Making the most of a family trip to Chiang Mai

Mae Sa Elephant Camp. Pic: Liz Ledden

CHARMING, arty Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north is a great alternative to a beach break when holidaying in Thailand with kids. In and around the city walls there are glittering temples, bustling markets, great cafes and interesting streets to explore. On the outskirts (and beyond) there are lots of nature based attractions to keep kids enthralled, from a great zoo to idyllic waterfalls, and the ever-present elephant camps. The more kitsch attractions are never ending, so unless you literally want to see performing monkeys it’s best to avoid certain animal shows and farms on the Mae Sa Valley circuit outside town. Here are some must-dos with kids in Thailand’s cultural capital:

Temple exploration

In Chiang Mai you’re spoiled for temple choice with glittering, gorgeous houses of Buddha worship at every turn. Kids will love the sparkle, colour and magic of many of them and they’re a great place to linger and learn about another culture and religion. The temples are many and varied, but a good starting point is the beautiful Wat Phra Singh in the Old City, which was built in the 1300s and houses an important Buddha statue.  The wat at Doi Suthep is a pilgrimage site for many, but for families, it is better suited to older kids who can tackle the many stairs.

Doi Suthep. Pic: Liz Ledden

iberry garden

Kids will love you for taking them to iberry garden in Chiang Mai’s hippest neighbourhood, Nimmanhemin Road. Part of the Thai ice cream chain, which you may have tried in Bangkok, this outlet has the added charm of a lush green lawn with some fantastically whimsical additions — an enormous statue of a yellow dog and a cartoon-like head said to resemble the café’s Thai comedian owner. The ice creams run the gamut from the Asian inspired to the more typical chocolate et al, and can be consumed in the colourful, creative interior or at an outdoor chair in the garden. It’s a popular place with cool young Thais and in-the-know visitors, so you may have to compete for posing for snaps with the dog.

Pandas and more at The Chiang Mai Zoo

Forget all notions you may have of zoos in Asia – the Chiang Mai Zoo is a world class zoo with excellent, spacious enclosures and animal-friendly conditions. It is large and laid out in a way a vehicle is mostly likely required to navigate it, be it your own or the zoo’s tram service. The animals range from the African to the Asian, with the star attraction being the cheeky pandas, held in their own indoor enclosure complete with playground equipment – they alone are worth a visit to the zoo, regardless of whether you have kids in tow.

Panda, Chiang Mai Zoo. Pic: Liz Ledden

Chiang Mai Aquarium

Within the grounds of the zoo is a fantastic aquarium, which you enter via a dramatic walkway over an enormous lake complete with faux waterfall. Inside, it houses southeast Asia’s longest underwater tunnel divided into zones like jungle, river and ocean. There’s everything from sting rays to luminescent jellyfish to see, and a bonus popcorn vendor offers a welcome pitstop along the way.

Elephant rides

Chiang Mai has long been associated with elephants and elephant camps, and it’s on the hit list of many visitors to the city. While not to everyone’s taste, elephant camps offer kids the experience of getting up close and personal with these majestic creatures, and even ride or feed one. The Mae Sa elephant camp is one such place. There are baby elephants you can visit which is a highlight, but be aware there can be a long queue for elephant rides should there be large numbers of tour groups present.

Hot Chiang Mai tip: Hiring a car

On a recent family trip to Chiang Mai we found that the ease of exploring the city with kids rose a thousandfold upon receiving the keys to our very own hired car. Driving in Chiang Mai is not too challenging – the roads are in good condition and the driving environment is nowhere near as lawless as some other places in southeast Asia. The benefits of driving yourself around are enormous: you can drive up to Doi Suthep, to waterfalls, around beautiful country roads and stop wherever you like, whenever you like. Kids get an air-conditioned break between sites and have the opportunity to fall asleep on longer drives. You can take your hired car into the zoo and drive around it for a small fee. You also avoid negotiations with tuk tuk or songtaew drivers. There are plenty of options, but we used North Wheels and it was hitch free.

When to go: Loi Krathong

The Thai festival Loi Krathong is a great time for families to visit Chiang Mai (as long as you can secure a hotel room before they’re all snapped up, that is). It’s usually held in November at the same time as Yi Peng, a northern Thai or ‘Lanna’ festival where Thais make merit in the form of offerings and lanterns. There are festivities and performances around town during the lead up to the lantern let-off, and huge colourful floats are on display around the city walls. The culmination of the festival is the release of thousands of lit paper lanterns into the sky, a spectacle older kids will appreciate and love, and may even be able to participate in.

You can read more of Liz’s writing at www.devoured.com.au