13 Ways to Keep Busy in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Founded over 700 years ago, Chiang Mai nestles in the mountains of Northern Thailand, on the banks of the Ping River and the good climate has acted as a major draw for thousands of expats who call the city home. Temperatures range from the mid-50s F to mid-90s F depending on the time of year.

What’s most impressive about the city is the choice of lifestyles on offer. Bang for buck, Chiang Mai is the best retirement haven in Southeast Asia. Testament to the variety of what’s on offer are the sorts of folks moving here. You’ll find retirees in great numbers, North American, European, Australian and Japanese, but you’ll also meet families on a year out with kids (there are good international schools), and lots of digital nomads—folks working on the Internet with portable incomes.

All told a couple can live very comfortably on $1,500 a month. Many expats spend less. But with $1,500 a month you can make the most of the impressive dining options and enjoy little luxuries you only dream about at home.

For instance, most expats I met get regular massages. After all, an hour-and-a-half with a therapist will only set you back $8 and a home visit is $20. You can have a maid come twice weekly for $10 or a gardener for around $15.

Of course, lots of destinations are low cost, especially in Southeast Asia. But it’s what you get for your money in Chiang Mai that really appeals. Whatever lifestyle you choose it’s guaranteed to be full.


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A Vibrant Art and Culture Scene in Chiang Mai


As a buzzing university town and thriving tourist center Chiang Mai supports artists, musicians and the like in fairly big numbers. It’s a cultured place with an interesting and international mix of people driving a vibrant and changing art scene.

From the 13th to the 18th centuries Chiang Mai was at the heart of the Lanna Kingdom. The Lanna culture has undergone something of a revival in recent decades, fueled in part by tourism. There’s a rich local tradition of skilled crafts such as ceramics, handwoven textiles and lacquer work.

The Chiang Mai Art and Cultural Center housed in a fine 1920’s-era building is due to open an extension focusing on Lanna art, while the University Art Museum hosts regular exhibitions of art from around the world as well as a permanent collection of Thailand’s best.

Chiang Mai is one of the few places I have ever been where a bar called The Writers Club is actually full of writers. (It’s on Rachadamnoen Road in the Old City.) Also every Thursday at 7 p.m. a group of aspiring and published wordsmiths meets at the Why Not Restaurant in Nimmanheim. Open to all.

If you’re looking for a place to read and relax then there’s a healthy café scene, and with coffee grown locally in the hills, getting a good cup of Joe is easy. You’ll find good spots with WiFi around the city, especially in Nimmanhaemin, and I like the Tia Café on Wichayanon Road near the Warorot Market, where an incredibly tasty blueberry smoothie cost me $1.20.

In just one day I met a 70-year-old Washington-native who had planned his afternoon around a free European Film Festival, a 36-year-old woman from Michigan heading north with her daughter to shop for hill-tribe crafts, and several expats off to a craft beer pub to watch a football game.

Chiang Mai has long been something of a cultural hub. Live jazz at the North Gate Co-Op, blues at the Brasserie, art exhibitions everywhere it seems, and movie theaters with screenings in English for $4 a ticket…boredom just doesn’t come up in conversation here.

At 335 miles from the nearest coast (in Burma) there is no beach. But expats fly direct to Koh Samui in an hour and 40 minutes from Chiang Mai’s international airport. Many of them spend time at the beach resort of Hua Hin, four hours south of Bangkok. In fact, Chiang Mai is a great base for exploring the whole region with direct flights all over Thailand and to Malaysia, Burma, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and a half a dozen Chinese cities.

Below are 13 ways to keep busy in Chiang Mai


Cook, Trek, Feed Elephants or Chat to a Monk…

1. Learn to Cook

Chiang Mai is home to dozens of cookery schools. The cuisine from this part of Thailand includes famous dishes like Khao Soi, a coconut-milk-based curry, spiraled lengths of Sai Ua, a sausage with curry powder and lemon grass inside, and hot and sour soup with jackfruit. But many courses will teach you the intricacies of dishes from other regions, too. One of the longest running is Thaicookeryschool.com with an office on Moon Muang Roadd near the Thapae Gate.

2. Stay with a Tribe

The north of Thailand is home to the country’s “hill tribes,” a term used to describe the folks living a traditional life in the mountains and border areas. There are six main ethnic groups, each with their own language. A home stay is a great way to get closer to these cultures. See here for more details.

3. Shop for Crafts

The folks you see on hill tribe tours make some outstanding crafts, and you can pick up anything from bells to rugs, musical instruments and pottery.

4. Get a Massage (Or Learn to Give One)

You’ll find massage parlors all over town and a lot of them are good. For $6 I had an hour-long foot reflexology session at Lila Thai Massage, which has branches around the Old City. The staff are former women prisoners. If you want to learn massage techniques, a good option is Old Medicine Hospital, which is the longest-running. Or try the Chiang Mai branch of Bangkok’s illustrious Wat Po Massage School.

5. Chat to a Monk

It sounds a bit like a radio show, but MonkChat is a face-to-face, open-to-all discussion between anyone interested in joining in and Buddhist monks at the MCU Buddhist University. It takes place every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The orange-clad monks are friendly and engaging and it’s a great way to learn more about Buddhism and Thai culture. If you can’t make this then several temples have monks on hand at various times happy to talk meditation, mindfulness and other such things. Just ask around.

6. Eat at the Sunday Market

Starve yourself until 4 p.m. on Sunday when the weekly market nearly a mile-long on Ratchadamnoen Road kicks off. This “walking market” is dedicated to the crafts and artisan wares of the region’s tribesfolk, but the food alone is worth it. Temple courtyards are turned over to stalls offering delicious fare at knockdown prices—average is a buck for a helping. Feast on dumplings, pancakes, skewer sweetmeats, soups, salads, sushi, sticky rice and much more.

7. Play with Pacyderms

The workhorse of Southeast Asia, elephants are still used in the logging industry for heavy loads and you can catch shows and try riding one at a number of camps around Chiang Mai. But more fun (not to mention more elephant friendly) is a day at the Elephant Nature Park, where you can feed and wash them.

8. Trek the Jungle

There are hundreds of outfits offering all sorts of trekking packages mixing elephants, bamboo rafts, tribal villages, wild life, craft and more. Eagle House has a reputation for getting you off the beaten track at an affordable price. And if you want something less organized, simply buy a map, hop on a scooter and head for the hills. You can hire one for around $5 a day. The best rental agencies are around Tha Pae Gate.

9. Give Back

Many expats volunteer their time and skills and you’ll come across opportunities to help orphans, teach English to monks, and work on conservation projects. The elephant park accepts volunteers, and for the most genuine and rewarding experiences it’s best to ask around in town.

10. Visit the Aquarium

It may be miles from the coast, but Chiang Mai is home to the largest marine aquarium in Asia and the longest aquarium tunnel in the world. On one side above you are river fish, on the other sea life. See here for more details.

11. Learn a Language

Chiang Mai is a great place to learn Thai. Locals are friendly, patient and pleased you’re trying. And prices for classes are low. Plus, many courses give you the option of getting an educational visa with which to live in Thailand. Try Banpasathai, and if you fancy improving your French there’s also an Alliance Francaise on Charoen Prathet Road.

12. Take a Boat Trip

Boats leave from the jetty at Wat Chai Mongkol and cruise up the Ping river into the countryside where they dock for a traditional meal before returning to Chiang Mai. The excursion takes about two hours. See here for more details.

13. Catch a Festival

Thai New Year, called Songkhran, is celebrated mid-April and Chiang Mai is one of the best places to experience the festivities. While in November thousands of candles are floated down the Ping River for Loy Krathong and lanterns are sent silently into the sky.


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