Hill tribes, outdoor adventure activities and a historic old town – there is so much to see and do in Thailand’s north. If you’re bored of the beach and want a jungle adventure, Chiang Mai with kids makes the perfect family holiday destination and is an exotic and interesting place to travel with kids. For a family holiday destination that's a little unexpected and adventurous, Chiang Mai is one great way to see Thailand with kids.
Thailand is always renown for it’s beaches and while those are gorgeous, Chiang Mai is a place the kids are more likely to distinctly remember. This historic city now has a good mix of cultural sites of interest, rainforest activities and animal interactions to occupy even the most active families. From long necked tribes people to artistic elephants, this is an unforgettably exotic place to travel with kids.
Chiang Mai city is famed for it’s ancient temples that form the lost city. These historic sites are fun to explore as the children can run around pretending to be knights and princesses. It’s worth visiting Wat Chedi Luang, one of the most famous and beautiful temples in the area. Even if you decide not to go inside, this is a spectacular building to view and the grounds are extensive with lots of places to explore. Take some time out to chat to one of the young monks who are always friendly and eager to practice their English.
Wat Pan Tao is entirely made out of wood and is another charming and pretty place to visit. Inside they have bowls laid out for the Buddhists to drop one coin in for good luck. This can be a fun way to introduce kids to other religions as you let them make their own wishes.
If your kids don’t take to the ruins, you can spend a couple of hours with a guide being driven around on a horse drawn tuk tuk which makes the whole experience more unique.
Perhaps one of the most exotic signature experiences you can have in Chiang Mai with kids is to visit a local hill tribe towards the Golden Triangle (the intersection between the Thai, Myanmar and Laos borders). There are many tribes that you can visit, but the most visually interesting for children is the Karen Tribe.
These Burmese settlers are known for their cosmetic practice of elongating girls’ necks with heavy, metallic rings. As the girls grown, their necks are stretched and by adulthood the women have some impressive accessories around their throats.
Many of the Karen Tribe make a livelihood by farming and selling wares to the visiting tourists who come from Chiang Mai. Although it is an odd experience to drop into a village just to “ogle” the locals who are obviously in a staged environment, it is also a fantastic opportunity to give kids a very visual reference for how people live differently all over the world.
The villages themselves are often set up in beautiful surroundings. Although their lives are simple, just a walk through a village seeing all the tropical fruits and vegetables simply growing haphazardly everywhere will make you realise that maybe the “Western” way of farming in nice straight lines is not necessarily always the best.
Trips to the hill tribes are typically a long day excursion with a car commute of 2 hours from Chiang Mai, so it’s best done with older kids that can cope with the journey (that will not always be in air conditioned vehicles). You can book tours, a private car or even hire a car yourself from Untouched Thailand.
Another not-to-be-missed activity in Chiang Mai with kids are the many elephant shows that are on offer. You can witness elephants playing football, learn about how the mahouts train them to do various tricks and see elephant painting. (This last one can be a little slow for smaller kids’ attention spans.) If you want a more hands-on interaction, before and after the shows you can visit the elephants for a kiss and a cuddle (for a small fee).
On the one hand for animal lovers, it can be disturbing to see the elephants tied up in booths and there are some questions around animal cruelty at some establishments. The flip side is that wandering elephants can be dangerous around young children so if you go to a more free-roaming attraction, keep a tight hold of little hands. Whatever your perspective, there is no doubt that children will adore seeing the giant mammals up close. [For more ideas on where you can get an intimate interaction with the elephants of Thailand, see the suitcases&strollers stories Ayutthaya and Elephant Polo in Hua Hin.]
It is also possible to do a jungle ride on the back of an elephant. This is a good way to see more natural animal behaviour such as foraging for food, babies suckling on mothers and sliding and playing in the forest.
If you are spending a lot of time around the elephants, it is amusing to visit the Elephant PoopooPaper Park – a self-explanatory attraction where you can purchase elephant poop cards and bags.
Another popular animal attraction for many visitors to Chiang Mai we is the Tiger Kingdom tiger farm. If you are not comfortable with the treatment of the elephants, you certainly won’t enjoy this. The tigers are in cages and remarkably calm which makes for a great photo opportunity but may also make animal welfare activists unhappy. If you’re unsure whether you want to partake, it’s a good idea to go at lunchtime to have a meal and see the site yourself – then you can take some time and make an informed decision about what best suits your family.
If you are keen to do other more active outdoor activities with older children, bamboo rafting is also available through organised tourism companies. While adults might find the entire experience quite dirty, smelly and the river unimpressive, kids who have never been rafting will enjoy the small rapids. Be warned – conditions are quite rustic, so it’s best to arrive in your swimmers so you don’t have to partake in the "changing room facilities".
Diamond Waterfall Wachirathan at Doi Inthanon National Park is an impressive waterfall because of the vast drop and the gorgeous mist coming off the water. You cannot swim here it really is a look-see excursion and a hike into the national forest for as long or as short as you want. It can be easily done without a guide (although you will need a driver to get there) and the walk to the lookout point from the carpark is quite short but it is not stroller-friendly so only take kids who can walk unless you are prepared to carry them.
If you’ve never really thought too much about how silk is produced, it’s interesting to spend a little time at the Shinawatra silk factory. As well as discovering more about the process, there are some stunning articles you can buy in the shop including silk elephants. The factory is open to the public – you do not need to be on an organised tour to visit.
Unless you are on a mission to buy silverware, the Silver factory next door to Shinawatra is a pushy hard sell which makes it one to miss.
If you are happy to keep the kids up after dark, it’s interesting to hit the night street markets around Chang Khlan Roadto pick up local goodies to take home. It is an extremely busy and crowded environment though, so best to get there as soon as it opens at 6pm and keep an eye on your kids.
Whether you decide the street food is safe enough for your children to eat depends entirely on how adventurous you are. Opt for places that flash fry or serve up boiling hot soups. Generally Western-catering facilities (including the higher end hotels) are fine if you avoid fresh fruits and vegetables (stick to cooked foods or fruit and veg you can peel like bananas). Alternatively, bring your own food (especially infant formula).
[For more travel tips on how to introduce kids to foreign foods, see the suitcases&strollers interview with celebrity chef Emmanuel Stroobant here. For more travel tips on travel-friendly foods you can bring with you, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
If you are keen to stay in the town proper, consider Rimping Village a charming, colonial-style facility that has all the feel of a boutique hotel.
For something with more of a family-friendly feel, Secret Garden is not in the centre of Chiang Mai but this is actually a bonus. The villas are run more like a home stay and come with mini kitchen, a terrace and beautiful vista over ponds and rice paddy fields. Mother Pai cooks every night except Sundays and her food is delicious. If your kids are fussy, she is also whip up a Thai omelet or fried rice. The accommodation is basic (this means no baths, no safety fences around the ponds and pool) but at the extremely low prices, you can use the money saved for your own personal driver and tour guide.
It is a good to hire a private driver to take you around, even if you decide not to do specific tours. This can be easily organised through tour companies such as Untouched Thailand or your hotel.
While there are many once-in-a-lifetime experiences to be had, there is no doubt that Chiang Mai is a well-trodden tourist path. If you’re coming for an out-of-the-way experience, you may feel a little cheated. Still, if the touristy tradeoff is lots of family-friendly activities, putting up with some of the less authentic experiences may not seem so hard.
While there are plenty of activities for the adventurous in Chiang Mai – such as taking photos with tigers or rafting rapids – beware that this is still a developing country with developing safety standards. Always check your equipment and surrounds before putting your kids in them and insist that proper safety equipment (such as life vests) are provided.
It is not safe to drink the water from the tap in Thailand. Only use bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth and be wary of children drinking water in the shower or the bath.
By Helen Brown