While it’s considered the cultural center of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai has more to offer families that just golden temples and a bustling night market.
As opposed to the frenetic pace of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is the calm cousin to the north. The city was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, but today, it’s best known for its many Buddhist temples (or “wat” in Thai). However, if your kids are like mine, they have a temple limit - two maybe three at the most. Fortunately, Chiang Mai offers much more in the way of family fun, if you know where to look.
Where to stay?
Tanita House is a hidden gem in Chiang Mai. This guest house is located near the Ping River in an artsy neighborhood with coffee shops, galleries, and restaurants. It's about a 30-minute walk to the Old City or a short tuk-tuk ride. We reserved the family house which was actually a converted, two-story rice barn which had more space than we could have ever used: living room, dining room, two bedrooms, and three bathrooms. It was very clean, comfortable, and well-appointed.
Aor, the owner of Tanita House, is incredibly sweet and exceedingly helpful. The main house was built by her great grandfather. In addition to being a guest house, the property has an antique and woodworking business which really adds to the ambience. In the morning, you’re served a complimentary breakfast in the open-air common area below the Aor’s house. If you show up in your pajamas, no one cares. It’s that kind of place - uber comfortable and kid-friendly. And the price? Just $79/night for the entire rice barn.
KidTripster Tip: Pack lightly. Just around the corner, there’s another sweet woman who runs an inexpensive laundry. She promptly returns your clothes cleaned and folded.
What to do?
About an hour outside Chiang Mai, Jungle Flight runs a zip line course in a rainforest of centuries-old Yang trees. The trees are thought to be sacred residences for forest spirits. This activity is a good one for families with young children (must be at least 6 years old). While my older boys did enjoy it, they were hoping for more challenges, like balancing beams, tight ropes, or climbing nets. The other downside? You zipped as a group, so one person zipped from station 1 to station 2, then the next person, and so on, until all 13 people complete the segment. There were 24 stations, so it was a lot of waiting around. The best part was the final abseil – 131 feet to the ground. Cost (Plan B/shorter course): $62/person, includes transportation, lunch, and shirt.
The elephant is a central figure in Thai culture. Choosing the right elephant experience can be tricky. Some camps force elephants to perform like circus animals for crowds. At other camps, chairs are harnessed to the elephants so that tourists can ride. At still other camps, elephant rides are prohibited.
We decided on Ran-Tong Save and Rescue Elephant Centre. Here tourists do ride elephants, but they do so bareback. Upon arriving, we switched into work clothes and began our duties as elephant mahouts, or caregivers. After learning six basic commands in Thai, we mounted our elephants for a 30-minute ride through the jungle. It’s a good thing that the ride was short. Elephants’ backs are bony and not all that comfortable! After lunch, we rode them to the river for bath time… and kisses!
KidTripster Tip: Ran-Tong does provide clothing, but best to come prepared with a tank top or swimsuit underneath your street clothes as there's no private changing area.
Here again, you need be extremely patient. Pick-up in the morning and drop-off in the afternoon takes a lot of time as you're in a van with three to four other parties, all staying at different hotels. We waited around for nearly an hour after arriving for the group ahead of us to go through their mahout training. Our training took forever as every single person mounts a single practice elephant and goes through all the commands; in our case, that was 12 people. After lunch, we waited for more than an hour. While we enjoyed interacting with the elephants, we were good and ready to go by the end of the day.
KidTripster Tip: Request to be in the first group of the day to avoid some of the waiting.
KidTripster Tip: The guide does take photos throughout the day and then posts them to Facebook by 6 p.m. in the evening, so you don’t have to worry about carrying a camera.
Where to eat?
Out of all the countries our family has visited, Thailand probably has the best food overall. In Chiang Mai, our family learned how to make that food. We took a four-hour vegetarian cooking class at May Kaidee’s Cooking School. At first, my sons, ages 10 and 13, were skeptical; but before the class was over, they declared it to be their favorite activity in Chiang Mai, even over ziplining and riding elephants.
Our instructor and restaurant owner’s name was Duan. The store front was her school; the kitchen and upstairs were her home. She spoke excellent English and easily communicated her passion for Thai cooking.
After prepping some vegetables, we walked across the street with her to the local market. Thai people are insistent about fresh food and visit the market daily. The idea of going to the grocery store once or twice a week seems absurd to them. We asked all the “what’s that?” questions and tried durian, known as the world’s stinkiest fruit. Frankly, it wasn’t that smelly and actually tasted pretty good, like a peach.
When we returned to the kitchen, Duan put us through our paces. We learned to make 15 dishes! In Thai cooking, there are just a few basic recipes (you get a recipe book to take home); cooks simply add an ingredient here and there to create an entirely different dish. Of course, all that cooking meant there was a lot of tasting! We were beyond stuffed. The boys favorites? Potato hummus and mango sticky rice. Cost: $42/person.
KidTripster Tip: Do not eat breakfast! And you probably won’t need dinner either!
KidTripster Tip: The class is four hours long. While Duan does an excellent job of engaging and including kids, it may be too much for younger children.
Chiang Mai is located in Northern Thailand. There are several daily flights from major cities in Thailand. The flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is about one hour and 15 minutes.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels the world with her husband and two sons. They enjoy reliving their trip to Thailand each time that they make one of Duan’s recipes.