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The northern city of Chiang Mai is well established as Thailand’s cultural capital, and many a traveller flocks here in pursuit of its greener setting, its more laid-back lifestyle and the chance to learn skills like Thai cooking, massage and boxing. But there’s more to do than meets the eye in this (compared to Bangkok) leafier Thai city – here are our suggestions for how you could spend at least a few days in Chiang Mai doing something just a little different.
Among our favourite pastimes in Chiang Mai is slurping down on a bowl of khao soi, a noodle soup with a coconut curry base that’s thought to have arrived in northern Thailand from neighbouring Burma. Most often served with a hunk of on-the-bone, melt-in-the-mouth chicken, khao soi combines boiled flat wheat noodles in the soup itself and a topping of crunchy deep-fried noodles, the contrast of which delivers something of a taste sensation. A bowl of khao soi is a must-do in Chiang Mai – it comes with garnishes including fresh lime, onions, pickles and , which you should add to your soup to taste. You’ll find khao soi all over Chiang Mai – at street stalls or simple restaurants, expect to pay in the 40 baht range for a bowl.
Other must-try regional dishes in Chiang Mai include gaeng hunglay, a variant of red curry made with fatty pork and loaded with ginger and pickled garlic, nam prik noom, a spicy northern dip made with young green chillies and eaten with raw vegetables, and finally sai ua, a northern grilled pork sausage rammed with herbs, spices and a northern red curry paste.
Everyone loves indulging in a Thai massage, but in Chiang Mai you can do the same with a twist. A rehabilitation at the city’s Women’s Correctional Institute sees female inmates reintegrate into society by way of delivering pampering Thai, foot and hand massages. The prison which previously housed the massage parlour has since changed locations, and so treatments now take place in a quaint Thai house on Ratchawithee Road.
The masseuses are those serving short-ish sentences for relatively minor crimes, and are generally nearing the end of their sentence. They take a massage course at the prison, which equips them with skills they can put to use after being fully released, and on rotation with other inmates get to spend a month practising on real customers at the spa. You’re free to chat with your masseuse during the treatment – though levels of English vary – and you are unlikely to notice much difference between here and other massage spas in Chiang Mai. Rates are also comparable to the usual, and there’s a souvenir shop and small café on site serving reasonably priced dishes including khao soi. Proceeds support the prison’s training initiatives, and masseuses are also said to receive a small payment for their work.
Nearby Lila Thai Massage now has five branches around Chiang Mai – the business is run by a former director of the Chiang Mai women’s prison and employs ex-inmates as a way of providing them with a way to make a living.
Travellers to Thailand tend to visit so many Buddhist temples that it’s common to become fatigued of them by the end of a trip. Luckily, a number of temples in Chiang Mai offer the chance to switch things up a little, and spend some time chatting to young novice monks. The exchange, totally free of charge, is win-win for both sides – you get to feed your curiosity about the lives of those in the orange robes, while the monks get an opportunity to practise their English language skills.
Among the most popular places to have a chat with a monk is Wat Suan Dok temple, on , where regular chats take place between 5-7pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Both men and women are welcome, and you can spend anything from five minutes to a couple of hours engaging in casual conversation. Other locations include the famous Wat Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Umong.
For this one you need to visit Chiang Mai in the middle of November, just slightly before the nationwide celebrations for the Loy Krathong festival that sees miniature floating rafts let off along waterfalls across the country. Though unrelated to the Thailand-wide Loy Krathong festival and its specifically northern Yee Peng variant, the mass lantern release at Sansai district’s Mae Jo University is no less picturesque. The event, for which the date is not usually confirmed until a month or two in advance, is part of a series of activities put on by an independent Buddhist community to make merit and pay homage to Buddha. Come along and join the crowds that descend to buy a flame-powered lantern, float it off into the night sky and then wow at the beautiful – if environmentally questionable – scene it creates (though the lanterns for sale at the event, which are the only ones you are allowed to release while inside, have been designed to be fire-safe and feature bamboo frames and recycled paper).
The local trade of handmade bamboo umbrellas is alive and well in the villages around Chiang Mai, and a visit to one of the low-key umbrella factories certainly makes for a glimpse at a side of the city that few short-term visitors see. 8km southeast of Chiang Mai at the Bo Sang Handicraft Centre, you can take in the entire process of making the bamboo struts (often with multiple pieces of bamboo held together in the gap between the worker’s toes!), covering them in paper, drying them in the sun and then painting them by hand. In late January, a fair takes place to promote the trade and includes competitions to find the best maker and decorator of the local speciality. Be sure to buy a parasol or two to take home as souvenirs or gifts!
Chiang Mai’s Bua Thong waterfalls are a little different than most – perfect for a day trip given these falls are over an hour outside of Chiang Mai itself, here you can not only splash around in the pools but actually climb up the waterfalls! A mineral deposit on the rocks stops them from being slippery like most falls, and gives them a texture somewhat akin to a hardened sponge. With something to grip on, you can head up to a vantage point at these five-storey cascading falls and really take in the view. A picnic area is perfect for a break from the rock climbing, and the whole place makes for a relaxed, rejuvenating and back-to-nature day out.
What are your favourite things to do in Chiang Mai? Let us know in the comments!
Photos by Chris Wotton; Tara Angkor Hotel; Stephen Belcher; John Shedrick; ckmck; Mith Huang.