SITUATED in the mountainous region of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is one of the country’s most culturally and historically significant cities.

Its “old city” area still has remains of walls and moats from its history as a cultural and religious centre that dates back to the 13th century, and it’s also home to hundreds of elaborate temples. Beyond the historic centre is a dynamic and modern, charming city with plenty of opportunities for sightseeing, cooking courses, and outdoor activities.G+L_ChiangMai_300x250

With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that the city was ranked 44th on TripAdvisor’s 2014 list of “25 Best Destinations in the World”.

One of the activities we took part in was the Chiang Dao Elephant Jungle Trek and Ping River Rafting Tour. Our first stop north of Chiang Mai was the orchid farm, which was amazing — there were succulent, vibrant, blossoms everywhere. The gardens here were peaceful and the butterfly enclosure housed some unusual specimens that live somewhere between a week to a year.

Our adventure continued when we arrived on the banks of the Ping River where the Chiang Dao Elephant Camp is located. We really felt we were in the jungle in this relatively-unspoiled setting as we walked precariously across the long, high rope suspension bridge to finally arrive where the elephants were. We watched them bathe in the river and enjoy a scrub from their mahouts (their lifelong human carers). The elephant show that followed included the usual log rolling and dragging and acrobatics. However, we were quite amused by the elephant which took a paint brush in its trunk and composed a very realistic painting of a tree.

Gavin and John (the authors of this article) take the river rafting tour

Gavin and John (the authors of this article) take the Ping River Rafting Tour.

Our eagerly-anticipated ride on the elephants took us through remote jungle tracks to an isolated mountain village and then back along the shallow banks of the beautiful Ping river. The one-and-a-half hour ride was exhilarating and the highlight of the day.

The second part of the tour was river rafting on a bamboo raft for an hour on the tranquil river trail that was punctuated by some small rapids to add a touch of excitement. Along the river there were locals fishing and picnicking, and some water buffalos semi-submerged as they cooled off from the heat. We finished with a late lunch at a local hotel and arrived back in Chiang Mai late that afternoon.

The world-famous Chiang Mai Night Markets are enormous, stretching along blocks of the central city area. They operate every day of the year from about sunset until 11pm.

Chiang Mai's famous Nigh Bazaar

Chiang Mai’s famous Nigh Bazaar

The Night Bazaar is on the east side of the old walled city and many hotels run a shuttle service to drop off and pick up. There are thousands of stalls, so the markets are full of colour with neon lights flooding over the amazing array of merchandise on sale. You can have a lot of fun bargaining, perhaps pick up real treasures at very low prices, and even if you are not buying — just strolling through the Night Bazaar is a full sensory experience.

When you’ve had enough, eat and drink in an outdoor cafe called The Pub right on the corner beside Starbucks. The local Thai food here is delicious and you will find this place a perfect vantage point for people watching: right in the centre of the action.

You also can’t come to Chiang Mai without visiting one of its many temples and landmarks.

Take a 30 minute drive up the winding mountain to the temple of Doi Suthep. Named after the mountain on which the temple is located, this is a scared site for many Thai people. When you arrive, you are faced with 309 steps to reach the pagodas or you can take the tram to the top. It’s worth it either way, with great views over Chaing Mai from the edge of the surrounding walls. As with most temples, you need to be respectful by removing your shoes when you enter the temple. The ornate pagodas, statues, bells and shrines are some of the most impressive in Thailand.

The temple of Doi Suthep is one of the most sacred sites in Thailand and a popular tourist attraction for visitors of Chiang Mai.(Image source: Pixshark)

The temple of Doi Suthep is one of the most sacred sites in Thailand and a popular tourist attraction for visitors of Chiang Mai.(Image source: Pixshark)

While you’re there, don’t miss seeing the Emerald Buddha and a statue of the Hindu God Ganesh. All your senses will be stimulated by the mix of vibrant yellow saffron robes worn by the monks, the sweet smell of burning incense and the pervasive drone of the bronze bells and chants. If you want to block out the din of the many hundreds of tourists, visiting Doi Suthep in the early morning before the tour buses arrive is highly recommended.

In terms of cooking classes, the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School is by far the best in the city. It is set in tropical gardens and has an excellent cooking demonstration room and well-equipped cooking stations.

Our day started by visiting the local fresh vegetable market to purchase our supplies. For the rest of the day, we cooked and ate our way through our own “expertly prepared” yellow curry with chicken, steamed fish in banana leaves, chicken with cashew nuts, and fried big noodles with sweet soy sauce.

Visiting the local markets is essential for any Thai cooking. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Visiting the local markets is essential for any Thai cooking. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Each dish is first presented by the chef in the lecture room using mirrors strategically placed above the cooking station to demonstrate the steps and techniques required. Back at our individual cooking stations, we continued our menu with spicy prawn salad north-eastern style and bananas in coconut milk. Armed with our Chef Sompon cookbook and cooking apron (souvenirs of our special day) we retuned to our hotel not feeling like any dinner whatsoever, but completely satisfied with the whole experience. A one day cooking course costs 1,450THB ($55 AUD).

If you’re looking for a fantastic fine dining experience, visit the French restaurant of La Terrasse. It’s dubbed as one of Chiang Mai’s top five restaurants and it’s located in the central tourist area, not far from the famous Night Markets. The extensive menu is all about good traditional French cooking, and it’s perfect if you’ve been in Thailand for a few days and need a break from the spice and curry. Don’t forget to make a reservation as the restaurant is small and very popular, especially early in the evening.

Another area that is quite up-market is the newly-constructed Maya Shopping Centre on Nimmanhaemin Rd. The centre is full of designer shops, a floor devoted to eating, and a cinema complex with films being screened in English.

Just across the road from the Maya centre is Think Park, which was built to look exactly like a small scale version of Chiang Mai’s old city. It’s actually a cutting-edge destination perfect for dining, drinking and mixing with the locals. We suggest you save your visit until the evening.

The Maya Shopping Centre (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Maya Shopping Centre (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Chiang Mai’s two main gay centres are outside the old city moat. The gay scene here is constantly changing, so we suggest grabbing a copy of OUT Magazine that’s available in several places to find the latest information about the gay bars, clubs, saunas, spas, and gay accommodation in Chiang Mai.

Our recommendations for bars are Ram Coffee and Bar. We also found Soho Bar very hospitable and with a mixed clientele. Meanwhile, G Star Vintage Chiang Mai and Monkey Club are the most popular nightclubs. 

If you’re looking for a relaxing, yet sophisticated day by a pool in a small tropical garden, we recommend House of Male, situated near Soho Bar. It’s men-only, with sun lounges, chairs and tables that hug the perimeter of the pool while the sounds of running water and tinkling Chinese wind chimes help guests relax. Nudity is prohibited, but there are private cabins options as well as a small screened-off private cruising, lounge and movie area.

Chiang Mai's old city moat.  (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Chiang Mai’s old city moat. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

This article was adapted from a piece first published on


Hotel: The Small Hotel, Chiang Mai
Inclusions: Four nights accommodation at the three-star The Small Hotel in a Plus Petit Room. Full Breakfast. Free Wi-Fi.
Price: $159 per person

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