For the past six weeks, I’ve been in Northern Thailand.
I haven’t been fully utilizing my travel time during this segment of my trip. I have done a lot of putting in long hours doing work on my laptop, hanging out with the friends I’ve made, and going to the rock climbing gym often. I have enjoyed decompressing after months of hiking across Nepal.
However, six weeks is a long time to do nothing, so naturally I have accomplished a few things. Here are my favorite Northern Thailand activities.
Getting to Know Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a small city in Northern Thailand, and I have spent about a month here in total. My first impression was that it was too busy, had too much traffic, and was a tourist hotspot. However, the more time I’ve spent here the more Chiang Mai has grown on me.
The city is actually pretty small, and I have figured out how to get around and where everything is. I love to walk everywhere in an effort to stay healthy. In Chaing Mai, it’s easy to get my three to five miles of daily walking in.
There are so many people who are staying in Chiang Mai long term. I like that I’ve been able to make travel friends who I can hang out with consistently for weeks, instead of getting to know each other for a few days before saying goodbye.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
I got to hang out with elephants for an afternoon. It was a cool experience seeing how elephants interact with each other and with humans, watching them use their trunks to eat, and generally observing their mannerisms.
The sanctuary provided baskets full of bananas, as well as cool shirts with oversized pockets to put the bananas in. I was giving bananas to one older elephant. After he ate them all, he shoved his trunk in my pocket to look for more. Then he patted me down to check if I was hiding any. He seemed to know the game.
The staff seemed to love hanging out with the elephants, and the animals seemed happy. The elephants were not fenced in, and they were free to wander. When myself and the other visitors first arrived, the elephants were behind a fence so we could feed them and get to know each other. But they just knew to stand there to get bananas and were not actually caged in.
If you want to see elephants in Thailand, make sure you’re going to a sanctuary and not anywhere that does riding. Elephants at riding places are often abused as part of their training and isolated from other elephants. In Pai, I drove by a place that had two elephants chained to poles and were there for people to photograph. It was sad to see, but it wouldn’t happen if people weren’t paying for it. Use your common sense and ethics when visiting elephants in Thailand.
I did a half day tour with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. This is probably my top recommendation for Northern Thailand.
Crazy Horse Rock Climbing
Crazy Horse is legit. I spent four days rock climbing here, and I stayed at Jira Home Stay every night (get ahold of her via Facebook message). It was such a quiet and peaceful place, and the food was delicious. I met my climbing partner Kevin by posting my info on Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures’ climbing partner bulletin board.
There are lots of options for different cliffs to climb, but it’s all compact within 15 minutes of walking from each other. After four days, Kevin and I still hadn’t visited all the different spots. It was a laid back experience as well. We usually bumped into one other group a day, and had the place to ourselves other than that.
Crazy Horse was the perfect escape from the city and a pleasant outdoor experience. It’s the Northern Thailand rock climbing alternative to Southern Thailand’s Railay.
Pai is another place that took a few days to grow on me. At first glance, it seemed like a tourist party town. It is a party town, but it also has more to offer than just that.
My favorite thing about Pai was staying at a hostel called Spicy Pai. It was not too crowded, but there were also enough people around that it was easy to make friends. It was situated on the outskirts of town, so it was quiet and scenic.
Probably the best Pai activity is riding around the countryside on motorbikes. It seemed like there were always people from my hostel going out for a few hours. I don’t drive motorbikes myself, but often tagged along with others. Pai canyon was my favorite destination because it reminded me of Utah.
There’s a joke that the motto for Pai visitors is, “One more night,” because people always stay way longer than expected. I meant to stay four days and was there for eleven days.
White Temple Day Trip
The White Temple is in Chiang Rai, which is three hours from Chiang Mai. I went with a tour company because that seemed to be the best value for my money. As a person who is not even particularly interested in temples, I think it was worth the visit. It was cool to see how thoroughly detailed the entire structure was.
Chiang Mai Night Markets
The night markets are one of the coolest things about Thailand in general. Imagine a street with loads of food stalls and shopping. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar on the east side of Old Town has been my favorite so far. It’s large enough that I didn’t get bored, and it had a wide variety of food options. It happens every night as well, and it’s not overwhelmingly crowded. The Sunday Night Market in Old Town was too busy for me. I was basically walking shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers for an hour.
There’s also such a variety to what’s offered at different night markets. Like some are solely local food carts and offer dishes that are specific to Northern Thailand. These are the places where you can buy a meal for $1. I went to a wholesale fruit and vegetable market that’s open all night. That was a cool and bizarre experience mainly because I didn’t know there would be such a demand to be able to buy fruit at 2 am.
No Gravity Climbing Gym
I know, I know. I talk about rock climbing too much. No joke though, No Gravity kept me in Chiang Mai way longer than I would have stayed otherwise. I went there my very first day in the city to boulder and see if I could find someone to climb with. Within 10 minutes, I met Misha who ended up being my friend and climbing partner for the rest of my time in Thailand.
Taking a Cooking Class
I did a cooking class at Red Chili Cooking School in Chiang Mai. It was so much fun. I went with a group of friends I met it Pai, and the cooking school was super accommodating to our group.
We learned how to cook five different dishes. I hadn’t realized how fast paced Thai cooking was. We chopped and prepped all of the ingredients ahead of time. Cooking was generally then a quick succession of putting the ingredients in the pan, and usually was finished within 10 minutes. I only started one kitchen fire the entire time. The instructor did not look the least bit phased. After the class was over, he emailed us the recipe book.
There are travelers everywhere in Northern Thailand, and it’s impossible not to make friends (even for an introvert like me). One of the best parts about my last six weeks of travel was all the cool people I met.
Things I Didn’t Like
Taxis and tuk tuks were the biggest frustration for me (in all of Thailand, not just Northern Thailand). If I took Uber, it was fine because the app decides the price ahead of time. Also, taking the red trucks around the main center of Chiang Mai was OK because I learned to just give the driver 20 baht (about $0.80) when I got out.
However, if I had to go anywhere out of the ordinary or further than a few kilometers it was a huge pain in the ass. The drivers would try to scam me almost every time, quoting prices that were extraordinarily high (like 2-3 times the price of Uber). Taxi drivers would try to negotiate a price with me. When I would request that they used the meter instead, which is standard practice, every time they would pretend not to understand.
The worst instance was when myself and two friends went to Doi Suthep Temple. The driver quoted a price for the group, then when we arrived at our destination claimed that the price was per person. He immediately became aggressive and started yelling at us, even though we were being polite and calm.
Honestly, all of the aggression and scams by drivers led me to use Uber or walk instead of dealing with it. I’m sure other tourists feel the same. I think it’s their loss if they lose business because of trying to rip off customers.
Final Thoughts about Northern Thailand
Northern Thailand (and Thailand in general) is a great destination for the first time traveler. It offers so much in the way of food, sight seeing, and scenery. English is widely spoken, and there’s a lot to choose from as far as accommodation, restaurants, and activities go. It’s super easy to get around too. Basically, any information you need can be found online.
However, it’s not necessarily a destination that gets your blood pumping. Unless you make a big effort to get far off the tourist track, everything you do will be something that thousands of tourists before you have done. After traipsing through remote regions of Nepal, I found Northern Thailand to be a tame experience. That’s not to say it was a bad time though.
I thoroughly enjoying relaxing and exploring in this gorgeous country.