Most people who visit Chiang Mai seem to love it. Why is that? Is it the chance to get away from Bangkok where the weather is just too hot and sticky for most people? Perhaps. Chiang Mai also isn’t half or a quarter the size of Bangkok, but it’s been a backpacker Mecca for nearly as long as Khao San Road has.
Chiang Mai is in the northern part of Thailand, and there is no doubt it is cooler and far more laid back than Bangkok. Historically, it sit in these does well out and around from ancient city walls, which remind visitors that this used to be an historic city of some grandeur dating back to the 13th century. There are plenty of temples to visit, some are quite old and most are functioning.
The Lanna Folklife Museum is an excellent little museum (and well air conditioned!) that can be found in the centre of town and will take an hour or two of your time, giving the visitor an idea about the history of the region. Recommended!
Today though, as a centre for tourists and to be more precise backpackers, it’s also a centre for adventure. For decades Chiang Mai has been attracting backpackers to take elephant treks. Year ago on my visit trip to Chiang Mai, I took an elephant trek which involved heading out to the jungle, hopping on the back of an elephant for a few hours, hiking, rafting (on the most basic of bamboo rafts), swimming under a waterfall and visiting a couple of hill-tribe villages (admittedly, not the most authentic of hill tribe experiences).
That was all in a day, but 2, 3 day and longer trips are available which means you can get further into the jungle and presumably find villages less prepared for the tourists. This can still be done pretty cheap, but as always there are more expensive options.
But the adventure doesn’t stop there. In my recent trip to Thailand this year, I visited Tiger Kingdom where people actually have the opportunity to get into cages with tame tigers and pet them, and of course pose for as many photos as they can in a fifteen minute period. It’s not expensive, and I thought it was a bit gimmicky before going but wanted to try it out, but actually once I was in there I thought it was a pretty special and completely worthwhile experience.
What else is there? Well, there’s white water rafting which I didn’t get to do but looks well worth it. You’ll find guesthouses will be able to hook you up with these sorts of activities again, plus there are an almost infinite number of little tour companies in small shops dotted around the place.
Zip lining is all the rage right now as well, and Chiang Mai has a number of options. They have ‘Flight of the Gibbon’ for example and you go out to the jungle and go from platform to platform on a flying fox (zip line). Note that it’s not an experience where you spend time with gibbons, rather a fun adventure where you try to replicate what it’s like to be and move around like gibbons. You’’ also find there are cheaper options too.
Chiang Mai is also pretty good for souvenir shopping. There is a wonderful night bazaar which is not to be missed if you’re in Chiang Mai, where you can buy all manner of things. Just walking through it and looking is pretty special, so don’t feel pressured to buy. Even though it’s completely set up for the tourists, it’s still worthwhile.
Finally, at the end of the day, for something a little different, why not check out some Thai boxing? Again, it’s all for the tourist, but the boxers are all Thai, and it is still a cultural experience.
Chiang Mai has changed an awful lot since I first went there in 1999, but this year’s visit was great. I stayed at the Top Garden Guesthouse, and no they didn’t pay me or offer me anything, but I do recommend it for its clean rooms and helpful and extremely friendly owners. May the Journey Never End!