Chiang Mai is Thailand’s rose of the north. It is filled with artists, great food, forests, and animals. Chiang Mai isn’t for everyone. Life is very laid back and people are friendly. It is a great place to visit after the bustle of a city like Bangkok to unwind and take a breath of fresh air. While slow, it is noted as being a city full of adventure. There are numerous rappelling-through-the-jungle excursions, white water rafting, ATVs, jungle trekking, and of course, elephants.
#1 Elephant Nature Park
Chiang Mai is loaded with elephant camps, but none is as well-known as the Elephant Nature Park. Comprised of mostly rescue elephants, it differs greatly from many of the other camps in the region who are criticised for treating these magnificent animals poorly and overworking them.
Visitors flock from all over the world to spend a day volunteering to feed and bathe the elephants. The experience as a whole is phenomenally educational. Not only do you get to spend time up close, but you learn how elephants are viewed in the eyes of Thailand’s inhabitants.
Volunteering includes transportation to and from the park and lunch. The money goes towards maintaining the grounds and providing for the animals. Spots fill up very quickly, so be sure to make reservations far in advance.
Admission: 2,500THB per adult, 1,250THB per child
#2 Doi Inthanon
Doi Inthanon is the highest peak in Thailand and contains a vast amount of the spectacles that make Thailand such a draw. Time can be spent venturing to several waterfalls or village hill tribes, or for a more educational experience, visiting two pagodas built in honour of a former king. Doi Inthanon is about a two-hour drive from Chiang Mai. Most hostels or travel companies offer daily tours including transportation and meals. An alternative would be to rent a motorbike and explore yourself. Doi Inthanon boasts some of the most phenomenal views in Thailand, rivalled only by those in Krabi and Ao Nang. There is something magical about watching a sunset from 8400ft.
Admission: 200THB for adults, 100THB for children
What is so great about the markets in Chiang Mai is that juxtaposed the mass produced souvenirs you will find in every major city in Thailand, Chiang Mai is unique in that it is also filled with tonnes of handmade souvenirs, woodworking, paintings, and textiles. If you plan on buying gifts and trinkets for friends and family, don’t succumb to the overpriced goods from the street vendors or shopping malls in Bangkok. You can find just about everything for a fraction of the price in Chiang Mai. There are three notable markets to mention:
Chiang Mai Gate Market
Every night, vendors set up shop at the Chiang Mai Gate selling everything from purses and paintings to pad thai and mango sticky rice. The market is held seven nights a week, but the best time to go is weeknights because there are fewer vendors on the weekend.
Location: Chiang Mai Gate
Sunday Walking Street
Already check out Chiang Mai Gate Market during the week? Fear not, there is a market on the weekend too! This place is packed with food, handcrafted lamps, dolls, soaps, jewellery, local woodworking, clothing and the list goes on. You will find everything from ‘tourist food’, like pad thai and sushi, to more local food, like curry in plastic bags, because this market is visited by both tourists and locals. If you don’t go early, you will feel like you are trying to leave a packed sports arena after a game is over.
The market stretches the length of Rachadamnoen road, which is about three blocks. Give yourself solid 2-3 hours if you want to explore everything the market has to offer. Make sure to bring your wallet and your patience, as navigating the endless throng of people can be quite cumbersome.
Location: Rachadamnoen road
Get prepared to do some haggling because this market is packed with tourists. This isn’t to say you can’t make some great finds here. It is packed with clothing and knick-knacks. What is great about this market is that when you’re finished shopping you can attend a muay Thai boxing fight. Muay Thai plays a huge part in local culture; just make sure you find one that isn’t staged, which can be hard to do. There are many fights that just repeat the same two fighters every night, so they have a routine down.
Location: Chang Klan Road
#4 Cooking Classes
Chiang Mai caters to healthy eateries. Countless restaurants are organic and or vegan-friendly, while a large part of the rest of food in Thailand is comprised of fish sauce and shrimp paste. Because of the focus on healthy food, a multitude of organic farms and cooking classes have sprung up all over Chiang Mai. Most cooking classes are generally a half day; however, there is a handful that has a full day option. If you have any interest in cooking whatsoever, I highly recommend taking a cooking class. Westerners typically look at Asian food as ‘extremely difficult to prepare’ because of the diverse amount of vegetables that you cannot find in most western supermarkets (and even speciality stores). If you fall into this category, then no better a time to get your feet wet with cooking you may never do again! I should note that you can find most of the ingredients in Asian stores of most large cities.
I can’t speak to every cooking class (there are hundreds), but this is how mine went:
- Pickup at the hotel, drives to local market
- Tour the local market and discuss things like what types of rice most Thai’s use and how coconut milk is made
- Fill out the menu you want to cook (fried tofu, tom yum soup, spring rolls, pad thai, curry, several chicken dishes, mango sticky rice, fried banana and the list goes on)
- Drive to your cooking destination (mine happened to be outside the city on an organic farm)
- Learn about the types of vegetables and roots typical in Thai cooking
- Return to hotel
Cost: ~1,200THB / half day
Location: Scattered throughout the city, you can book a cooking class at almost every single hostel
#5 Flight of the Gibbon
Among the towering trees of Mae Takhrai Park, a wild family of primates marks their territory in song. Listen. Woooooooo, a soft cry echoes through the jungle. It’s no gibbon; it’s an exhilarated tourist flying through the treetops on a zip line.
Flight of the Gibbon, a Chiang Mai Zipline tour company, offers you an experience you will never forget: Ziplining through the jungle to a total of 30 stations. The journey extends over 5km and also boasts the longest ‘single flight’ zip line in Asia (800m). You will face your fears, and a handful of exotic primates, as you make your way down from the 50m treetops.
A zip line experience is not only exhilarating, it’s also rewarding. Part of the proceeds is used for gibbon conservation. Flight of the Gibbon uses the proceeds to re-introduce this dying species into the wild.
#6 The Jungle
A trip to Chiang Mai isn’t complete without a taste of the wild side. Take an overnight trekking trip through the dense jungles of Northern Thailand. One of the best and underrated travel companies is Chiangmai Trekking by Piroon, a travel company run and maintained by a group of indigenous villagers. They provide a variety of packages, but I went with the biggest and the best: 3 days 2 nights. It came with the following:
- Food (vegan-friendly)
- Swimming under a waterfall
- Meeting local villagers and learning about their way of life
- Elephant riding/bathing
- Bamboo rafting down a river
- Fishing (old school with nets!)
- Singing and dancing around a campfire while our guide played the guitar
- Mini village cooking lesson
- Hiking through the jungle and a rice paddy
#7 Doi Suthep
Overlooking the city from the north-west on Doi Suthep Mountain is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. If you are coming from Bangkok, you are probably thinking ‘not another freaking Wat’. But, this one is a must see. It is one of the most spiritually significant places in Thailand and compared to some of the rest, it is quite beautiful. Flowing from parts of the mountain are also some of the most enjoyable waterfalls in the area: Mae Sa Falls, Huay Kaew Falls, and Monthathan Falls. Each waterfall is accessible from the main road.
Getting to the top of the mountain is an adventure itself. If you want to explore the mountain on your own, a standard 100 or 125cc motorbike is more than sufficient to make the accent. Doi Suthep is 9 miles north-west of Chiang Mai. Head to the National Park entrance and from there it’s another 20-minute drive up the mountain.
Cost: Most attractions are free, Monthathan waterfall costs 300THB
The 7 Wonders of Chiang Mai is written by Yitzhak Magoon. Yitzhak Magoon is a fellow travel blogger who visited Chiang Mai. Follow Yitzhak Magoon at My Road to Happyness.
Have you visited Chiang Mai? What are the places that you have visited in Chiang Mai that you feel should make into the list of 7 wonders?