Chiang Mai is northern Thailand’s largest city and is over 715 years old. Chiang Mai is about a 14-hour train ride (1 ½ hours by plane) from Bangkok and is a great place to experience Northern Thailand’s unique culture. The city has roughly 1 million people in the metropolitan area and is a centered around a moated area referred to as “Old City”. Within Old City, you can find modern coffee shops, massage parlors and bars all surrounded by hundreds of ancient temples. Chiang Mai has certainty catered to tourists and expats; however, there is still a certain charm in the city and its surrounding wilderness.
If you’re going to do elephant trekking, it’s essential to do your homework. There is no central agency in Thailand that regulates the many animal attractions and owners are very keen to marketing their camps as safe. While many camps advertise riding elephants, those that are focused on protecting the animals and their guests have done away with riding.
For outfits in the Chiang Mai area, we recommend Elephant Retirement Park or Elephant Nature Park. The latter is by far the most popular and needs to be booked at least a few days in advance. Both camps offer feeding and bathing with the elephants. At Elephant Retirement Park, you will have the opportunity to take a mud bath with the elephants in which your whole body is covered in mud (well, mostly mud…). You will also have the opportunity to learn general facts and the cultural importance of the animals. This can be a really great experience when attending the right camp.
Take a Cooking Class
A Life Engaged is big on food and tasting through a culture. Cooking classes can be found all over Thailand. There are half-day and full-day courses to choose from. Some go out to a local Thai farm while others work right in the heart of the city.
There are many options in Chiang Mai (as well as other parts of Thailand), but we especially liked our experience at Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School. The school is owned and run by Thai women, which is a point of pride for this particular organization. They have full day classes at their countryside farm outside the city. Both half-day and full-day classes are also offered at their facility within Old City, which houses an organic herb garden!
Most classes offer half-day and full-day courses and include anywhere from 4-6 recipes to cook in class. Most companies also offer a free cookbook to take home with you. Prices vary slightly from company to company but are generally around 700-800 baht (~$20-$25) for half-day and 1,000-1,200 baht (~$30-$35) for the whole day.
This is a must-do as well. You’ll learn about local Thai culture and the environment the people live in, including lush jungles full of lychee trees and local produce. There are so many fruit trees in Thailand…you’ll never go hungry on a trek!
Spending the night out in the jungle is a truly unique experience. Even for those that have a phobia of creepy-crawlies, rest assured this is not an experience you want to miss (mosquito nets provide a lot of comfort!)
One of the amazing views across the mountains on our jungle trek
Weekend Walking Street
If you can, try and schedule your trip to Chiang Mai around a weekend. There is both a Saturday and Sunday Walking Street as they are called, which are large markets that require the roads to be shut down to cars and motorbikes. There is amazingly good and cheap street food as well as very unique souvenirs that can be purchased and bartered for. The products here are more unique and authentic than found in the Bangkok markets.
Wat, Wat, Wat
There are over 200 temples within the walls of “Old City” Chiang Mai, so if checking out temples and wats is your cup of tea, this is your heaven! While much smaller than the temples at Grand Palace in Bangkok, there are some really impressive temples in Chiang Mai. Best of all, all are free to enter so long as you take off your shoes and dress respectfully. If you’re interested in learning more about the Buddhist religion, many temples offer ‘monk chats’ where you can sit and ask any questions you may have about Buddhism.
There are heaps of activities and excursions to choose from in Chiang Mai, so make sure to give yourself at least 5-6 days to explore this beautiful city and the jungle surrounding it. It was a personal favorite of ours in Thailand!