Let’s face it, you have got to be thinking non-touristy, by the time you get into Chiang Mai. Data says, you should have visited Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket by now. Most probably, you are trying to look beyond the beaches in the South and hence, heading towards the mountains.
Good decision! Because Chiang Mai is the right place to start going off the beaten path in Thailand. You can try being more experimental in your tour choices while keeping it balanced with the partying rituals at night.
Let me give you a detailed account here.
The best non-touristy things to do in Chiang Mai off the beaten path
McKean Senior Center Chiang Mai
Don’t get the wrong ideas by it being a ‘senior center’, its called the Dok Kaew Gardens for a reason. With its tasteful landscaping around colonial structures and Thai styled cottages, Dok Kaew Gardens is one of the most elegantly set up colonies in Chiang Mai.
A former leper colony, it has been rehabilitated now and spreads across 150 acres by the banks of the Ping River. It now serves as the uber plush senior center for people from across the world – expats, as well as Thai (including the Lepers that remain).
Take a walk into its sprawling gardens with a breathtaking Lotus pond, visit their craft center and a small museum where some history about the center has been put up. Its like a garden picnic in the midst of Chiang Mai.
Spend time at a local school in Chiang Mai
We were missing kids back home and thought why not meet some here, in Chiang Mai. It was also one brilliant idea to mix with the locals and cheer ourselves up – both at the same time. We asked our hotel staff if they could arrange for a school visit and they were shocked at the request at first. However, eventually the Manager thought of a local school in the vicinity and dropped us there to discover on our own.
Surprisingly the teachers were very friendly and let us have some fun, even between the classes. Starting from being part of a physical fitness lesson in the field, to seeing kids jump like monkeys when the interval was announced – what a super idea it was! They got super excited seeing some foreign visitors and shrieked the whole compound with all the shouting!
We hugged and kissed them, they hugged and kissed us. Most fun was to tease them from outside the window when in a class and they would burst out with laughter creating a ripple effect. All in all, it was one of the best decisions on how to experience Chiang Mai the best!
Wiang Kum Kam, the ancient city in Chiang Mai
Wiang Kum kam is an ancient city in the North of Thailand located by the Ping River. It served as the capital city for two kingdoms, including the Lanna Kingdom. Later because of it’s continuous flooding as built on low lying location, Chiang Mai was made the capital.
Eventually, it was actually submerged by the Ping River and was only accidently re-discovered in the recent years. You can see the ruins of the whole city in the original condition, except for some that have been restored.
The most notable piece of Wiang Kum Kam today remains Wat Chedi Liam. A beautiful ‘Chedi’ – Thai name for Stupa is present along with the main temple complex which is very beautifully decorated. The temple is still occupied by Monks and you can see them around the compound, making for great photo opportunities. The Wat shows influences of the Burmese style as restored by Burmese a couple times in the past after being re-discovered.
We went through Wiang Kum Kam on bicycles hired from our hotel, as the city had lots of interesting spots to cover and walking could be very strenuous. However, if coming from far across, you can go around in a horse carriage – an expensive option, although stylish and little more comfortable because of the Thai Sun and humidity.
Do not forget to grab a copy of the map from the tourist information center. For a more detailed version of the Wiang Kum Kam tour – read through this detailed Blog by a local travel agency.
Chat with a Monk at Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai
One of the most interesting and off the beat experience I had in Chiang Mai. Chatting with a Monk is what I was always thinking of when visiting any Wat in Thailand. These elegant men, in their orange robes with serene smiles on their faces – makes you a little curious about their lives each time you see them.
Even otherwise, while commuting through Thailand, Monks are everywhere. Glued to their phone in the Bangkok BTS, taking photographs of the sights in Chiang Rai and shopping though Chiang Mai night Bazaar – they are everywhere.
However, when you go talk to them, most commonly – language becomes a barrier. Not for a little fun, but for a more insightful conversation. Therefore, couldn’t have asked for more, when I came to know about the Monk Chat sessions provided by Wat Suan Dok.
They are the only ones, who are organizing ‘official’ Monk chat sessions at the temple from 5 to 7 every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. You just have to walk-in within the given time, write your name and nationality and a Monk shall be assigned to you. Best things are, it is completely free and there is a moderator to help Monks through any problems that they might encounter in expressing themselves – language wise or experience wise.
The entire thing is very casual and friendly and you can satiate your curiosity about any odd topic that you can think of. For me, it answered one of the biggest questions I always had about kids being brought into the Monk business without any discretion from their side. However, it turns out that only at the age 20, they are officially ordained as Monks, which means, even if they were brought as kids into being Monks for x, y and z reasons, they can always opt out of it at the time.
This and tons more, to your heart’s content at a Monk chat. Make sure to wear decent clothing that covers your body – shoulders and knees included.
Cycling tour around Chiang Mai
One of the best ways you can discover this charming city is through a bicycle tour. No wonder there are so many variations on offer. From exploring the old city, cruising through the countryside, food adventures to night rides – everything sounds amazing. You just have to make a choice as per your liking and capability of biking.
You can even choose from half day tours to a week worth of cycling around the beautiful Chiang Mai and its surroundings.
My choice for one major reason was the night cycling – didn’t want to face the hot and humid weather during the day. However, it wouldn’t really matter if a particular experience that you are aiming at, is only available in the day tour (for example an extensive food trail).
Our night tour took us through some pretty amazing sights and experiences. The old city looked especially charming in the evening with all temples illuminated and the colorful night markets coming alive.
We could see and experience the real Chiang Mai as most of the ride was through the backroads, avoiding traffic as far as possible. The guide wasn’t compromising on safety at all while making sure we had the best local experience.
I also had my most amazing Khao Soi of this trip during the cycling tour. The experience was doubly special, being in one of the local eateries where we could see locals eating by our sides, rather than in any big restaurant.
Some notable companies are –
For adventure cycling – Trailhead. Really detailed trails
For cultural experiences – Grasshopper adventures. Something for everyone
For off the beat experiences – Recreational Chiang Mai Biking. Limited choice but very well done hidden trails
Bonus insights about Chiang Mai –
- Locals are way friendlier and good in English than in Bangkok
- Chiang Mai night market is cheaper than Chatuchak market in Bangkok and people bargain with smiling faces. You can also enjoy free cultural performances at the main Plaza
- Choose local train travel to Chiang Mai if coming from South, to experience the lush Thai countryside