It’s no secret that Chiang Mai, Thailand is one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve spent about four months in the ancient Lanna Kingdom nonconsecutively over the last three years. There’s just so much to experience in the mystical northern Thai town from exploring nature, sightseeing, eating, and just strolling around the Old City to find moments of serenity. These are 10 surprisingly unique adventures to have in Chiang Mai.
CLIMB THE STICKY WATERFALLS
Forget chasing waterfalls, near Chiang Mai you can actually climb up and down one! Bua Tong is known as the Sticky Waterfalls due to its bulbous limestone surface. The waterfalls are covered in millions of fossils which is what makes it possible to grip an walk up and down the rocks with bare feet! Truly, it isn’t slippery at all, even while soaking wet, it’s a really odd sensation and you absolutely have to go experience it yourself. I only played around the first section as the drop off to scale down the second is quite steep, but if you’re braver than I am there are ropes that you can hold onto as you climb up or down the waterfall. Bua Tong is about an hour outside of Chiang Mai so the best way to visit is with a tour with a local booked on Take Me Tour.
Get 200 THB (around US$6.00) off of your first experience with a local in Thailand by using the exclusive discount code MFLTLTPROMO when booking on TakeMeTour.com.
GAZE AT PREHISTORIC ROCKS AT PHA CHOR NATIONAL PARK
How often do you have the chance to get up close and personal with nature that’s been around for over 5 million years? If this is intriguing to you then don’t miss a visit to the Pha Chor National Park. The formations here originated from the Ping River that used to run through what’s now a national park before changing courses to its current location. It’s very easy to reach Pha Chor National Park and doesn’t require a strenuous trek. It’s a great stop on the way back from Doi Inthanon if you’ve hired a driver or rented a motorbike. Otherwise, it is easiest to visit on an organized tour with responsible tour operator Take Me Tour.
CHAT ABOUT BUDDHISM WITH A MONK
One of my absolute favorite things to do in Chiang Mai is attending monk chats. This is the first suggestion I give to travelers looking for advice about things to experience in Chiang Mai as it’s completely eye-opening and transformative. Monk chats are available at a few Buddhist temples around the city such as Wat Phratat Doi Suthep and Wat Chedi Luang. The concept of monk chats actually originated in Chiang Mai at Wat Suan Dok in association with on-site Buddhist Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University. Anyone who interested in learning about Buddhism while visiting Chiang Mai shouldn’t miss out on this unique cultural exchange. At the monk chat, you’ll have the opportunity to ask Buddhist monks about the philosophy while helping them practice their English.
TRADITIONAL KHANTOKE DINNER AND CULTURAL SHOW
Immerse yourself in the glory days of the Lanna Kingdom by attending a traditional Khantoke dinner and cultural show. Prepare to be seated on a lush red carpet on soft traditional triangular cushion chairs as you enjoy a homemade traditional northern Thai meal, known as Khantoke. When you reserve your seat you can specify whether you’d like the chicken, pork, or veggie option. They were even able to make me a vegan variation which included spring rolls, fried pumpkin, sticky rice, and more dishes. The meal alone is worth the experience but the real showstopper is the chance to see various hill tribes in their traditional garments performing ritualistic dances. Each performance varied from the next and was stunning in both the choreography and the ethnic costumes. I mean, look at the wild fingernails the women are wearing here! There was also an incredible knife show and even a larger-than-life dragon dance. The performers are all from the hill tribes they represent and sell their ethically produced products before and after the show, so it’s also a great chance to do some shopping. The prices were better than any I saw in town, and the quality was much better. I went to the show with my mom and sister and they went back to the US with nearly a suitcase full of goodies that they picked up at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center where the Khantoke dinner and performance are held.
ROYAL PARK RAJAPRUEK
If you’re craving some time among flora head to the Royal Park Rajapruek. The massive garden has sections dedicated to various Asian countries that boast local architecture and flowers. My favorite areas were the Nepalese water garden and intricate mosaic bridge at the Tibet garden. There’s a free shuttle bus that makes a few stops around the landscaped grounds in case it’s too warm to walk around. Don’t miss the gigantic temple complex in the center or the stunning orchid greenhouse. The park royal park was quite empty during my visit, which made it quite eerie but enjoyable!
ENJOY A THAI MASSAGE THAT GIVES BACK
A week in Chiang Mai simply isn’t complete without a Thai massage…or five! Massage parlors are literally a dime a dozen in the Old City, and technique and quality vary greatly from place to place. The most impactful massage you can buy in Chiang Mai happens to be in a gorgeous setting, with strong massages, and gives back to the community. Lila Thai Massage is my top recommendation for an affordable Thai massage for all of this and more. The massage parlor operates an ex-inmate employment and skill development center. Formerly incarcerated women are given extensive training about massage and beauty services before their release date. The women are fully certified and have completed a 180-hour massage training course that meets the requirements of the Chiang Mai Public Health Department. Lila was established in 2008 to provide these women a way to reacclimate to society and not have to stress about finding work as detainees are often discriminated during the job search. The program was launched by a former director of the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison in order to provide these women dignity in their new lives. An hour Thai massage at Lila cost 250 THB. Lila never fails to be the strongest massages ever and the most professional services I’ve ever had at a spa in Southeast Asia.
FREE YOGA IN THE PARK
Almost every day of the year there’s free yoga in the park in Chiang Mai! Professional yoga teachers, who’ve gone through yoga teacher training, offer their hour-long classes free of charge to local and western students at 9 AM at Buak Hard Public Park near the water fountain. Be sure to check the Facebook group to see if there are free yoga classes happening during your visit to Chiang Mai! The classes are beginner friendly. Be sure to bring your own yoga mat, like this eco-friendly cork yoga mat, and a reusable water bottle to stay hydrated as the sun can already be quite hot even so early in the morning!
VISIT THE KING AND QUEEN GARDENS OF DOI INTHANON
If you only have time for a half day trip to Doi Inthanon you must visit the beautiful gardens that surround the King and Queen pagodas on the tallest mountain in Thailand (as seen in the cover photo) The vistas here are incredible but the best time to visit so the best time to visit is between the rainy season and the smokey season so you can take in the scenery. I visited in January and had crystal clear views, but not many flowers, and again in April when the flowers were in full bloom. The best way to visit Doi Inthanon is on a tour led by a local so that you can go find some secret waterfalls, like this day trip on Take Me Tour.
HAVE ALL THE FOODIE EXPERIENCES
There are so many fantastic food experiences to have in Chiang Mai, especially if you’re vegan! From cooking classes, food tours, and drool-worthy cafes there’s always something delicious to eat and a new food to learn about. No matter what your dietary preferences are you must try khao soi, it can even be gluten-free with rice noodles! Don’t miss the massive guide all about being vegan in Chiang Mai!
VISIT DOZENS OF BUDDHIST TEMPLES
Chiang Mai is the city of over 300 Buddhist temples! For some, they start to blend together but for me, each is unique and noteworthy in its own right. Try to see as many as you can and you’re sure to be dazzled by the beauty of the pagodas and fascinated by the unique history of the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom. The most popular temples to visit are Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phra Singh, which are all absolutely incredible–but there are so many more unique temples to explore. Just head out in any direction and you’re sure to run into a Buddhist pagoda along the way.
Have you sought out any surprisingly unique adventures in Chiang Mai? Tell us about your favorite experiences in the comments…as long as they don’t involve petting tigers, visiting long neck women, or riding elephants! We all know better than to do those unethical tourist traps in Chiang Mai by now, right?
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