Chiang Mai is considered by many as the heartland of Thailand and Thai culture. It was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom and as such it became an important religious city. Chiang Mai is a great place to participate in outdoor adventures. The capital of Lanna offers a wide variety of activities for people who want to spend the day outside. This has made Chiang Mai a preferred destination for young backpackers and eco tourists. But I don’t want you to think that the city caters only to the young, there are activities for all ages. Here are the nine outdoor activities that we like the most and I know that you will too.
Before you start planning your trip itinerary, find a place to stay in Chiang Mai!
What to Do in Chiang Mai
1. Take a Scenic Trek
The lands outside of Chiang Mai still retain the natural beauty of the local ecosystem. The green jungles are astoundingly beautiful and anyone who loves hiking and outdoor activities will be more than pleased. There are many hills around the area that are great for trekking and many tour companies that will organize a trek for you. Many of the trekking excursions include some of the other activities on our list such as elephant riding. The treks can be booked as a day trip but the best way to enjoy a trek is to book an overnight or two night trek. You will spend the night in a village belonging to one of the tribes that inhabits the mountains. The accommodations are rustic and the villagers live as their ancestors did without things like electricity and internet service. Spending the night in the village was my favorite part of the experience.
2. Spend Time With the Local Elephants
Elephants are central to Thai culture. By extension, riding and elephant is a quintessentially Thai activity that is considered by many as a must do activity. However, many of the companies that offer elephant riding have gotten a bad reputation for cruelty. Many companies treat their elephants just fine, so if you don’t want to support cruel companies you can ask around and find companies that treat their animals just fine, it’s easy. They will be a little more expensive but in my opinion it’s definitely worth it. If you don’t want to ride an elephant you can also go to elephant retirement parks to play with the elephants and help them take their mud baths. This option is very fulfilling and if you are lucky and there are few people at the park, you will be able to get your fill of elephant loving for hours.
3. Have a Play Date with a Tiger
Visiting Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai is definitely one of the funnest ways to spend the day. The way it works is that you go to Tiger Kingdom by taxi from Chiang Mai and you spend a few hours taking pictures and petting captive tigers. Visitors should be aware that there are some major ethical questions with visiting the park as rumors say that the tigers are drugged. This is a rumor, and the parks brochures deny it, but it is important to keep that in mind. The docile big cats are impressive and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend the day with one of those majestic creatures.
4. Zip Line
Zip Lining is a good way to enjoy the outdoors. As you ride from tree top to tree top you can take in the views of nature without having to trek for miles. Zip lining is pretty easy, just sit there and look around, feel the wind in your face, smell the jungles. The area around Chiang Mai is great for zip lining because there are many wooded hills. Kids will enjoy zip lining because it is fun for the whole family. Find any of the tour companies in Chiang Mai and book a zip lining trip and they will take care of transportation. You will not regret it.
5. Relax in the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs
San Kamphaeng is a popular destination for local Thais to visit. It is a park built around two hot springs. The hot water is harvested and visitors can bathe in it or just dunk their feet into the canal that runs from the spring to the drains on the other end. The closer to the spring, the hotter the water. Locals buy eggs inside weaved baskets from vendors at the park and they dunk the baskets into a pool with boiling hot water. I don’t like hard boiled eggs, but they say that the minerals in the water make the eggs delicious. San Kamphaeng is a little bit of a day trip that requires a 45 minute drive, but it’s completely worth it.
6. Raft the Mekong River
Many Americans know the Mekong River from the Vietnam War movies, but the river also runs through Laos and Thailand and there are many options for exploring it. The first option is to slowly ride on a flat bamboo raft through the shallow areas. These rafts will make you feel like you’re in Castaway but they are far from rickety improvised boats, Thais have been using such rafts for centuries. Another option is to take a cruise up the Mekong from Chiang Mai to Laos. This takes a couple of days but it is an experience worth having. On the other end of the trip, Laos is a beautiful country as well. Lastly, during the wet season there are services for whitewater rafting in the area.
7. Visit Temples
When Chiang Mai was still the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, many local kings dedicated temples in order to appease their deity. Many of those temples have survived. If you are interested in temples or history, visiting these temples will be quite a treat for you. Most of the old temples are within the walls of the ancient city. You can take a day to explore the area by foot or bicycle and stop to visit a few of the temples around the city. This is also a great way to get to know the city and to make a mental map. The best part about spending the day visiting temples is that it is completely free.
8. Tour the Chiang Mai Zoo
I know what you’re thinking, a zoo in a developing country? Even though some of the activities that I mentioned before might give you an impression that Thais are cruel to animals, that is not the case at all. The Chiang Mai zoo is very nice and clean. The zoo is huge and there are a variety of animals to see from all corners of the planet. You can feed bananas to many of the animals including the hippos, giraffes and ostriches. There is also a very rare rhino in the zoo that you should go see so that you can describe it to your kids once rhinos are all extinct. I recommend that you spend the few extra bucks to see the panda exhibit, especially during feeding time. The zoo is right outside of the city and getting
9. Cool Off in the Huay Kaew Waterfall
We’re gonna round up our list with the waterfall at Huay Kaew park. To get to these waterfalls you have to hike a short path through the woods on a marked trail. Once at the waterfall take a few minutes and admire the natural beauty that Thailand has to offer. This is a great plan because it is very inexpensive. The falls are just a short drive away from the main city and any taxi can get you there. When I was there I tried a fried worm, but that might not be your cup of tea. (It was nasty!)
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This article was written by Nic Shipley.