Top things to see and do in Chiang Mai, Thailand

One of Chiang Mai's most iconic landmarks, Wat Chedi Luang. Pic: di0 / Flickr.com

WHILE beaches, aquatic adventures and raging parties rule the hotspots in Thailand’s south, Chiang Mai in the north awaits visitors with some gems of its own. The following should be on your must-do list if you make your way to Chiang Mai, the charming and unique city that is the second largest in Thailand.

Markets

Samosas and fried bananas served with sweet cream are but a sampling of the myriad delicious foods found at the stalls of the Sunday market. Pic: Casey Hynes.

Each day of the week sees another Chiang Mai market where you can eat savory, sweet and succulent Thai dishes until you’re fit to burst. The best of these is the Sunday Market, which stretches through the alleys and in the courtyards of the wats, or temples, along Ratchadamnoen Road. Sample samosas, fried bananas, noodles and fresh fruit smoothies between perusing stalls of baggy fisherman pants and Buddhist art. Be sure to stop at one of the many makeshift massage parlors for a Thai massage treatment that costs no more than US$4.

Cooking Classes

Pad Thai tastes so much sweeter when you’ve successfully prepared it yourself. Pic: Casey Hynes

After taste-testing all the culinary goodness Chiang Mai has to offer, why not learn to make a few of those dishes yourself? Classes range from half to multiple day courses. Most include a cookbook and certificate with the cost of the course, but the real value is in the satisfaction of making your very own dish of Pad Thai or spicy basil chicken.

Tiger Kingdom

Visitors to the Tiger Kingdom can close enough to pet and play with these beautiful creatures. Pic: Casey Hynes

Get some serious face time with these jungle cats at the Tiger Kingdom in Mae Rim, just outside Chiang Mai. The tigers, which typically range in age from a few months to two years old, are raised by humans and are disciplined to be calm and tolerant, if not friendly, toward people. Step into the cage and cuddle a newborn lion cub or feel the sheer power of these massive beasts while petting one of the older tigers. Because tigers are endangered in Thailand, the Tiger Kingdom was established to raise and breed the great cats in captivity as an alternative to watching the population continue to fade.

Elephant Nature Park

Jo Kia once worked for a logging company and was blinded in both eyes by her owner. She was rescued by the founder of the Elephant Nature Park and now roams the sanctuary with the other rescued animals. Pic: Casey Hynes

Elephants are synonymous with Thai culture, and who doesn’t want to interact with one of these gentle giants while in the Land of Smiles? Choose your elephant venue wisely, though. While many parks offer elephant rides, bear in mind that many of these elephants have been badly abused and their spirits broken, either for the sake of working in a logging camp before becoming a tourist attraction or to be pressed into a lifetime of tourist service. At the Elephant Nature Park, there are no elephant rides, but you get to spend the day feeding the animals, bathing them in a river and enjoying the natural beauty of the Mae Taeng Valley. Each elephant has been rescued from a life of cruelty or uncertainty, and you will learn many of their stories as you spend your day at this sanctuary.

Flight of the Gibbon

The Flight of the Gibbon zipline tour allows visitors to soar through the jungle for a breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Pic: Will Moyer/willmoyer.com

For a true adrenaline rush, spend a day experiencing the Flight of the Gibbon, a jungle tour unlike any other. Run by Treetop Asia, a reputable group that operates a number of tours in Thailand, Flight of the Gibbon consists of a series of ziplines that allow you to soar through the trees and see the jungle in a way you haven’t before. The tour is named for the gibbon, a primate species that is now endangered in Thailand. You may have the chance to spot a small gibbon family, rescued by the Treetop founders, that now lives on the grounds of their park, in between turns on the ziplines. Check it out for a day or opt for a multi-day package that includes a homestay with a Thai family. Proceeds from the tour go toward further conservation efforts and the company works in partnership with the local community.

Huay Tuang Tao

An afternoon at Huay Tuang Tao can make a pleasant afternoon break from the hustle and bustle of central Chiang Mai. Pic: Fergal Barry-Murphy.

If you want do as the locals do and escape the city on a weekend afternoon, Huay Tuang Tao lake is well worth a look. Situated about 10km north of the city centre the lake has hundreds of floating bamboo structures lining its shores where you can relax and unwind, enjoy a freshly cooked al fresco lunch and even do a spot of fishing. Huay Tuang Tao is located off the Canal Road, a couple of kilometres past the 700 Year Stadium. If you don’t have your own transport a tuk tuk should take you there for about 200 baht (US$6) or charter a Songthaew for larger groups.

Casey Hynes is a writer, editor and photographer living in Beijing, China. A 2008 graduate of Columbia Journalism School in New York City, she has been published in Roll Call, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous publications in China. You can see samples of her work and photography at caseyhynes.com