Located in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a fascinating place, rich in architecture and culture, thanks to its history as a cultural and religious center and the capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom back in the day. It has hundreds of Buddhist temples, and it’s not uncommon to see Buddhist monks dressed in robes walking around the city.
While the above description might make it seem like a historical city meant for serious cultural and religious immersion, I had some of the most fun experiences here that is sure to appeal to people with varied interests!
I’m picking out five of my favourite experiences in Chiang Mai below:
Cook Like a Local
I attended a half-day Thai Akha cooking class to learn more about Thai Akha cuisine, cooking styles, local vegetables, and ingredients, and had a total blast!
The class included a trip to the local market, where I got to taste different kinds of street food (including things I’d never try by myself!) and learned to identify different local vegetables! When I found out about other cooking classes located on farms (a tad bit late as I’d already paid up for the one I went for), I wished I’d known about them earlier (in my head, farm over market any day!), but after the experience of walking through the local market and tasting different food, I had no regrets whatsoever!!
Through the course of the half-day class, I not only learned how to make 11 Thai Akha dishes (including raw papaya salad, spring rolls, chicken and coconut soup, massaman chicken curry, cashew chicken stir fry and mango sticky rice) but also got to eat it all! (I obviously couldn’t finish it, and the school very kindly packed the leftovers for me to take back to my hostel).
Chill With Asian Elephants
Chiang Mai happens to be home to numerous elephant sanctuaries. While Thailand is infamous for unethical animal tourism, with tourists paying through their nose for elephant rides and tricks, posing with sedated snakes and tigers, and what not, the good news is that there are also a lot of rescue and rehabilitation centers.
I spent half a day in one such center- the Kanta Elephant Sanctuary. I not only learned more about Asian elephants and their food habits but also about the rescue process. I got to help prepare their food, feed the elephants, help bathe them and play in muddy water! Needless to say, it was super fun and an experience to remember!
Chat With a Monk
One of my most treasured experiences in Chiang Mai was the opportunity to have a rendezvous with a Buddhist monk! Having a candid conversation with a Buddhist monk has been a dream for me for a long time, but since serious monks are typically inaccessible to the public, particularly in India, I never got the chance before.
The MCU Buddhist University in Chiang Mai offers the unique opportunity of chatting with monks-in-training! Visitors can clarify their doubts about Buddhism and learn more about monk-life, while the monks-in-training (mostly students of the University) get to improve their English speaking skills.
Get Massaged by a Prison Inmate
What better way to relax after a tiring day in the sun than a Thai massage?!
But what if you got it at a prison center by a prison inmate instead of the usual salon?
This is exactly what I did!
The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution provides Thai massage training to select women inmates in order for them to pursue it as a profession once their prison term ends, and well as earn some money while completing their term. They run a massage center where tourists can get a 60-minute massage by a trained inmate for as little as ฿200!
The center is pretty popular though and it’s advisable to go as early as you can (I went at 10 AM and got an appointment for 10.50 AM, but people often have to wait much longer). There’s also a restaurant in the same complex (also run by inmates) where you can wait and/or grab a bite (their Khao Soi was quite nice!).
Watch a Cabaret Show
Finally, what ended my journey on a high was a spectacular cabaret by the Kathoey community at a small hole-in-wall straight-friendly gay bar called RAM Bar! Almost every blog about Chiang Mai mentions this as a must-watch show, and I’d say it’s every bit worth the craze!
Performed four days a week at 10 PM, the show is free, but you need to either order a drink or pay ฿250. The bar is quite small, so reach early to grab a seat, and try to sit by the open wall to feel street party vibes!
While I have listed just five fun things to do in Chiang Mai, the options are limitless! You can hike the Pilgrim’s Path to Wat Pha Lat temple, watch a Muay Thai boxing match – or even better, take a class, learn how to give a Thai massage, jump off a cliff at Chiang Mai’s own Grand Canyon, ride a bamboo raft….. I rest my case. I can’t wait to go back and experience it all!
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