Located in the mountainous northern reaches of Thailand, Chiang Mai is the perfect city for travelers looking to escape the traffic, congestion, and heat of Bangkok. Where Bangkok is more known for its vibrant nightlife, bustling street scene, and ionic temples, Chiang Mai offers more of a playground for families and outdoor enthusiasts. We loved our time spent in Bangkok, but seeing elephants, meeting hill tribe villages, and hiking around the highest point in Thailand made Chiang Mai a better fit for the activities we enjoy most. If you’re planning a trip to Southeast Asia anytime soon, make sure to visit Chiang Mai and enjoy these seven activities while you’re there!
1. Take A Day Trip To Elephant Nature Park
My favorite part of our entire trip to Thailand was our visit to Elephant Nature Park. Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a sanctuary and rescue for inured, abused, and abandoned elephants. Located 40-miles from Chiang Mai, the sprawling preserve is located high in the forested mountains outside of the city. The day started early, with an ENP van picking us up at 8:00, and taking us on a winding road up to the park.
Our elephant exposure started right when we stepped out of the van, as the elephants were feeding right next to the parking area. The ENP grounds also have an elevated walkway that allows visitors to safely walk around the park and view the elephants as they go about their day.
After getting a lot of up close time with the elephants, we got a chance to feed them. We instantly saw how well fed and well treated these elephants were, because they weren’t at all interested in the watermelon we were offering.
ENP isn’t just an elephant preserve, they also take care of dogs and cats. As we entered the pen for the small dog enclosure, a tiny guy hopped up into my sons lap and refused to move. It was love at first sight. It was hard for me not to allow my son to adopt, but with two dogs at home, our hands are already full.
2. Take A Day Trip To Doi Inthanon
Doi Inthanon is the highest point in all of Thailand. Located at 8415 feet, the views from the summit provide an amazing vista of the landscape below. If you plan on making your way up to Doi Inthanon, make sure to bring a few layers, as the mornings can get pretty cold.
We spent the early morning hours on Doi Inthanon hiking on a few of the interpretive trails before making our way to the two iconic chedis, Naphamethinidon and Naphaphonphumisiri.
3. Visit A Hill Tribe Village
After our time at Doi Inthanon, we drove down the mountain for a visit to a rustic village coffee shop called Mae Klang Luang Coffee. I have a love for local grown coffee and this seemed like a great opportunity to enjoy some. The story of Thai coffee is a fascinating one. As many know, opium was the top crop in the Golden Triangle area for some time. The Thai King started a Royal Project to provide a cash crop alternative to Thai farmers and end optimum production. This began the transition from the opium poppy to the coffee bean.
Mae Klang Luang Coffee is nestled at the top of a hill in a Karen village on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, and can be visited directly from the city or as part of a visit to Doi Inthanon.
After enjoying our pot of coffee at Mae Klang Luang Coffee, we walked around the Karen village to see how the families spend their time around the forests and rice paddies. One memorable stop was with an older woman making tapestries using a traditional weaving method. It was amazing to see her in action, and interesting to hear how difficult it is for her to teach the younger generation the older skills.
4. Go To A Khantoke Dinner Show
A Khantoke Dinner is a dinner that is served on a small dining table tray called a khantoke. This table and dinner style is originally Laotian, and can be enjoyed with Northern Thai food alongside traditional Northern Thai dance at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. We arrived at the cultural center a little early and were created by musicians playing some traditional instruments.
Once we were seated, the khantokes were brought out. We were served phenomenal Thai Curry dishes, vegetables, meats, and a few vegetarian options for Julia. Every time one of our side dishes went empty, a server would bring out a brand new one. I think I ended up eating three or four bowls of the Thai chicken curry.
After dinner, the show began. We got to see an entertaining production with traditional Thai dances, music, and costumes. It was the perfect way to end our day of exploration.
5. Visit the Night Market and Day Market
If you’re in Chiang Mai, you have to visit the famous Night Market and Warorot Market (Kad Luang). The night market starts around 6:30 PM and spans multiple city blocks. You’ll find street food, clothes, handcrafts, and more.
The Warorot Market is another market you don’t want to miss, as it is the largest and most well known market in the north of Thailand. The focus of Warorot Market is mostly on food items, but there is also a very large flower stall, as well as stalls for other odds and ends.
6. Walk Around Chiang Mai For Food and Sights
Chiang Mai is a great city to explore on foot and is a joy for those of us that like street photography and people watching. The pace of life is a slower than Bangkok, which helps pedestrians feel a little more at east taking in the sites on foot.
While you’re out walking around, make sure to try some of the great street food and restaurants. Bangkok has the edge on quantity of street food vendors and food offerings, but Chiang Mai is neck-and-neck on quality.
7. Visit Temples in Chiang Mai City
Chiang Mai doesn’t have Bangkok’s iconic temples with massive Buddhas or towering prangs, but it does have a historic city center temple that dates back to the 14th century. You’ll also find the more modern Golden Temple, Wat Phra Singha.