Directly to our right sat a huge beefcake of a Russia man, adorned only in a tight speedo which left little to the imagination. When his belly hung just right, it appeared that he wore nothing at all. He looked to be in his late 60s and a recent graduate of a state sponsored doping program. The cute little girl in the row behind us, no more than 3 or 4 years old, was screeching bloody murder. She had been so adorable when she boarded our boat just an hour before. Her father was attempting to calm her by talking loudly over the engine noise in what sounded Chinese. He may have been yelling, but without linguistic context, it was hard to tell the difference. The entire boat stared ahead, hoping that the next beach would have less than 1,000 other tourists. Social media only needed one good picture to make this trip look amazing.
You too can have this experience. Just you and 1,000 of your closest sunburnt friends sharing a beach, fighting for the best spot to take a selfie. All it takes is $25 and a lot of patience. But what if you want an authentic travel experience in Thailand, something that will stay with you after you leave? We found just what we were looking for in Chiang Mai, far from the picturesque beaches of the south. This post will give you the three best things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand, if you want a memorable experience.
1.) Learning to Cook Thai Food
What better way to get a taste of culture than by learning its cuisine? Leaving Thailand doesn’t meant that you have to leave all of the delicious foods behind. Cooking classes offer a unique opportunity to bring home one of the best parts of a country. There are loads of classes around Thailand, including dozens in Chiang Mai. It is standard for each student to have a private workstation and individually prepare every dish. Most itineraries include a visit to a local market to pick out ingredients and a chance to choose and prepare up to eight of your chosen recipes. Many even include transfer to and from your hotel, making this an easy day to plan. Of all the cooking classes we have taken in various countries, our experience in Chiang Mai was by far the most fun and participative. You can read all about it in our post, An Explosion of Flavor.
2.) Buddhist Temples
Roughly 90% of Thai citizens are Buddhist, which is reflected by the sheer number of temples throughout the country. It is said that Chiang Mai alone has around 300 in the city. While it is impossible to visit them all, it is easy to stop into gorgeous buildings while you wander the streets. Many which we visited had monks going about their daily routines, giving us a brief glimpse into their lives. Visit more than just the main ones, there are tons where you will encounter no other tourists. Each is unique, so read up on the history to gain a better appreciation of the building age and purpose and make sure to pay attention to the small details in the design. Most are free, although a few of the most popular have a modest fee for entry.
3.) Talk With Buddhist Monks in Monk Chat
What could be more fun than speaking with real live Buddhist monks and helping them to learn English in the process? (hint: nothing) Monk Chat is a free program put on at some of the temples around Chiang Mai where school and university age monks can interact with visitors. The program gives students the opportunity to learn English in a conversational setting, but it is also a great chance to learn about Buddhism in return. Their English skills range from a few words to impressive, and many credit their knowledge entirely to the program. We got to hear about the basic precepts of the religion, understand the various robe colors and learn about daily life. Many are from parts of Thailand, but also from surrounding countries including Laos and Myanmar. Unexpectedly, most use smartphones and will likely want to swap email or Instagram accounts. This is a great opportunity to make friends, interact with an integral part of the culture, and skip another paid cultural tour.
What’s Not On This List – Elephant Parks
A huge draw in Northern Thailand is elephant tourism. People flock to the country and spend tons of money for a picture feeding, bathing or even riding an elephant. A whole industry is built around this, but backlash against elephant slavery at riding camps has caused a lot of companies to offer an “ethical” alternative. These “no riding” camps claim to rescue elephants from abusive situations and give them a happy home. This makes elephant loving tourists feel better and open their wallets again. While a few may do what they claim, many exploit the buzz words for profit. The amount of money flooding into this industry motivates elephant owners to give tourists exactly what they want.
Most of these “ethical” companies are no better than the riding camps, many of which use hidden prods and sharp objects to make elephants do what the tourist paid to see right on schedule. There are reports of small chained enclosures, overnight starving, capturing wild elephants and breeding new ones into captivity. Take a look at some of the “ethical” companies in TripAdvisor and read the bad reviews to see what some observant visitors noticed behind the scenes.
Want to see one? Go on a safari and hope to see them in their natural habitat. Elephants that can be safely released to a natural environment should have as little human interaction as possible. Unless there is a legitimate medical reason preventing the animal from foraging for themselves, humans should not be feeding them by hand. This is big money and as long as people keep paying, it won’t get better. Owners are not incentivized to release elephants as long as there is profit to be made. In our opinion, you are feeding the problem if you support elephant tourism. Feel free to add a comment with your thoughts at the bottom of this post.
Do you have other suggestions for the best authentic travel experiences in Thailand? Let us know! We would love some more inspiration.
Make sure check out other posts from our trip including our trek through Nepal, camper van-cation in Tasmania, adventures in Cape Town and misadventures in India. They are sure to inspire your lust for travel!
Feeling like long term travel needs to be in your future? Stop by our Planning Page where you can learn how to prepare for a lengthy trip, see how to never check your bags on planes, find out about travel security and make sense of travel insurance, amongst others.