Visitors to Chiang Mai are usually impressed by the welcoming atmosphere, tasty food, great shopping, cultural opportunities, and adventure activities. This is the ideal location for visitors to base themselves if they wish to explore Northern Thailand. There is an abundance of accommodations at all price levels, from the very inexpensive to the more expensive options for those who want a bit of luxury. Chiang Mai is a great place for educational pursuits such as learning the Thai language, Thai massage, Thai cooking, Muay Thai, and Thai Buddhist meditation. It is the main location for Friends for Asia and as such we have helped develop Chiang Mai as a center for volunteering as well as internships.
Explore Chiang Mai Culture
Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand, with about a million residents in the metropolitan area, and another million in the rest of the province of Chiang Mai. This part of the country was once a separate kingdom known as Lanna, and it didn’t politically become part of Thailand until the nineteenth century. This means that the city has its own unique culture, traditions, language, and cuisine. Chiang Mai was founded in 1296, and it acted as the capital of Lanna. As well as being an important strategic location, the city soon established itself as a center of Buddhism, and there are over 300 temples throughout Chiang Mai. The local people are very proud of their Lanna roots, but they are equally proud of being Thai.
Visitors to Chiang Mai will have ample opportunity to explore the rich culture of the city by just going for a walk. Travelers who wish to develop a greater understanding of the local people and their traditions can visit venues such as:
- Chiang Mai National Museum offers exhibits charting the history of the people of Lanna.
- Chiang Mai Tribal Museum provides insights into the life of the local hill tribes including the Lisu, Hmong, Karen, Akha, and Mien.
- Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Center looks at both Chiang Mai today as well as how things were in the past.
- The Playhouse Complex is a relatively new attraction in Chiang Mai, and offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy lavish cultural performances.
- Lanna Folk Life Museum.
Language of Chiang Mai
The people of Chiang Mai speak Thai, but they have their own dialect which is called Northern Thai, Phasa Nuea, or Kam Muang. Visitors who stay in Chiang Mai for a long time will be able to pick up some Kam Muang words but the locals all use Standard Thai as well. Chiang Mai can be a good place to learn the Thai language and there are a number of schools to choose from including:
- AUA Chiang Mai – larger classes, start every few months
- Effective Thai – 1-to-1 (begin immediately) and small group (2-5 students), begin every month, ED visa available
- Walen Thai Chiang Mai – larger classes, start every few months, ED yisa available
- YMCA Language Center – larger classes, start every few months
Even learning just a few simple Thai phrases, and of course how and when to wai (bow) properly, is very much appreciated by the local Thai people.
Festivals in Chiang Mai
Festivals in Chiang Mai provide an opportunity for visitors to learn more about the local culture and have some fun. The most important of these events would include:
- New Year Celebrations
- The Chiang Mai Flower Festival in February
- Songkran Water Festival April 13-15 (sometimes begins earlier)
- City Pillar Festival in May or June
- Loy Krathong usually in November
Food in Chiang Mai
One of the difficulties travelers can have when they go to Chiang Mai is deciding where to eat – there are just too many delicious options. Every type of food can be found on sale in the city, and it is easy to eat well even on a budget. The people of Northern Thailand have their own unique cuisine and some of the local dishes (Lanna Cuisine) worth trying include:
- Chiang Mai Sausage (Sai Ouwa) is a homemade spicy sausage that is usually severed with sticky rice (khao niaow). It is made from minced pork, curry paste, and herbs.
- Khantoke cusine is a traditional northern meal that is served on a special pedestal tray known as a khantoke and is usually shared. Many different dishes and dips are included as part of this meal, and it is customary to eat using the fingers (sticky rice can also be used to soak up dips).
- Kau Ka Moo is steamed pork knuckle, and it is usually served over rice with a hard-boiled egg and pickled mustard greens on the side. Look for the lady in the cowboy hat at the Chang Puak (north gate) night market.
- Kaep Moo is type of crispy pork rind that is usually eaten with sticky rice.
- Khao Soi is a type of egg noodle dish that is popular in Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand/Northern Myanmar region. It is a somewhat sweet coconut milk curry usually with chicken, egg noodles and crispy noodles on top.
Chiang Mai is the best place in Thailand to learn how to cook Thai food because there are so many great schools, including: Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, Siam Rice Thai Cookery School, and Cooking School Chiang Mai. Thai cooking schools for the foreign traveler were first pioneered here a few decades back.
Places to Go in Chiang Mai
The most popular attractions in Chiang Mai include:
- Doi Suthep is a granite mountain that towers over Chiang Mai (it is 1,676 meters high) and offers some spectacular views of the city. There is a fourteenth century temple on top of the mountain – visitors can climb 309 steps up to the temple or cheat by getting the tram.
- For children, the **Chiang Mai Zoo is popular, and also unique in Thailand as the only zoo in the country where visitors can get to see giant pandas. There are three of them (Lin Hui, Chuang Chuang, and Lin Ping), and they even have their own TV station where viewers can watch them 24 hours per day. While this may sound a bit silly, Panda Fever has a hold the Thai imagination. The zoo covers 200 acres, and there is plenty to do here including: holding and feeding a koala (1,000 THB), visiting a snow dome, traveling on a monorail, getting up close to marine life in an aquarium, and watching animal shows. Cost of admission is 100 THB for adults and 50 THB for kids (as of mid-2013). There are extra fees for viewing the Pandas as well.
- Wat Chiang Man (aka Wat Chiang Mun) was built in the thirteenth century and acted as the first royal temple in the city. The oldest part of the temple is the chedi, and the complex also contains some much revered Buddha images – Phra Sila and Phra Seh Taang Kamaneeee.
- Wat Chedi Luang is one of the most important temples in the city, and it is also where the city pillar can be found. It was constructed during the thirteenth century, and there is also another temple on the grounds called Wat Phan Tao.
- Wat Prah Sing is home to a much revered statue called Phra Buddha Sihing which is believed to have originally come from India. There are also some interesting murals here and buildings that date back to the fourteenth century.
- Tha Phae Gate is right in the center of town beside the moat. This is part of a 700 year old wall that used to protect the city from invaders.
- Suan Buak Haad Park is good place to go to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city or to go for a jog. There is a nice lake in the park and a few stalls selling food. One can feed the rather enormous fish in the pond, relax on mats for rent, and even get a Thai massage.
Things to Do in Chiang Mai
Some of the most exciting things to do in Chiang Mai would include:
- Chiang Mai can be a great place to learn meditation and there are a number of temples offering instruction and retreats including: Wat Ram Poeng (Northern Insight Meditation Center), Wat Umong, and Wat Doi Suthep.
- The Night Market is one of the most popular tourist attractions and it is a great place to go to buy souvenirs or cheap clothing.
- If visitors are looking for a more western shopping experience they should try Central Plaza Chiang Mai Airport – there is over five floors of shopping here as well as a giant Major Cineplex Cinema (7 screens). Central Kad Suan Keaw is another large modern mall on Huay Keaw Road.
- There are a number of companies in the local area offering zip line tours, and this is an exciting way to explore the jungle canopy. This adventure activity can be arranged by Flight of the Gibbon (this option is slightly more expensive than other zip line tours, but they better known because they spend so much on advertising) and Chiang Mai Jungle Flight.
- There are plenty of great nightlife options in Chiang Mai with the most popular bars found around the Night Bizarre and Tha Phae Gate.
- Dreamlake Fishing Adventure is a fishing resort where visitors can have the chance of catching the world’s largest cat fish.
- The Chiang Mai Night Safari covers an area of 132 hectares making it the third largest nocturnal zoo in the world. There are three zones in the park including Predator Prowl Zone, Jaguar Trail Zone, and Savanna Safari Zone – there are also resorts in the park for those who want to really feel like they are on safari.
- A visit to Tiger Kingdom provides visitors with the chance to get right up close to tigers – none of the tigers here are drugged but visitors are allowed to play with them. This impressive tiger reservation is located at Mae Rim.
- A trip to the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders can be a fascinating way to spend a few hours.
- If visitors wish to be pampered with a massage they can try Nanthikan Massage, Green Bamboo Massage, or Let’s Relax Massage.
Outside the City of Chiang Mai
- Doi Inthanon is the highest mountain in Thailand, and it is located 75 km outside of the city in Mae Chaem District, Chiang Mai Province.
- Chiang Dao is 72km outside of the city, and it is part of Chiang Mai province. One of the main attractions in this area is the Long Neck Karen hill tribe village.
- Pai and Mae Hong Son are also favorite destinations outside the city, though usually for more than a day or two.
Off the Beaten Track in Chiang Mai
Some of the less well known attractions in Chiang Mai include:
- Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens can be in the foothills of Doi Suthep outside of Mae Rim on the Samoeng Loop. This is one of the largest botanical garden in Thailand, and it covers an area of approximately 1000 hectacres – admission price is 100 THB for an adult and 50 THB for a child (as of mid-2013).
- Wat Chaimongkol is a 600 year old temple that is right next to the Ping River. Visitors are invited to release fish, turtles, and eels into the river if they wish to make merit.
- Dok Mai Garden is in the Hang Dong District of Chiang Mai. This botanical garden is privately run, and the aim of the owners is to share knowledge about monsoon gardening – admission is 300 THB (as of mid-2013).
- Mae Sa Waterfall is popular with local people but less visited by travelers. It is located close to Doi Suthep, and it is the closest significant waterfall to Chiang Mai, outside of the small ones on Doi Suthep.
- Chiang Mai Foreign Cemetery is a peaceful location, and it is a good place to find out more about the foreign adventurers who have lived in the city over the past two centuries.
- Wat Jed Yod is one of the least visited of all the temples around Chiang Mai, and this is a bit of a shame because it is a fascinating structure. It is believed to be a copy of Mahabodhi Temple in India where the Buddha is said to have achieved his enlightenment.
- The Mae Ngat Dam is about an hour outside of the city, and it is a nice place to relax and enjoy some Thai food on a floating restaurant. Closer and with more shade is the Huay Tung Tao Reservoir which is just past the 700 year stadium following the irrigation canal road north.
Sports and Other Physical Activities in Chiang Mai
Visitors who wish to work up a sweat will have nor problem finding things to do such as:
- Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand, and it enjoys the reputation of being the fiercest martial art in the world. Visitors can get to learn this fighting style at a number of camps in Chiang Mai including: Chay Yai Muay Thai, Lanna Muay Thai, KC Muay Thai, and Muay Thai Sangha.
- There is a good selection of gyms in Chiang Mai
- Bamboo rafting can be enjoyed at the upper part of Mae Ping and Mae Tang rivers. Many of the hiking and elephant tours will also include bamboo rafting as part of the package.
- Some of the best hiking areas in Thailand are in easy reach of Chiang Mai. There are many companies offering hiking tours including: Chiang Mai Tours,Active Thailand, Chiang Mai Hiking and All Chiang Mai Tours – there are also many small tour operators in the city that can arrange trekking adventures.
- Whitewater rafting/rapids rafting is available at the Tang River (Mae Tang).
Volunteering and Internships in Chiang Mai
Friends for Asia currently offers seven Volunteer Projects and two Intern Projects, all within the province of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Our volunteer and intern projects are diverse, successful, beneficial and fun.
- Orphanage Volunteer Project – Waking up with a fish pond and rice paddies outside your window, mountains in the distance and more than 50 children waiting for your attention. Volunteers in this project stay on the project site five days a week, enjoying well-earned rest and relaxation over the weekend in Chiang Mai city.
- Rural Schools Volunteer Project – The Friends for Asia rural schools project offers a candid view of daily life in Thailand. Ideal candidates will be keen on getting an inside perspective on a side of the kingdom that tourists and volunteers in bigger cities rarely encounter.
- English Education Volunteer Project – Assisting in the English education of Thai students in poorly funded public schools through the city of Chiang Mai.
- Build and Garden at a Home for Single Mothers – From sustainable gardening to bamboo construction, play a role in steering disadvantaged single mothers onto the path to self-sufficiency.
- Teacher’s Assistant at International University for Monks – Buddhism has always been a catalyst for higher education across Asia, and in this assignment, volunteers step into an authentic university setting.
- Volunteer at a Children’s Home – Aside from assisting with direct childcare and helping the full-time nannies, the orphanage staff asks that volunteers spend individual time with the children, giving hugs, attention and love.
- Volunteer at an Elephant Camp – Bathing elephants, shadowing mahouts and interacting with Thailand’s ethnic minorities, and living in rustic accommodation near the river.
- Internship Project at a Magazine – Editorial, Marketing, Web design, Photography, Print design, and Multimedia.
- Volunteer Teaching Novice Buddhist Monks – It’s hard to believe that such a staunch traditional life still thrives in the 21st century, but Chiang Mai’s temple schools are a world away. As a volunteer English teacher, you’ll experience the difference first-hand.
- Medical Internship – Shadow full-time doctors conducting surgeries in the OR and making rounds in one of Chiang Mai’s private hospitals.
How to Get Around Chiang Mai
The options for getting around Chiang Mai include:
- Chiang Mai is famous for having Rot Daeng, and this red colored (daeng means red in Thai) songthaew cannot be found anywhere else in Thailand. This covered pick-up truck can be the cheapest, most convenient, and safest way to get around the city.
- A motorbike (100-150 cc) can be rented in Chiang Mai for about 150 THB per day (as of mid-2013), and this can provide visitors with the freedom to go where they want to in the city and local area. There are traffic congestion problems around the moat area of town, and this option is only really viable for experienced motorcyclists – Chiang Mai is not a safe place to learn how to use a motorbike for the first time.
- Something Different Tour offers motorbike tours of Chiang Mai and nearby jungles.
- There is a meter taxi service, but it is advisable to always insist that the driver turns on the meter, or negotiate the fare ahead of time.
- If people are staying in the center of town (the moat), it will be possible to walk to most of the main attractions, however the sun can get hot so follow what the locals do, such as using an umbrella (sun parasol).
- Cycling can be a nice way to explore the city, and there are plenty of places where bicycles can be rented including most resorts, hotels, and guest houses. Again, the sun can be brutal so where appropriate clothing and a hat.
- Visitors who travel by tuk-tuk will usually do so for the novelty value – it can be a relatively expensive way to get around.
- A Mae Ping River Cruise allows visitors to explore the city from the water – the average tour lasts about two hours and includes a Thai meal. Little of the Mae Ping is actually navigated in the cruise, but it can still be relaxing.
Map of Chiang Mai
While there are many free maps that can be found throughout Chiang Mai in tourist areas and travel agencies, none of them compare with the well-known Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai now in its 20th edition. This map is for sale in bookstores throughout Chiang Mai as well as online at Amazon. The map is not cheap, around 250 THB these days. However, for an additional 40-50 THB, bring the map to the Jarus printing/copy shop just north of the Three Kings Monument (Ratchawithi road), and they can seal it in a durable plastic, to make the map last a lot longer.