Naturally Spectacular — Chiang Mai, Thailand

chiang mai bridge

What do you imagine when someone says Northern Thailand? Far from the balmy breezes of the coast, the north has an entirely different appeal for travelers.

Think lush green rainforest, elephants, tribal handicrafts, and golden Buddhist temples. If you prefer adventure off the beaten path, the north is your paradise for trekking, camping, and white water rafting. Read about idyllic retreats and scuba diving in other articles of our Spotlight on Thailand series.

Situated on the Ping River in the Daen Lao Mountain Range dividing Thailand and Burma, Chiang Mai, Thailand’s sixth largest city in population has flourished as a center of trade and handicrafts for over 700 years.

Nearby, Doi Inthanon National Park draws thousands of visitors yearly with its natural wonders, including over 380 species of birds. Multiple rivers, stunning waterfalls, and dense evergreen and deciduous forests dominate the landscape.

Shrouded in the chilly mists of the ‘cloud forest,’ hikers find temperate ferns, lichens, and red rhododendron growing at high elevations on Mount Doi Inthanon.

Uncover Your Little Piece of Hedonism

With the breathtaking surroundings and plethora of activities in Chiang Mai, the hardest thing may be choosing what to do. Inquire at your hotel reception for activity brochures, or try a few of the suggestions below.

night bazaar

For self-catered adventure, take a wander and haggle at the Chiang Mai night bazaar. Merchants sell everything from woodcarvings, paintings and colored glass lanterns to wrap pants and floral sarongs. Bring small bills if you expect to bring down the price.

If you love Thai food, take a 1 to 5 day cooking class at the internationally known Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. The good-humored and knowledgeable staff teaches preparation techniques for traditional Thai courses, including desserts such as divine black sticky rice pudding.

Instructors give organized demonstrations, explain the importance of different ingredients for flavor and texture, and provide excellent tips. A recipe book is included, and so is lunch — the food you’ve prepared. The entertaining classes are a delicious must-try.

Glide though the forest canopy on a zip-line at “Flight of the Gibbon,” an ecotourism adventure outside the village of Mae Kompang. Tree houses, platforms and rope bridges connect a 2 kilometer-long course named for the swift tree-dwelling apes under threat from deforestation.

“Flight of the Gibbon” sky rangers provide safety instructions and assist visitors through the treetops that were once used for research. Your flight supports primate rehabilitation and rainforest conservation projects in the region.

For the thrill of white water, take an exhilarating course through grade 3 and 4 rapids on the Mae Taeng River. Siam River Adventures offers white water rafting tours for individuals and groups departing from a private river camp in the Sop Kai Village. Guides are trained in swift water rescue. Recommended by National Geographic Adventure magazine.

chiang mai temple

If your time is limited in Chiang Mai, a private tour will add much to your experience. While private guides are not hard to find — your taxi driver may hand you a package brochure — booking activities before you leave allows for peace of mind, and a smooth start to your vacation.

A knowledgeable tour guide can explain local customs, answer your questions, offer advice, and at your convenience, take you to agreed locations in and around Chiang Mai.

Consider a tour company licensed with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), such as Wayfarers Travel, which offers a generous range of activities. They operate 1 to 4 day tours and trekking trips around Chiang Mai, and neighboring Chiang Rai in the Golden Triangle. Activity packages and customized tours are available.

A Sampling of Wayfarers Tours

Over 300 beautifully ornamented Buddhist temples dot Thailand’s Northern region. A number of sites, such as the 14th Century Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple in the mountains of Chiang Mai, still have resident monks who teach and meditate there. Thais and visitors alike are welcome to walk the grounds or quietly reflect at the statued shrines.

Quick Facts:

  • Lang: Thai, English
  • Currency: THB, baht
  • Time zone: GMT +7 h
  • Tel. country code: +66

Feed and ride a pachyderm through the forest at the Dao Elephant Camp outside Chiang Mai. Watch the herd bath together in the river, demonstrate their strength and agility, and paint pictures on a canvas. Eat your fill at their jungle cafe, and finish the afternoon poling down the Mae Ping River on a bamboo raft. Your river guide might offer you a try at steering.

Learn some history, and experience the customs of the Karen, Lisu, and Padong “long neck” hill tribes. If you’d like a souvenir, handicrafts are sold in the villages.

Try a package trip to local handicraft producers, where merchandise is created on-site. Watch colorful silk fabrics woven on a loom, witness silver rings and necklaces being forged, or learn the process of lacquering and hand-painting tableware.

At other sites, discover how paper umbrellas are fashioned, watch wood-workers carve intricate elephant patterns for custom order furniture, admire celadon ‘crackle glaze’ ceramics, or peruse a government-certified jade shop. Items you like can usually be purchased at an adjoining store.

For siteseeing at a slower place, short excursions lasting a few hours are a nice option. Visit temple ruins, an orchid farm, or shop for farmer’s produce and spices at a local market.

chiang mai elephants