5 Ways to See a Different Side of Thailand in Chiang Mai

Share the love!

A Different Side of Thailand

When you think of Thailand, what names leap immediately to mind?

If you’re Australia, chances are you’ll be most familiar with Phuket’s beaches and bars.

Maybe you’re thinking of hot, steamy Bangkok with its shopping, ping pong shows on Soi Cowboy, and the abundance of debauchery to be found.

Maybe it’s scuba diving on Koh Tao or the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan that leaps immediately to mind.

For me, Thailand will forever be best represented by Chiang Mai in the country’s north. It may not have the world class beaches of Phuket or the bar scene of Bangkok, but it’s got charms all of its own – especially for those who want to see Thailand from a slightly different angle.

Why Chiang Mai?

As a travel blogger, Chiang Mai has been something of a holy grail for some time now. Up until Thailand’s recent changes to visa law made it difficult to do visa runs to Cambodia or Laos every three months – this quiet city in the heavily forested north of the country had become a haven for digital nomads.

Cheap rent, cheap food, wonderful people, and a laid back lifestyle that you couldn’t find in the more tourist heavy places like Phuket or Bangkok? It’s a dream location for somebody who wants to make a living writing without living in their parents’ basement.

Or cottage, in my case >_>

What I found most charming about my visit to Chiang Mai was that it felt just a little bit more authentic than what I’d seen in Phuket, Bangkok, or on Koh Phangan. While tourism is still a major industry up in the country’s north, it’s tourism of a slightly deeper sort.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share five ways you can use Chiang Mai to see a side of Thailand that goes beyond beaches and bars.

5 Ways to see a Different Side of Thailand

Services like WithLocals give you access to locals who are happy to show you around their home city.

#5 – Attend a Muay Thai event

Muay Thai is a religion in Thailand.
Muay Thai is a religion in Thailand.

It’s true that you can see Thailand’s most famous sport taking place almost anywhere in the country. In Phuket, we couldn’t walk a block without a truck passing by loudly advertising an upcoming fight – and I imagine it would have been the same in Bangkok as well.

Sitting on plastic chairs in the car park behind a large department store, we watched amateur fighters from across the north beat seven shades of shit out of one another in a rickety ring under hastily erected lighting.

The entire affair had a distinctly amateur feel about it, but that was a huge part of its charm. Far from the over-crowded stadiums and overpriced food we’d heard about in the country’s south, this was an entirely more intimate affair. The fighters – winners and losers alike – would wander past us on their way to and from the ring, and the crowd of two dozen or so chose their favourites and shouted their support.

Rather than feeling like an event put on to impress foreigners, it seemed like something that the locals could get behind. Indeed, quite a few locals were in attendance. It made for a really fun, memorable night out.

#4  – Wander the markets

The sights, tastes, and smells of a local market are a real window into local life.
The sights, tastes, and smells of a local market are a real window into local life.

I’ve had something of a love affair with street markets ever since discovering them while living in South Korea. You really get to know a country by exploring the markets that are set up by locals, for locals.

While there are definitely markets that cater to the tourist scene, it pays to venture a little farther afield to find the ones where the locals shop for their produce and goods. Rather than seeing a million “Same Same, but Different” t-shirts – you’re instead assaulted by the smells, sights, and sounds of daily life in Thailand.

It’s in these local markets that you’ll find amazing street food made in the way the locals love it. It’s here you’ll see local kids playing while their parents barter over goods, and where you’ll not be harassed quite so often by over-eager vendors looking to sell you ‘traditional Thai pants’ that you never see anybody wearing.

#3 – Visit the Elephant Sanctuary

If you’ve spent any time in Thailand before, chances are you’ll have seen an elephant.

In fact, chances are you’ll have seen an abused elephant.

It’s a sad aspect of Thai life that elephants are – by and large – used and abused in entirely inhumane ways. They’re made to wander the streets so that tourists can pay a few baht for a photo. They’re made to carry foreigners through scorching heat while their handlers beat them.

When you’re exposed to this abuse, it makes it nigh on impossible for you to enjoy playing a part in the systematic abuse of such beautiful creatures

If you really want to interact with elements while keeping your soul clean, a visit to the Elephant Nature Park is a must. Far from being a place that exploits elephants, here you’re able to volunteer to work with these beautiful animals.

While I didn’t get the opportunity while I was in Chiang Mai, it’s something I sorely want to do when I inevitably return to Thailand.

#2 – Get outdoors

Sure, the beach counts as the outdoors, but there’s more to Thailand than just crystal clear water and white sand beaches.

Chiang Mai (and most cities in the north) offer you an opportunity to really get out and enjoy the rain forests and mountains.

Zipline companies such as Jungle Flight and Flight of the Gibbon are a great, exhilarating way to see the jungle from a different angle, but there are also plenty of tours that offer you the chance to hike, ride, ATV, or even white water raft your way through the beautiful mountains and forests.

The helmets and harnesses all ready to go before our day at Jungle Flight.
The helmets and harnesses all ready to go before our day at Jungle Flight.

#1 – Learn to cook Thai food

It doesn’t get more authentic than this.

Don an apron, wander the markets to pick your fresh produce, and then learn from a local how to cook food the way the locals like it.

Valentine's Day 2013 and we're all in the kitchen!
Valentine’s Day 2013 and we’re all in the kitchen!

Nomadic American and I spent Valentine’s Day 2012 taking a romantic Thai cooking class and it was one of the most fun experiences we had. Our teachers didn’t just educate us on how to make green curry or how to roll spring rolls, but also interacted with us on a personal level. They told local jokes, shared stories from their past, and genuinely connected with us in a way that was far more pleasing than any smiling tour guide had managed in the south.

The Thailand section of WithLocals has an abundance of cooking experiences for you to consider.

Your Say

Beyond the beaches and the bars, what did you see or do in Thailand that made it a memorable experience for you?

Cover photo courtesy of TravelFreak.net

Want an Aussie in your inbox?

Who doesn't?

No spam. Just awesomeness. Powered by ConvertKit

From Facebook

7 comments

  1. Perfect timing Chris, I’ll be in Chiang Mai in a few weeks’ time, shall be using these tips! I’ve heard great things from a few people about the Elephant Nature Park and I’ll definitely be making a visit there. I’ve seen so many abused elephants out here already, but it’s sad that if the tourists keep wanting the treks then I guess it will continue.

    • Glad I could provide some timely advice! I really loved Chiang Mai, although we didn’t get the chance to visit the Elephant Nature Park ourselves. There’s quite a sizable waiting list, I’m told.

      We had a nasty experience with elephant abuse when we took a tour that included a brief elephant ride. Nomadic American was in tears by the end of it, and I wanted to jump down and beat up the guide who seemed so eager to belt the poor thing 🙁

      If you get a craving, check out Butter is Better in Chiang Mai. Amazingly decadent comfort food from home.

      • Wow that sounds rough, I feel so bad for them. I’ve avoided all tours that include it, but I just keep meeting people who have done it or want to do it. It’s such a massive attraction for a lot of tourists to SE Asia.

        Thanks for the food tip! I must say I am starting to crave some decent “Western” food after a couple of months, and I love the name 🙂

        • We signed up for a tour not realizing it had an elephant ride on the itinerary. It was not pleasant 🙁

          Definitely check out Butter is Better. The Reuben sandwich was amazing! There’s also a really good Mexican place there (Miguels, I thinnk).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: