Any Thailand vacation deserves a side trip to Chiang Mai, up in the north of the country. Though it's one of Thailand's largest cities, it's refreshingly free of the bright lights, pungent aromas and noisy, frenetic whirl of places like Bangkok. Though it has all the accoutrement of a proper city – an international airport, a lively night scene, big malls and luxury stores etc – Chiang Mai is more like a big spread-out hillside town and a popular retreat for Bangkokians.
The pace might be slower in Chiang Mai, but there’s plenty to do within city limits. Inside the old city walls and moat are an array of drinking and dining spots by the River Ping – many with delicious affordable Thai food and live bands. The night – and day – markets are must-visits, and there's the zoo, where the country's cutest four-legged celebrities reside (pandas Lim Ping and mum Lin Hue). Chiang Mai is also where you'll find wholesalers and manufacturers of Lanna style furniture and various cultural artefacts for much better prices than in Bangkok. Days could be lost visiting the wholesalers on the outskirts of town.
Chiang Mai is also a great launch point for trips farther afield. Here are some of the best day-trips and side ventures from Chiang Mai.
Chiang Rai and Pai
If you’ve got wheels, get out on the open road! You’re not in Bangkok anymore, which means you can actually go more than 100 meters without getting stuck in a traffic jam. Any valid driver’s license is OK; just remember to stick to the left-hand side of the road and watch for scooters. The drive northeast to Chiang Rai – an even quieter country town – takes three hours and is green and winding in parts. Chiang Rai has its own unique set of attractions – historic and breathtaking temples (the blindingly all-white Wat Rongkun comes to mind), Doi Tung mountain with the Royal Villa and its beautiful gardens, and the Maekok River.
An hour or so northwest along some considerably serpentine roadways is Pai, an established backpacker haunt that can no longer really be considered under the radar. Even so, it’s still lazy in comparison to Bangkok or Phuket, with a low-key, relaxed atmosphere honest to its provincial, pancake-trail roots. Choose a backpacker bar, pull up a cushion and while away your time sharing tall stories with fellow travellers.
Hill Tribe Trek
Exploitative "long-neck" tribe tours of yore are no match for an eco trek around northern Thailand. There are numerous socially responsible tours and treks of the region if you do a little Internet research. By staying with host communities and trekking from point to point (or cycling or kayaking or rafting), you can be immersed in provincial culture, properly get into nature and enjoy plenty of adventure without disturbing local village life or destroying the environment.
One of the biggest thrills of visiting Thailand is being able to see pachyderms up close and personal. The heartache of it is that many times these majestic creatures are brought into the cities to earn their keep – babies are separated from their mothers and foreigners pay money to feed them. The most famous sanctuary is the Elephant Nature Park which rescues and rehabilitates elephants and contributes to rainforest restoration. The park welcomes student trips and offers overnight stays and packages, with visitors able to tend and bathe the animals (there are no performances or elephant rides here). The park is also home to dogs rescued from the Bangkok floods of 2011 and from the local dog meat trade, plus rescued cats and buffalo. The Baan Chang Elephant Park is another sanctuary where rescued elephants are able to get back into their natural rhythm. Travellers here can do a "training course" where they hang out with a mahout for a day and help feed, bathe and tend the elephants.
Doi Suthep, Wat Phra That and National Park
Half an hour drive from Chiang Mai is this popular tourist attraction – a particular draw for Buddhist pilgrims. If you’re feeling the need to work off all the kao soi gai you should have been eating (as it's the local specialty), here’s your chance. Wat Phra That temple is at the top of an imposing set of stairs, flanked by Naga – mythical serpents said to inhabit the Mekong – and lactic burn is guaranteed (unless you cheat and take the tram to the top). Wander the temple, enjoy monastic walks around the inner courtyard and marvel at this spectacularly adorned chedi, covered in plates of copper. Remember temple rules: no shorts or singlets in the temple, shoes off and soles pointed away from all holy statues and general reverence and respect at all times. In the National Park, trekkers can take a two-kilometer walk to Mae Sa waterfall, best viewed in the green season.
Mae Hong Son
If you're in Chiang Mai, you may as well go all the way to the Burmese border on the Mae Hong Son "loop." It's too far from Chiang Mai to be considered a day trip – it's around a five-hour drive or 30-minute flight – but if you seek remoteness and mountainous greenery, it's a worthwhile journey. Trekking around the Golden Triangle is the most popular activity here – visiting caves, Shan Hill tribes, waterfalls and various hill communities. Glorious mountain scenery, fresh air and time in the great outdoors are main motivators for a trip this far upcountry.