable pain at the hands of humans. In this peaceful sanctuary, which covers an impressive 250 acres of open land, these gentle giants are given the chance to rehabilitate and live harmoniously among the herds, free of exploitation. Working hard to improve the lives and conditions of elephants, and educate visitors about the implications of riding elephants, the park has a strict ‘saddle off’ policy. Guests are instead invited to feed, bathe, and walk alongside the herds in order to observe their natural behaviour and learn their individual stories.
The park is also home to hundreds of affectionate rescue dogs and cats, which have found sanctuary among their larger neighbours, so you may find yourself becoming a human cushion to many a furry companion. There are three packages to choose from when visiting the park: a short visit, day visit, or an overnight stay, which range from around HKD600 to HKD1,400. If you opt for the overnight stay, you get to sleep in the incredible rustic huts next to the elephant ‘bedrooms’, and enjoy extended time with them the next morning before the day-trippers arrive. This is definitely one for the ‘bucket list’.
Elephant Nature Park, 1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing, Chiang Mai
2. Go Zip-lining at Flight of the Gibbon
Definitely not one for the faint-hearted, but rather those with an inner Tarzan, Flight of the Gibbon is the largest and most trusted zip-line experience in Asia, and not to be missed. Founded in 2007 by a well-known New Zealand adventurer called David Allardice, who has a passion for adventure sports and the environment, the attraction invites brave souls to glide through the treetops of a stunning rainforest in Mae Kampong Village, which lies an hour north of the city. During the 2.5-hour treetop adventure, guests get to complete a course of zip-lines, sky bridges, and abseiling challenges under the watchful eyes of their trusted Sky Rangers. They will also learn about the plants and wildlife that live here, and (if they are really lucky) encounter wild gibbons in their natural habitat.
Once feet are firmly back on solid ground, visitors can enjoy a traditional Thai lunch and local music in a rustic hut at the edge of the rainforest, before taking part in an optional hike to Mae Kampong Waterfall or Mae Kampong wooden temple. One of the great things about this attraction, aside from being really, really fun, is that it follows a responsible eco-tourism business model, which benefits the local community, wildlife, and environment. So while you’re having the absolute time of your life, you can also feel good about supporting a good cause. Plus, the team offers hotel pick-up, so there really is no excuse to back out and hide away in your hotel room.
Flight of the Gibbon, 106 Village, No.3, Huai Kaeo, Mae On District, Chiang Mai
3. Go Temple Hopping
There are over 300 ‘wats’ scattered throughout Chiang Mai and the surrounding countryside, so if you’re hoping to be dazzled by stunning architecture and shimmering gold, you are in the right place. Among the most impressive temples are Wat Chedi Luang, an enormous, towering crumbling temple ruin located in the heart of the Old City, Wat Sri Suphan, which is known as the Silver Temple because of its impressive hand-crafted silver decoration, and Wat Chiang Man, the city’s oldest temple, which features an old crumbling pagoda and newer temple hall.
The absolute must-see temple, however, is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most visited and most famous, which sits high up in the mountains overlooking the city. This awe-inspiring structure is best seen during sunrise (around 6am), when dedicated tourists journey up the winding mountain road and climb up the 300 steps to reach the 600-year-old golden ‘chedi’ at the top, which towers above the surrounding temple building and monks’ living quarters. Dating back to the 14th century, the temple’s origins are founded in Thai myth and mystery, and watching the rising sunlight dancing over the countless golden pagodas is nothing short of majestic.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Tambon Suthep, Amphoe Mueang, Chiang Mai
4. Shop at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
Come nightfall, the city of Chiang Mai transforms into a shopper’s paradise as the famous night bazaar takes over a 1km strip of Thanon Chang Khlan, one of the city’s largest main roads, on the east side of the old walled city. During the daytime, this area is an ordinary street full of shops, hotels, and restaurants, but every day come sundown (regardless of the weather) it comes alive with hundreds of street vendors selling everything from gadgets and (real and fake) designer clothing, to jewellery, watches, paintings, and even portable TVs. You might even spot a barber giving tourists a classic wet shave in the street!
Be sure to haggle for your goodies and get a good percentage off the asking price here, as it is expected and part of the fun (bargaining is almost a national sport on Thailand!) Even if you’re not on the hunt for a bargain or two, the night bazaar is a fantastic place to lap up the buzzing atmosphere of the city, and take in the bright lights, music, and exciteful chattering of locals and visitors. When you need a break from all that strolling, you can also drop by one of the many bars and restaurants scattered along both sides of the main road, or tuck into some tasty street food from one of the mobile vendors along the way.
Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, Chang Moi, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai
5. Eat Bugs at Ploen Ruedee Night Market
Fried scorpion anyone? If you’re looking to sample Chiang Mai’s best street eats, then Ploen Rudee Night Market is an absolute must. A firm favourite among curious (and hungry) travellers, this international foodie haven offers a vibrant, lively atmosphere in which to nibble on a range of different cuisines and lap up some live music and entertainment. There are plenty of Thai options here too, as well as the occasional fried bug, worm, scorpion, and other creepy crawlies, which can be enjoyed in the central outdoor seating area scattered with tables, chairs, and cosy haystacks to settle down on.
All the restaurants are lined up around the outside of the market, allowing you to walk around and browse first, and with so much choice on offer, you’re going to want to order a few dishes. Being within walking distance of the famous Night Bazaar, this is a great spot to enjoy dinner before or after a shopping spree. Keep an eye out for the On The Rocks cocktail bar in a van, and be sure to try some Khao Soi, the famous local soup-like curry dish made with crispy egg noodles and coconut milk.
Ploen Rudee Night Market, Chang Klan Road, Amphoe Muang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai
6. Watch a Muay Thai Match
Whether you’re into boxing or not, a visit to Chiang Mai wouldn’t be complete without watching a Muay Thai match or two. As one of the most popular sports in Thailand, Muay Thai began as an ancient fighting technique used by Siamese soldiers, but has evolved over several hundred years to what we now see performed across the country. There are two Muay Thai boxing stadiums in Chiang Mai, where locals and visitors gather to catch all the action and enjoy a few drinks.
While Thapae Boxing Stadium, in the historic part of the city, attracts mainly tourists, Kawila Boxing Stadium features fighters who are hoping to become nationally known and take the sport more seriously. Both kickboxing stadiums are easy to get to, with tickets costing around the same amount (between 400 and 600 baht per person) depending on where you sit. They are also open to people of all ages, so if you have kids (and don’t mind them watching), it’s a good option.
Thapae Boxing Stadium, 1 Mun Mueang Rd, Phra Sing, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat, Chiang Mai
Kawila Boxing Stadium, Wat Ket, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai
7. Have a Spa Treatment
All that shopping and adventuring with elephants and gibbons can be exhausting, so it’s a good thing that Chiang Mai is home to hundreds of spas offering a variety of treatments to suit all budgets. For the ultimate pamper session, head to Srimantra Spa, a modern Lanna cave style building located a stone’s throw from the Ping River. Inside this Flintstones-like setting, you can choose from a menu of signature massages, body scrubs, and packages offering 120 to 300 minutes of pure bliss. A 60-minute massage starts from around 600 baht (around HKD150) and ranges to around 2,200 baht (around HKD500), which is far cheaper than you will find in Hong Kong.
For a totally unique experience, head to the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute and receive a treatment from one of the female inmates participating in the prison’s job-training rehabilitation program. Located in the middle of the old city, the centre has received rave reviews over the years, with many customers coming back daily during their holidays in the city. This is largely due to the extensive training the inmates have to complete before they can work at the centre. With a traditional Thai massage costing around 200 baht (only HKD50), this is a great option if you want to unwind while giving something back to the local community.
Srimantra Spa, 78 Charoen Prathet Road, A.Muang, Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute, 100 Rajchavithi Road, Sriphum subdistrict, Chiang Mai
8. Visit a Waterfall
Chiang Mai is home to ten picturesque waterfalls and rock pools, so if you are craving some downtime with Mother Nature, you certainly won’t struggle to find it. Aside from being able to take breathtaking photos, there are many activities that you can take part in when you visit these natural gems, such as swimming, paddling, and picnicing. Among the most famous and visited are Mae Ya Waterfall, which is located within Doi Inthanon National Park, Bua Tong Waterfall, also referred to as the “sticky waterfall” due to its unique rocks that are covered in a limestone deposit, and the dramatic-looking Mok Fah Waterfall, hidden in the lush green depths of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park.
Aside from being incredibly photogenic, these waterfalls offer a tranquil oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the city, where you can discover a variety of plants and flowers that blossom throughout the year, and walk along scenic hiking trails and viewpoints along the way. You can also find several local eateries dotted around these areas, making it the ideal place to stop for lunch or an afternoon snack. Just make sure you tread carefully and be aware that some waterfalls have harsh currents, which might not make them suitable for swimming in.
9. Dance the Night Away at Zoe in Yellow
While Chiang Mai might not be best known for its pumping nightlife – unlike the nation’s capital, Bangkok – there are a few main bar areas dotted around the city which attract locals and tourists. Nimmanhemin Road (or Nimman) is regarded as the high-end hub of the city, and attracts mostly young Thai students who come to watch local bands and sports on TV in bars such as Mirror Café and Rush Bar. There are also some large nightclubs in this area which feature more professional bands.
Meanwhile, Boon Yoo Market (also called Soi Reggae) in the Old City is home to a cluster of well-known venues, including Zoe in Yellow, the number one party spot for young travellers and international students. This particular bar has a dance floor, and is surrounded by seven other bars which each offer slightly different music, ranging from dance and pop, to hip hop, drum’n’bass, and even reggae (look out for Roots Rock Reggae). Those looking for a more relaxed evening can opt to sit in the outdoor beer garden, or grab a cocktail from the quirky mobile van bar nearby.
10. Do Some Yoga
With its laid-back bohemian vibe, it comes as no surprise to learn that Chiang Mai is a popular yoga hub. Whether you’re just passing through or staying for a while, the city has a diverse range of yoga studios which welcome seasoned yogis and newbies alike. Among the most popular are Yoga Tree, which has long been a favourite ode to its lush green gardens, tight community spirit, and exciting programme of yoga, movement meditation, and dance classes. The studio offers single drop-in classes for 300 baht (around HKD70), five class passes for 1,300 baht (HKD300), and 10 classes for 2,500 baht (HKD600), depending on the length of your stay in the city.
Another popular option is Wild Rose Yoga Studio, one of the oldest and most established yoga schools in Chiang Mai, which offers classes in a range of styles, including Vinyasa, Earth Fusion Flow, and Ashtanga Vinyasa Flow. The studio caters to seasoned yoga students and is actively involved in local charity work, hosting periodic outreach classes and benefits to raise funds for various organisations that support a particular cause. Drop-in classes are available for 250 baht, or you can attend five classes for 1,000 baht, or 10 classes for 1,900 baht.
Yoga Tree, 65/1 Arak Road, Prasing, Muang, Chiang Mai
Wild Rose Yoga Studio, 4/1 Phraproklao, Muang, Chiang Mai
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