While Thailand is known for its beaches, some parents prefer the urban vacation because of the many ways fun and education can go hand-in-hand. And when it comes to big cities, Bangkok has everything from eye-popping mega malls to culturally significant museums and landmarks to fantastic restaurants at every price point. That said, its massive size and dense population may prove daunting for some families and impractical for others.
This is where Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city, rises to the occasion as a destination. While a week’s vacation probably will require a car rental or use of a rideshare service to reach some attractions, it packages up many of Bangkok’s attributes (and a few things the Thai capital does not have) in a smaller, tidier space.
A perfect first day activity providing a broad orientation to the city is Chiang Mai Food Tours’ Taste of the North and Old Town Chiang Mai Walk. A guide leads you through the city’s compelling narrow streets, centuries’ old fortifications and several breathtaking “wats” (temples), intermittently stopping at different restaurants to sample and savor local eats. Though today’s food savvy kid has probably fallen in love with staples such as pad Thai and pad see ew, they will be surprised by completely different versions of their favorites. Its guides can also offer recommendations for the best stands at the Warorot Market to sample jackfruit, mangosteen, lychee and even grilled bananas dipped in coconut syrup.
With the opening of the MAIIAM Museum of Contemporary Art , the first modern art museum in Thailand, Chiang Mai is said to have gotten a jump on Bangkok in offering visitors a more comprehensive and diverse art scene. With its excellent cafe and patio, it’s a wonderful place to spend an afternoon with older kids and teens. However, Art in Paradise allows every family member, including younger kids, to literally get inside the broader art world with its collection of 3D illusion pieces and interactive art that allows viewers to be a part of the masterpiece.
The elephant is a Thai icon, and within the city center, The Elephant Parade House helps raise funds and awareness for The Asian Elephant Foundation through displays of elephant statues painted by top Thai artists and workshops where kids and adults can create their own custom souvenir. Naturally, there are also many operators offering elephant rides. However, the most ethnical place to interact with the animals and see them in their natural habitat is the Smithsonian award-winning Elephant Nature Park Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, offering part-day, full-day and overnight programs designed for different age groups and fitness levels.
Although many zipline parks abound, Flight of the Gibbon has a local reputation for being the safest. It offers packages that include transport to and from the family hotel, lunch and coffee, and a mix of well-supervised ziplines, sky bridges and forest walks that get visitors up close and personal with area wildlife. The hiking paths and Royal Agricultural Project areas in and around Doi Inthanon National Park are a living legacy of the late King Rama IX, who invested millions of dollars out of his own pocket to curb opium poppy cultivation and redirect local tribes to the planting of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers which feed into the local economy and enable tribal villages to sustain and thrive on their own terms.
Those booking a shorter stay in Chiang Mai can still experience the bounty of the Royal Agricultural Project at Krua Sillapacheep. This humble eatery serves one of the best representations of khao soi (the area’s “official dish”) along with other seasonal specialties crafted with produce from local Royal Agriculture Project farms. On a hot day, the restaurant’s fresh-made pea flower juice, raw mango juice and watermelon slush hit the spot. There is also a wonderful adjoining store with regional tribal clothing, accessories and home décor items.
Your teenaged daughter probably knows “boho-chic” and “ethnic chic” continue to be buzzwords in Paris, New York and other fashion capitals. Though the city’s wildly popular Night Bazaar and weekend Walking Street markets sell souvenirs of every description, she’ll want to check out the Hmong Market, whose wares epitomize the aesthetic designers translate to the runways. The market, accessed via a narrow path at the southwest corner of Warorot Market, is a hub for vendors of vibrant textile goods for her room and closet, as well as fabric-embroidered handbags at prices so reasonable she can pick up a few for friends.
Do-it-yourselfers will enjoy creating their own masterpiece at Studio Naenna, under the direction of professor/historian Patricia Cheesman. A leisurely afternoon with the consummate storyteller and her staff is a full-on exploration of Thai and Laotian textiles and different weaving techniques, along with a hands-on lesson in indigo dyeing.
Many of the city’s best family-friendly resorts are set up in a “Lanna” style that mimic elements of the traditional Thai home, with amenities, activities and luxuries that nearly duplicate resorts in more remote parts of the country. The RatiLanna Riverside Spa and Resort is a good base camp minutes outside the city’s ancient walls. It features an excellent buffet breakfast with scrumptious seasonal fruit, prime riverfront views and huge rooms as well as cooking classes and a concierge who can refer guests to great finds based on the ages and needs of different families.
The Shangri-La Hotel Chiang Mai scores points with its massive and artistically rendered swimming pool while adults will love its fine dining and interior design. It also has going for it its location a few minutes from the popular night zone and a slightly longer walk to the Old City.
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