Sweet, gorgeous Chiang Mai. Located in northern Thailand, this city is everything Bangkok is not: it is peaceful, relaxing and blessedly less crowded.
It’s easy to just get sucked into the city when traveling and decide to stick around longer. With so many affordable hotels and guest houses in Chiang Mai (we’re talking under $10 a night, folks!), plus cheap street food to devour, this city is a travelers dream.
There seems to be a never-ending list of things to do in Chiang Mai and so many things to love about the city.
So, if you cross these major tourist attractions off of the list, what is there to do in Chiang Mai?
Hang Out With Elephants At A True Sanctuary
Right now, tour operators in Thailand are beginning to jump on the “sanctuary” bandwagon, meaning they are greenwashing their attractions to appeal to those who want a more ethical and animal-friendly way to see elephants. Operators will say places are sanctuaries, but the truth is this: if a place offers rides, shows, paintings, chains the animals, keeps them from socializing with other animals and uses instruments of pain to get them to listen, it isn’t a sanctuary. A true sanctuary focuses on the animals’ experience versus the human’s experience. It isn’t about exploitation; it is about observation.
There are only a few true sanctuaries in Thailand: Save Elephant Foundation, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, Wildlife Friends of Thailand, and Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary are at the tops of this list.
My personal favorite is Save Elephant Foundation’s Elephant Nature Park. Located about 60 km north of Chiang Mai, this sanctuary is home to more than 40 elephants rescued from tourism and trekking, circuses, street begging, illegal logging and more. Here, the elephants are chain-free, no hooks are used, and they simply get to hang out in their jungle environment.
If you want to see the elephants, this is the best way to do it. You can book a day trip or an overnight (or, if you have time, can even volunteer for a week or longer). Guests walk the field nearby the elephants, learning about their individual histories and personalities (and they all have such different personalities), have a chance to feed them and bathe them, as well as learning about the realities of the elephant tourism industry in SE Asia.
At a price tag of around $80 USD for the day, the money goes towards your transportation to and from the park, a gorgeous vegetarian buffet, to cover the care of the thousand animals at the park (dogs, cats, buffalo, pigs, cows and more), and park maintenance and staff. This is a sustainable operation and all jobs are given to the local villagers. Founded by Lek Chailert, money also goes to help students receive scholarships so they can continue their education.
For those who have a little more to shell out, Pamper a Pachyderm offers a small group experience with only a few elephants and a few tour participants. Guests on this tour spend the morning with a small group of elephants, watching them eat and then head on a jungle walk with the elephants to enjoy lunch while they graze on nearby foliage. After that, participants raft down the river to Elephant Nature Park and spend the rest of the day there.
Skip Exploitive/Abusive Animal Attractions
Since I lived in Chiang Mai for almost three years and worked in responsible tourism, I get tons of questions about what activities are good for the conscious traveler to enjoy. The first thing I always advise is to skip the elephant camps with riding, shows and paintings, avoid the Chiang Mai Zoo and Night Safari and please, please don’t patronize the tiger attractions.
These places are strife with animal exploitation and abuse. So many people write reviews saying the animals looked happy, but, I assure you, after working in responsible animal tourism in Thailand for years, that is most definitely not the case. Aside from the practices involved in simply obtaining these wild animals, once in captivity their lives in many attractions can be quite horrible.
Sadly, most of SE Asia is extremely exploitive and abusive to animals. There are no real laws in place to guarantee their well-being, and therefore no real policing agency (although the DNP does exist) to monitor the animals treatment in captivity.
So, skip: tigers, monkeys, crocodiles, snakes, any opportunities you have to take photos with any exotic (and often times endangered) animals. By supporting places like this, the operators see this as a sign to continue the practice and meet the demand.
If you want more information on responsible animal attractions, check out Right Tourism.
CHECK OUT THE VIEW
Explore Doi Suthep
Chiang Mai is surrounded by lush mountains worthy of exploration. Carve out some time and head up to Doi Suthep, the highest peak in the area, to explore the gorgeous Wat Phrathat temple. You can hike or bike up the mountain, or hire a red truck or car to get you up.
I suggest heading there at either sunrise or sunset to beat the massive crowds and to get the best view of the city. Be warned: during burning season (February through May) the view is crap. I prefer the view during rainy season when you can see the rain being dumped on parts of the city. It makes for some seriously dramatic photos.
For those who have time, the temple also offers vipassana meditation retreats starting at four days. These are donation-based, so be sure to plan to spend a little money (about 300 baht a week is what people donate). It’s early mornings of meditation and chanting, fasting after noon and exploring the gorgeous surroundings of Doi Suthep.
EAT ALL THE FOOD
Many spots in Chiang Mai feature outdoor areas packed with street food vendors. You can find all sorts of gorgeous Thai meals, gorgeous fruit smoothies, plus some more western meals (hello, fish n’ chips), too.
I love the street food market at Pratu Chiang Mai, the south gate. But, on weekends you can find some more exotic street food at the Saturday and Sunday Walking Streets.
Street food doesn’t have to be purchased, either! You can even take a cooking class!
This Northern Thai spicy coconut soup is a must-try when visiting Chiang Mai. My favorite spot to get Khao Soi is at Khao Soi Nimman in the trendy Nimmanhaemin.
Thai Freedom House — an NGO that aids Burmese refugees and Thai minorities — runs Free Bird Cafe. The cafe wears many hats; it is a Burmese restaurant/thrift shop/meeting space. Serving up some beautiful Burmese specialties (try the Tea Leaf Salad, really), plus exotic smoothies, it is a popular spot for expats to come and chill out for a few. It’s only got a few seats, so try to get there during non-peak hours, otherwise you could end up waiting.
Juicy 4 u, on Ratmakka just inside the moat, is a tiny jungle spot serving up vegetarian and vegan food. You can customize your sandwiches or salads with up to 10 toppings, plus sample some of the spot’s massive juice list to get you healthy.
Get the Kinks Out
There are plenty of massage places in Chiang Mai. In fact, they can be found on basically every street corner, and again two doors down. Not every massage shop is the same, and you can get some really crappy ones if you pick the wrong spot. The best spot in town is Green Bamboo, located on Moonmeaung Soi 1. Organic, relaxing, treatments range from facials to oil massages and wraps.
There are plenty of opportunities to get your health and beauty on in Chiang Mai (in fact, I wrote an entire guide to health and beauty in Chiang Mai). Yoga is huge in the city and there are so many spots in town to check out for yoga.
DRINK COFFEE LIKE A DIGITAL NOMAD
The Old City
Surrounded by a moat, Chiang Mai’s Old City is the heart of the tourist area. This means everything is a tiny bit more expensive, and there are plenty of coffee shops with super-fast wi-fi. It’s more fun to go wander the flower-lined sois and discover places to sip coffee, but if you don’t feel like looking, Black Canyon Coffee at Thaepae Gate is consistent. Bird’s Nest Cafe, located on the west side of the moat, is cozy and beautiful place to grab a cup and hop on Facebook while eating Mediterranean food. I spent most of my time at Good Morning Chiang Mai, on the south end of the city. It’s got live music on Saturdays for brunch, plus a peaceful outdoor area to work.
Outside the Moat
Nimmanhaemin is the center of the coffee culture in Chiang Mai. Ristr8to is the mainstay here, offering a coffee selection from around the world for the aficionados. But, there are about as many coffee shops in Nimman as there are massage spots in the rest of the city. I spent a lot of time at Play, located on Nimmanhaemin Soi 13. This shop has actual tables and chairs, plus desk lamps on each. They also serve some great smoothies, shakes and small meals.
Every day, it seems like a new coffee shop is popping up here. So, a surefire bet is simply to head to Nimman and wander. You’ll find plenty of quirky, cozy or hip places to enjoy a coffee or other caffeinated beverage.