6 Things to Do in Chiang Mai Off the Tourist Trail
A persistent visitor to Thailand’s Rose of the North, Johan Smits spills the beans about his favourite tourist-proof things to do in Chiang Mai; some of them might well surprise you.
If it’s your first time in Thailand’s largest northern city, there’ll be too many things to do in Chiang Mai than you’ll manage to cramp into your holiday. A seemingly endless offering of temples and historical sites, plenty of outdoor activities, night markets and trendy boutiques, a rich food and drink culture… While most of these are certainly worth your attention, sometimes it’s necessary to veer off the tourist trail to get a real feel of a city’s true character. With over 10 million Thai and international visitors to Chiang Mai last year, this may be more challenging than it sounds. So, to ease your homework, here are six of my favourite things to do in Chiang Mai off the tourist trail.
Thung Fa Bot weekend market
We’ll dive straight into the deep end at the Thung Fa Bot weekend market in San Pa Tong district. Founded in 1959, Kad Ngua – as it is known in the local Lanna dialect meaning “market of cows” – was originally a trading spot for merchants of cows and buffaloes. Today, it has grown into the biggest livestock market in northern Thailand, but it’s not only cattle that is sold here – nowadays, over 600 merchants trade anything from pets, clothing, food, ceramics and rare accessories, to machetes, flowers, used motorcycles and bicycles. A veritable living community museum, here you can observe young boys parading gamecocks, farmers auctioning off big water buffaloes and tradesmen selling Buddhist talismen. This is no tourist market so don’t expect little elephant statues and hipster coffee stalls. Instead, observe a generations-old way of life and culture of northern Thai people going about their business. You’ll have to come early though – Kad Ngua starts every Saturday at 2am when the first cattle traders arrive and lasts until about 1pm. I would recommend going around 9-10am when you can still see most of the action. Sample local Thai food, stock up on fresh fruit and bring back a handcrafted wooden cattle bell.
Location: San Pa Tong district, near km indicator 25 on Route 108 (Chiang Mai – Hot road). (Best avoid big festivals such as Songkran and Buddhist Lent Day when up to 10,000 people will come here, making traffic impossible.)
Jin Jai Market
Much less hardcore and still very authentic is the Jin Jai Market not far from Chiang Mai’s old city. My personal favourite, this cosy, weekend-only farmer’s market is where Thais and some expats come to buy their organic veggies and other fresh, local produce, or just hang out browsing the selection of handicrafts, clothes and knickknacks of all sorts and kinds. There’s a large, separate section of antique wooden furniture where, with a discerning eye, you can find the occasional vintage gem while “JJ” also hosts Chiang Mai’s largest plant and garden market. This is where you relax sipping excellent coffee, indulge in tasty Thai fare from plenty of food stalls and listen to some chilled-out, local live tunes. But the main charm of this open air market set in a lush, green open space, is it is so unhurried. Jin Jai has the attractions of a tourist market, but without the busloads of selfie-snapping holidaymakers. Across the road from the farmer’s market section, there’s another part of Jin Jai consisting of more conventional shops, cafes and restaurants which is still worth exploring – these are all locally-owned businesses and franchises – but I find the farmer’s market section by far the best.
The farmer’s market is open Sat. 6am – 9am and Sun. 6am – 12am. Address: 45 Assadathorn Road (Google Maps will point you to the shops section – for the farmer’s market, look diagonally across the road for a big green sign with the yellow letters “JJ”).
Our View on Elephant Sanctuaries
There are plenty of companies and tour agencies in Chiang Mai offering elephant riding “adventures”. Wild elephants do not take kindly to humans riding on their backs so in order to do so, they’re brutally and violently beaten into submission from a very young age. Fortunately there’s a growing awareness about this now but some so-called “sanctuaries” still offer elephant rides to tourists against payment. It’s wonderful to spend time up close with these majestic animals and there are enough genuine elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai where you can do this. Please do some research before deciding which one to choose. A good indicator is when they don’t offer elephant riding, shows or tricks. Two reputable and ethical elephant sanctuaries are the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and the Elephant Nature Park.
Lanna Traditional House Museum
Besides markets, Chiang Mai has its fair share of museums. Widely overlooked by tourists is the Lanna Traditional House Museum, a great way of sampling Lanna culture while spending an hour or so in the tranquil surroundings of its leafy park. Amongst a beautiful collection of trees – including a majestic Ceylon oak and East Indian walnut, fig and wild mango trees – are eight traditional teak houses and three rice granaries on stilts. All from the late 19th to early 20th century, they offer you an insight into the agrarian Lanna way of life. You may still come across some of these houses when travelling through northern Thailand, but if you only have time to visit Chiang Mai, here’s where they’re all gathered for you thanks to the Chiang Mai University. There’s also a 1922 colonial house on the grounds that was owned by a British representative of the Bombay-Burma Trading Company and designed by a Burmese architect – now accommodating the museum’s offices. What makes this museum stand out is that, thankfully, it’s not Disneyfied – the wooden houses have been transported from their original spots and rebuilt and restored faithful to their original design.
Location: 239 Huay Kaew Road (informally known as “Canal Road”). Open Mon.-Fri. 8:30am-4:30pm and Sat.-Sun. 9am-4:30pm. Entrance 20 Baht. The museum has a very informative website in English and a Facebook page.
If you’re enjoying Johan’s 6 things to do in Chiang Mai off the tourist trail, then read his 6 Undiscovered Things to Do in Bangkok.
Crazy Horse Mountain
There’s no shortage of adventure activities either in Chiang Mai – from ziplining through rainforest canopies to whitewater rafting and mountain biking. Less known amongst visitors is the existence of beautiful limestone crags hidden in a lush bamboo forest about 45 minutes north of town. The Crazy Horse Mountain is northern Thailand’s rock climbing mecca sporting over 150 climbing routes and 35 caves. No need to be a Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger to really enjoy this place – there are routes for absolute beginners to hardcore fanatics. I took my wife here in an – admittedly somewhat extreme but successful – attempt to cure her of her vertigo and, apparently, abseiling 70 metres into a dark cave helps. The recommended Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures (CMRCA) school is very safe, professional and environmentally aware, spearheading efforts to keep this beautiful area pristine. If you really don’t feel like hugging rocks you can also have beautiful walks there and enjoy views of the surrounding rice paddies and forest from high up. Best time of the year is from November to February. Weekdays are pleasantly quiet.
CMRCA can also provide transportation, even if you don’t intend to go rock climbing.
For more adventure in Northern Thailand, read Johan’s Five-Day Northern Thailand Motorcycle Trip.
Pilgrim’s Path to Wat Pha Lat
More conventional but no less fun is the moderate, half-hour hike up the Pilgrim’s Path to Wat Pha Lat monastery, starting behind Chiang Mai University. Although only 15 minutes away from the city centre, the quiet of the forest makes you feel like you’re on a real jungle trek. Orange pieces of monk’s cloth wrapped around branches mark the trail – a picturesque sight that lends a touch of mystique to your ascent. While Wat Pha Lat was originally a resting place for monks during their pilgrimage to Wat Doi Suthep – Chiang Mai’s most famous temple higher up the mountain – it later became a monk’s residence after the road was built in 1935. To me this is Chiang Mai’s most atmospheric temple complex – the serenity in the middle of the encroaching forest; the old, weathered brick stupa; the intricate bas-reliefs on thick, stone tablets; the murmuring streams and the pond with an infinity-view over Chiang Mai far below; and so much more. “Wat Pha Lat” means “Monastery at the Sloping Rock” and is largely overshadowed by Wat Doi Suthep where everybody flocks to by the busload. But here, apart from a bamboo stand where you can buy some drinks, there’s nothing commercialised, keeping the monastery’s true spirit intact.
Wat Pha Lat can also be reached by road as a side-trip on the way to Doi Suthep, but it would be a shame to forego the sight of greeting Buddha statues emerging from out of the jungle as you approach. Directions: Drive to the end of Suthep Road, just after Chiang Mai university. There, turn right at the crossroads and go up past the rear entry of Chiang Mai Zoo. Then, when you see the red and white radio antenna to your right, there’s a sign with a map indicating the trail to the temple. Download the very useful MAPS.ME application to help you navigate. Bring mosquito spray and water, and dress properly for visiting the temple.
If you have had enough of Johan’s suggestions of things to do in Chiang Mai, why not follow Mark Bibby Jackson’s tuk tuk drive around Northern Thailand in Tuk Tuk Travels with Jen and Friends.
Doi Suthep-Pui National Park
Last on our whistle-stop trip around things to do in Chiang Mai, is a visit to the popular Doi Suthep-Pui National Park on the city’s fringes. Here we unmistakably return to Chiang Mai’s tourist trail, yet it would be a crime to ignore this magnificent rainforest that can be seen rising from any part of town. One of my favourite things to do is to jump on a motorcycle and ride the fun and beautiful winding road up the mountain, feeling the temperature drop the higher you get. Most visitors flock to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples, but you can continue past Bhubing – the royal family’s winter palace – onto a narrow road through cloud forest with moss and ferns till you reach the Hmong hill-tribe village Ban Hmong Doi Pui.
This village has become a tourist market in the mountains but attracts far fewer crowds than Wat Phra That and is definitely worthwhile a visit if only for its stunning location and the journey itself. Hidden higher up in the village is a small but interesting hill-tribe museum (10 Baht entry) while this is also a great spot for buying green tea, hill-tribe coffee, dried fruits and – in season – fresh strawberries. If you really want to get away from it all, you can hike from here two hours to the 1,685-metre Doi Pui, the national park’s highest peak. Download MAPS.ME to help you navigate.
Riding a motorcycle is by far the most fun and flexible way to get there, but drive slowly and beware of the deceptively sharp and steep curves, especially on the way down. Alternatively, red shared trucks leave from Chiang Mai University, and if you have time and energy, then hiking is another great option.
Getting from Bangkok to Chiang Mai
There are no less than 50 flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai airport each day, so plenty of choice if you want to go by air. THAI and Bangkok Airways are reliable while low-cost options include Thai AirAsia and Nok Air. Flights between both cities take a good hour or so. However, a great way to travel is on the Bangkok to Chiang Mai train. There are usually six of them per day and take between 12 and 15 hours. Sit back and enjoy the journey watching Thai villages and rice paddies slide past while you chug towards your destination – or take the overnight train and wake up to the sight of northern Thailand’s forests and hills. Detailed information can be found on the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One train travel site. Finally, there are also many public and private bus services between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Most reliable are the government-run buses which can be booked at Moh Chit, the Bangkok Northern and Northeastern Bus Terminal.
Our favourite Chiang Mai Hotels
There’s plenty of choice for where to stay in Chiang Mai. For a high-end hotel steeped in history we recommend the Anantara Chiang Mai, while the nearby Dusit Princess Chiang Mai is also a good choice. An excellent value-for-money alternative to hotels is the professionally managed “stayinchiangmai” holiday rentals, especially for small groups or families.
If you’re booking hotels in Chiang Mai then click here to search Agoda and support Travel Begins at 40 at the same time.