Nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges rich with lush shades of green, the northern city of Chiang Mai feels more like a small town with access to nature only steps from your guesthouse. Completely surrounded by an old wall and a moat dating back to the 13th century, it’s easy to compare the unofficial capital of the north to many small towns in medieval Europe. The ubiquitous motorbikes weaving in and out of traffic, however, along with the numerous Buddhist temples sprinkled with orange-clad monks make it easy to overlook this comparison. Navigating the many adventures and experiences that await visitors to Chiang Mai requires prioritizing, which almost mandates a bucket list .
Hike up to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
One of the most visited Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, glistens in gold atop Suthep Mountain. Most travelers reach this holy site by riding up the windy road via Red Car (shared taxi), but there is a much more adventurous, albeit longer, route. Consider hiking through the jungle, passing an old temple in the woods and monks quarters along the way.
Go Camping in the Mountains
We recommend two of the National Parks in the Chiang Mai area for camping: Mae Ping National Park at the Bhumibol Reservoir and Ob Luang National Park. While the Bhumibol Reservoir offers lush jungle with many exotic birds as well as a unique opportunity to see locals living in floating houses on the immense lake, Ob Luang features waterfalls, caves, a hot spring and beautiful rocky gorges. Both locations provide camping gear so not to worry if you didn’t pack your tent or sleeping bag and if you’re looking for something a little more luxurious consider renting a room overlooking the Bhumibol Reservoir or a bungalow in the jungle of Ob Luang.
Get a Massage at the Women’s Correctional Institution
This suggestion might seem unusual but trust us, you won’t be disappointed for three reasons: price, skill, and supporting a lower recidivism rate in Thailand. For as little as $5 US for an hour massage you can help give a new lease on life to prisoners who have chosen to master the art of massage as a way to dissuade themselves from returning to a life of crime. But you will forget all this once their hands are massaging away all your travel aches and pains.
Visit Elephant Nature Park
While in Chiang Mai be sure to visit Elephant Nature Park, where you can feed and bathe elephants of all ages as well as learn about the plight of the Asian elephant and observe their natural behavior.
Lek Chaliert’s Save Elephant Foundation runs this project offering day trips, overnight stays or a week of volunteering, which provides opportunities for the betterment of the elephants. Whether you are planting trees, building a fence or making a mud pit you will always be in ear shot of an elephant trumpeting!
Take a Cooking Course
Northern Thailand is home to many delicious Lanna-style dishes that should definitely be enjoyed. But why not take your favorite Thai meals home with you by learning to prepare them yourself. Impress your family and friends back home with authentic pad Thai, spicy papaya salad and the northern specialty of khao soi.
In addition to the recommendations above be sure to save some time to simply get lost in the city, exploring each soi (small street) and following your intuition of which windy road might reveal a hidden gem. Cool off from shopping at the Sunday Walking Street or the Night Bazaar with one of the many flavors of fruit smoothies; in our opinion the mango smoothie is the most refreshing but be sure to try them all and decide for yourself. No matter which activities you opt for, we guarantee you won’t be bored in Chiang Mai.