Things to do in Chiang Mai: Elephants, Spices and Boxing, oh my!

Chiang Mai is an amazing and beautiful city located in the higher elevation of Northern Thailand. This city was our favorite destination in Thailand as it has a beautiful backdrop of the mountains, cooler weather, and far less traffic, pollution and people than Bangkok. We really loved it here and dream of moving here one day – it’s super affordable.

During our vacation, we had the opportunity to take advantage of an eco-tour, culinary adventure, and immerse ourselves in the local culture through the night market and Thai boxing. Here are several things to do in Chiang Mai: 

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary:

We took a full day tour with an arranged pickup from our Airbnb. Our transport was in the back of an open-air pickup truck with 6-7 other travelers and the trek to took about 90 mins to reach our destination in the heart of the jungle.

During our day-long tour, we had the opportunity to learn about the interaction of man with these amazing animals throughout history. Elephants were once used in military missions, transport for the logging industry, support of the local agriculture, and for other manual labor tasks until recently when it became more profitable to instead use the animals for tourism.

We highly encourage you to stay away from any tours that promise a show of elephants playing soccer, painting, or any other unnatural behaviors. We also learned that elephants don’t have the backbone to support riding like horses and camels so please avoid any tours are engaging in these activities.

The sanctuary that we visited allowed us the opportunity to interact, feed, and even bathe the elephants without engaging the animals in circus tricks. It was truly a humbling experience that has created lifelong memories for us!

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  • Be careful when feeding for the first time as the elephants are excited easily and have a propensity to chase you down if they know you have food.
  • Also, be alert and listen to your guides at all times as elephants can stampede if they feel threatened.
  • Bring a Go-Pro (you will get wet) and a sense of adventure! This is a must-do in Chiang Mai.   
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Thai Cooking Class:

We did a full day six-course cooking glass with everything from appetizers to main entrees and desserts. Our day again began with a pickup from our Airbnb, this time in a comfortable, air-conditioned van (rather than open-air pickup).

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We first stopped at a local market that had everything the Thai people use in their daily cooking (meat, fish, fruits, etc). We bought some cashews here for my dad who still raves about them – he says it was the best he has ever tasted! We also grabbed a few small snacks and Thai iced coffee – it was a hot day!

After arriving at the Farm, we took a tour of the grounds and learned about all of the incredible spices, veggies, and fruit grown in this tropical paradise. It’s amazing how many things we saw at this farm that we have never seen or heard of in the US. If you love to learn and taste new and different foods, you will not be disappointed.

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Our six-course menu included all of the following:

  1. Papaya Salad
  2. Tom Yum Soup
  3. Spring Rolls
  4. Panang Curry
  5. Cashew Nut Stir Fry
  6. Sticky Rice Mango Dessert

It was an awesome experience, we even made our own pastes with a mortar and pestle. We also got cookbooks detailing the recipes for all the dishes we made during our visit.

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  • Make sure to bring an appetite because we could barely finish all of the food. We would recommend the half day class where you only make 3 dishes so that you don’t fall into a food coma like we did afterwards!
  • Take plenty of notes and pictures so you can try and find the local spices back at home!
  • Our trip was reserved with the Thai Farm Cooking Class group.

Night Bazaar:

We absolutely love Southeast Asia for this simple reason alone – the night markets. This is the best way to immerse yourself in the local culture and enjoy the energy, smells, tastes, and people of this majestic place.

You will find anything and everything you could ever want in these immense marketplaces which seem to come to life every night at dusk until the wee hours of the night. Don’t be scared to try the street food, drinks, and treats in these markets.

These markets are also the best place to do all of your souvenir shopping or essentials for yourself if you’re going to stay for a while. If we go back again, I will literally take an empty suitcase and buy all of my clothes and personal items there!

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  • Be careful of weaving motorcyclists through these markets and the ever-present pickpockets. We didn’t have a problem but it’s always good to be alert.
  • Negotiate everything – our tactic was typically offering 50% of the asking price right from the start and meeting somewhere in the middle. If it doesn’t work out, don’t fret, there are plenty of vendors selling similar items throughout the markets.
  • We were told not to negotiate food since it’s already very reasonably priced but we meet a German couple who would negotiate the bill prior to taking a seat at any stall and it worked for them. Give it a try if you want to save a few Thai baht – YMMV!
  • Don’t forget to try durian fruit – it’s actually quite tasty (although the locals are split on this one)!

Doi Suthep:

The temple in the mountains is absolutely breath-taking and worth the trek up! It's quite the journey up but there are red trucks everywhere at the base of the hill near the city university that will take you up for 30tbt pp ($1 USD).

The sheer placement of this temple atop the mountain is astonishing and there are no bad views from the top. This a great place to take pictures and spend a half-day.

We happened to go on a day when students from all of the local universities were making the trek up the mountain on foot. We didn’t have the energy or stamina to join them so we cheated a bit by hopping a ride on the red trucks!

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  • Make sure to bring long pants in order to enter the temple because you can't enter with shorts. We also carried plastic bags for our shoes so we didn’t have to leave them unattended at the entrance of the temples.

  • If you forget, there are a few stalls right before the main stairs that offer the iconic elephant pants for about 150 THB (or $5 USD)

  • If you are fit and looking for a challenge, you may consider undertaking the trek on foot – just be alert for all of the cars as there are a lot of winding curves around the mountain and the locals love to zip around without much care.
  • If you get motion sickness, we saw several locals put a little Tiger balm right under their nostrils to fight the nausea.
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Muay Thai Boxing @ Thaepae Stadium:

You can’t go to Thailand without going to a local boxing tournament! I believe it was our last night in Chiang Mai and it came down to a decision between Muay Thai or the Lady Boy Cabaret. Our collective, small group decided on the fight and it was well worth it!

This is a really cool experience because it’s not a simple tourist trap. This is really where the locals go to have a great time! There is a lot of hype, energy, and passion at these events. The locals excitedly cast bets on the fights, the DJ/Announcer gets everyone pumped, and the crowd eats it all up!

While some of the fights were almost definitely staged, some appeared to be legit; nevertheless, it was all quite the entertaining experience. You can enjoy hamburgers and beers while you watch the fight from your seat. I believe there are fights scheduled for every night but make sure to check the schedule when you arrive in Chiang Mai so you don’t miss out.

Our absolute favorite event of the night was the blind-fold round – I can’t remember when I have publicly laughed out loud in such a hysterical manner before – Narmin was so embarrassed of me!!

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  • This is a great activity if you have a free night and want to take it a bit chill.

Chiang Mai is an awe-inspiring city with tons to offer people from all walks of life. It’s no coincidence that both travelers and local Thai often tell us that this is their favorite place in Thailand – we agree 100%. While our list is by no means an exhaustive one, we hope it gives you some ideas on how to plan your own adventure.

Looking for more Thailand adventures? Don't miss the Full Moon Festival!