Chiang Mai, the northern city of Thailand is a real contrast from Bangkok and is considered by many to be the ‘real Thailand’. While it does have a lot of Western influences, and you are never far away from a familiar brand of shop or eatery, its laid back vibe and slower pace of life makes it an essential destination on any trip to Thailand or even Southeast Asia.
While lots of travellers end up staying here longer than they planned, and joining the growing ranks of foreigners who are making this city their home for a few months or more, there are even more visitors to Thailand who don’t make it up to Chiang Mai as it doesn’t have a beach and is considered a bit out of the way.
If you are one of those people who aren’t yet sold on the idea of heading up north, then his article should hopefully sell some its attractions, and make you reconsider your plans. For those of you who are already planning on visiting, then these highlights should give you some ideas of what to see and do and what to avoid while in Chiang Mai.
Get a Bird’s Eye View of the City
Looming in the background of Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep and the Buddhist temple that was built upon it called Wat Prahthat. Most of the baht buses or songthaews that cruise the city will take you up there, although the ones with Doi Suthep emblazoned across their windscreens are a safe bet. It’s a short drive to the mountain foot, and then a windy trip up to the top. Once there it’s just a quick sprint up 309 steps in the gentle warmth and mild humidity of Thailand, and you will have reached Wat Prahthat. Some crazy farangs even trek up Doi Suthep but I wouldn’t recommend it for the casual visitor.
The views from the top are breath-taking though, and really give you an idea of the size of Chiang Mai, which can seem quite small from the ground. As this is one of the must see attractions of the city, you won’t be alone when you make it to the temple, and will be sharing the sights with many other tourists. But this is to be expected with anything that is worth doing or seeing in Thailand.
As this is a functioning Buddhist temple, you will have to abide by the standard rules of taking your shoes off, wearing clothes that cover your legs and shoulders if you are a woman, and not climbing on things to get a ‘funny’ photo of yourself desecrating a religious artefact.
There are 100s of other temples in Chiang Mai but none of them feature the views of this one so if you want to avoid temple-fatigue, make this one the first on your visit.
Take a Slow Boat up the River
Chiang Mai was built along the Ping River which eventually turns into the Chao Phraya River, which runs through Bangkok. You can take a boat ride on this epic journey but a more convenient way to enjoy the beauty and serenity of this river is to take a half day, boat trip from the main bridge. If you partake in an organised tour, you get a guide for the boat who points out various features along the banks as well as any wildlife he spots as you make your way over the water. The trip stops off at a farm museum which has live examples of vegetables and herbs which grow in Thailand as well as a few large pigs that are residents of the mock-farm. The highlight of this trip though, is the lunch, where you will be served the local northern dish of Khao Soi which is one of the must-east dishes of the region.
You don’t have to take a boat trip to enjoy the river though; you can simply walk along its banks or spend some time watching the view from the bridge. The more adventurous of you out there could try and get hold of some canoes or kayaks and explore the river at your own leisure. However you choose to experience the Ping River though, it is definitely one of the highlights of Chiang Mai.
Time for Tea
While in Bangkok you are never far from a Starbucks, in Chiang Mai you are never far from an independent tea house serving coffee and teas from around the world, as well as local blends and home baked snacks. Walking down a side street and spotting a quiet and peaceful shop is one of the joys of this city, and it is highly recommended you make as many stops as you can along the way.
The highlight of the tea houses in Chiang Mai is the Raming Tea House Siam Celadon, which is a few minutes’ walk from the centre of town. It’s an old teak house which has been done up to serve as a tea room and eatery serving light refreshments. The tea is great but the cakes are wonderful so make sure you stop by if you are passing, on your way to the river. There is a tranquil garden out the back where you can sit for your refreshments, or just enjoy the architecture from inside.
What Not to Do in Chiang Mai
When tourists start coming to any town, a lot of questionable activities are setup to help part them with their money. Chiang Mai is no exception, and as well as being a likely waste of money, a lot of the tours and day setup will also help exploit the local people and animals. So while it might be fun to ride an elephant, visit a human zoo of hill tribe people or snuggle up to a suspiciously docile tiger, spare a thought for the people and animals who are providing your entertainment.
While the elephants you get to ride might seem in ok spirits, think about the process involved in getting them to function as human taxis, let alone the ones forced to perform as circus animals. Hill tribe people, living in exhibition villages, might benefit from some of the money tourists give them on their visits, but does this outweigh the boredom and pointlessness of a life spent sitting around all day being gawped at by tourists with big cameras?
If you do take a day trip in Chiang Mai, you can have some great experiences, like travelling down the river, through the jungle on a bamboo raft, or pelting if full speed through the rapids in a rubber dingy. But when booking, try to avoid signing up for anything with a hill tribe visit or a snuggle session with some subdued tigers. You never know, with a drop in numbers, one day the tour guides might decide to take these activities off their books.
If you do want to see an elephant, but don’t feel the need to force it to transport you around like a proboscidean rickshaw, then the Elephant Nature Park is your best bet, having been setup by the Save Elephant Foundation. It’s not cheap, but you go with a clear conscience and it’s the real deal.