First off, Chiang Mai was far different than we thought it would be. It had been described as a backpacker’s haven, which, typically, meant quiet, laid back, with more locals than tourists. Lonely Planet describes it as a “…sprawling modern city…grown up around ancient Chiang Mai…”. That’s an understatement.
In 2016 alone, the tourism numbers were expected to hit 9.1 million, 30% of international tourists arriving from China. This is a major metropolitan area. Who knew? It’s as if people should bother to read up on the places they’re visiting before they get there…
Luckily, there is plenty to do, or not do, to keep you entertained & even make you feel like you are the only ones around.
First & foremost - any type of human/tourist interaction with wildlife is a hot topic right now. It was definitely on our minds as we considered things to do. Part of why Chiang Mai has become so popular are the elephant sanctuaries, which allow tourists an up close & personal experience with these amazing animals. We had seen & heard of other “attractions” in many parts of the world & had yet to partake - if I didn’t feel we could comfortably verify the treatment of the animals, I wasn’t going to do it.
We felt comfortable doing so in Chiang Mai since they were so well known, but we were still not prepared for the ridiculous number available! There is no way, in this quantity, all are legit. In fact, we did hear stories from other travelers & locals regarding the treatment in some of the parks ☹. Even with all this, I consider ourselves lucky as we got a word of mouth recommendation from other travelers & had an amazing experience!
We chose to go with Elephants at Home, a very small-shop deal (one extended family in a nearby village), who has had elephants in their family for hundreds of years. They don’t do big crowds, you’ll never have more than 5 or 6 people at one time, & rather than a “trick show”, you basically just hang out with the little elephant family all day.
When you arrive, you get your “elephant for the day” & are now responsible for his/her care. As such, we were taught about their natural behaviors, & needs & threats that they face both natural & caused by the current boom in “tourism”. They are remarkable animals, it’s obvious why they are my favorite!
Later, we all set out on a jungle hike for lunch & napped in a small tree hut they have arranged. After dozing off, I was awoken by a long elephant trunk, nosing around for some leftover treats! These beauties have an insatiable hunger that never appears to be satisfied. A bit more fun splashing around in the waterfalls & it’s a quick walk back to say farewell to our new amazing friends. They say an elephant never forgets & I hope just maybe they remember us!
If Chiang Mai is known for its elephants, they are followed closely by its beautiful, ancient temples. We spent the better part of an entire day wandering around the old city walls, temple to temple.
With some of the oldest dating back to the 13th century, the Buddhist temples were the highlight of the old “northern capital”, as it was unofficially known. Each temple was unique, ranging from gold gilded, silver plated, large & rocky. While resembling those in Luang Prabang or similarly in Bangkok, they were each beautiful in their own right.
If you want to get out of the city for a bit, take a tour or rent a scooter & head up the famous Doi Suthep mountain. Here the Wat Phrathat & other viewpoints will reward you with fabulous views.
For the food lovers…
If there are hundreds of places to visit elephants, there are just as many (or more) places to indulge in a cooking class. You can choose from all day cooking extravaganzas, or half-day courses either in the city or nearby on a neighboring farm.
We did an evening class at Smile Organic Farm Cooking School, roughly 40 minutes outside the city. The food & instructors were excellent & we got to bring home our own cookbook though I probably could have done without the cheesy get ups…
In town there’s no shortage of food. We loved DASH!, a traditional local spot with an updated flair. Or you could just walk up & down the night market, famous in its own right, snacking from dozens of street vendors.
The music scene
One thing we didn’t know before coming to Chiang Mai was the major music scene it had! Finally, we could understand what drew so many expats & artists to this touristy city! If you’re visiting on a Tuesday, the open-mic jam session at North Gate Jazz Club is a cannot miss! The house jazz band opens the evening with a few songs & then opens it up to any other artist to join in & jam along with them - all spur of the moment, everyone playing off each other. It was also the first time either of us had experienced singers get in on the jam action - absolutely brilliant!
If you are a fan of good southern rock & blues, Boy Blues Bar, is a treat. Located above the center night market shops. You’re treated to a few of the best cover bands we’ve heard on our entire trip. It’s a great place to relax & watch the shopping chaos of the market unfold beneath you.
To be honest, Chiang Mai was way different than we expected; larger, louder, & completely being consumed by the tourism industry. Despite all its newfound fame, if you look hard enough, you can still find plenty of hideaway spots, small shops & family owned treats. But if it’s on your bucket list I’d go soon, or you’ll just find yourself in a sea of all the same tourists!