Thailand's Chiang Mai, Where Traditional Culture Meets Au Moderne

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From the Old City to the New City; from the wilderness to adventure tourism; from the local flavor to the bohemian vibe, Chiang Mai is where traditional culture meets modern society. It’s impossible to pick exactly what I love about the Rose of the North; it’s just a feeling I have when I go there. This is not an ultimate guide or even a comprehensive list because discovering Chiang Mai for yourself is the fun part. It’s more of a love letter to one of my favorite cities. Enjoy!

Rock Out With Your Chalk Out

If you’re an adrenaline junkie, Chiang Mai has your fix. Adventure seekers should head to Crazy Horse for some sweet rock climbing and killer views at the top. It’s where I first fell in love with climbing. I’ve gone three times with Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures, most recently to take a lead climbing class. I also periodically cyber stalk their site for climbing porn. Beginners are welcome and they also offer rides to advanced climbers with their own gear.

Sons Of Anarchy

Want to feel the wind in your hair? Rent a motorcycle and drive up the mountainous roads to Pai or explore other awesome moto trips. This is not for novice motorcyclists. Thailand has one of the highest motorcycle death rates in the world and I’ve seen my fair share of tourists bandaged a la Darkman. Curiously, there aren’t a heap of moto schools — someone more ambitious than me should really take advantage of the untapped market — but the Yamaha Riding Academy and Red Baron in Bangkok, and Highside Tours in Pattaya offer lessons.


While Chiang Mai is full on unethical elephant attractions, Elephant Nature Park offers a responsible tourism activity.

Mr. Frodo, look! An Oliphant!

When you visit the Elephant Nature Park, you’re basically on-staff but it’s the best job you’ll ever have. Spend the day (or week!) feeding, bathing and just hanging out with elephants rescued from logging or tourism. Many of them are damaged but all of them are magnificent. Sorry, no rides, circus tricks or silly costumes here, but seeing the baby elephants — the park’s first generation not broken for commercial trades — more than makes up for it. Tip: Make a reservation well in advance.


Top Chef

My idea of cooking is adding diced tomatoes to Ramen soup, and grocery shopping is my version of Dante’s Inferno, so the idea of paying cash so I can shop and prepare food is ludicrous. That said, Thailand is food nirvana and if you want to be able to devour authentic Penang beef, noodle soup or steamed fish with lemongrass at home, a cooking class is in order. There are a plethora of options but if you can convince Wee Soysom from Wee’s to teach you, look no further. A couple of friends spent 13 nights in Chiang Mai last year and ate dinner there Every. Single. Night. Then they took her cooking class. If, like me, cooking is only something you do under duress, take a street food tour or spin in a circle and point to the first street cart you see.

thai art

Art in Chiang Mai. Photo courtesy of Supachet Bhumakarn & Pairs of Chairs.

Work Of Art

You know how people like to say that every child is an artist? Yeah, I wasn’t. And sadly, not much has changed over the years. While I’ve never been artistically intelligent — someone please explain modern art to me — traveling has allowed me to see the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Prado museum in Madrid and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. So it’s interesting that a small gallery in Chiang Mai called Supachet Studio gave me my first real ah-ha moment. Located at 56/2 Rachadamneon Road, Supachet creates whimsical, guileless paintings that make you feel you’re inside a dream you never want to wake up from.

thai massage

Thai massage. Photo courtesy of Tara Angkor Hotel.

There’s The Rub

Few among us can afford a $1,500 8-hour massage like Mariah Carey but, relax, you’re in the land of affordable massage. If a traditional Thai massage is not athletic enough for you, get your back massaged by a inmate from the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution. These lovely masseuses are part of a rehabilitation program and will work those kinks out pronto. Too Orange is the New Black? Check out the Association Massage Chiangmai of the Blind where sight-challenged masseuses use their sense of touch and hearing to loosen those tense muscles.

thai food


I’ve already mentioned Wee’s is one of my favorite dinner spots. I suspect her addicting masama curry is laced with crack. But as any good traveler will tell you, you have to hit the streets for the real deal. Anthony Bourdain said that street food is the antidote to fast food. If street food markets are the cure then Chiang Mai is the Center for Disease Control…only more edible and with fewer maladies. Check out the Chiang Mai Gate (South Gate) or the Chang Pheuak Gate (North Gate) for a glut of options. Not in the mood for Thai? The By Hand Pizza Café is scrumptulescent. Ask the friendly European owner about his several fascinating career makeovers.


Contributed by Abby Sugrue, a travel blogger. All photo credits, courtesy of Abby Sugrue except where noted otherwise.


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