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Why Chiang Mai is a great choice for a family visit

While Bangkok is the perfect starting point for a family road trip through Thailand, Chiang Mai is the perfect last stop of your road trip. Thai are very friendly and love children, so lots of families choose Thailand as a travel destination. While lots of families focus on the gorgeous beaches of southern Thailand and on capital Bangkok, there’s also lots to explore up north. Chiang Mai is a unique blend of Thai and Western culture and almost everyone speaks English. It’s less big and less crowded, but just as amazing as Bangkok. And that makes for a softer landing. Chiang Mai is known as the unofficial capital of Northern Thailand. It offers tons of family friendly adventures. Our family loves Chiang Mai, we went there twice and will definitely go back again. In and around this wonderful city you can check out lots of temples (they call Chiang Mai Temple City for a reason), take cooking classes, go on gorgeous hikes, enjoy scenic bike rides and take a flight over the treetops while zip lining through the rainforest. Enough to keep the kids and their parents entertained and happy, don’t you think?

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Our family likes to do things that are fun for the whole family. That is why this list lacks tips about theme parks and playgrounds. I also left out activities involving animals. If you’d like to know why, scroll down to the end of this post for more info.

And now, without further ado (and in no particular order) here is our top 8 things to do in Chiang Mai with kids.

Take a family cooking class

Chiang Mai is famous for its delicious food and over the last decade the city turned into a true hot spot to learn the art of Thai cooking. There are countless of cooking classes on offer all over the city. And from our own experience and from what we’ve heard from others: you can hardly go wrong.

What makes it extra fun is that they’ll send you on your way with a shopping list and you get to pick the groceries yourself in one of the many local markets. This activity is an experience in itself and if you skip the cooking class I highly recommend visiting a local market. You’ll not only find groceries here, but also souvenirs, clothing and best of all: the most delicious street food.

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But let’s get back on topic! There are multiple cooking classes aimed at families, with kid friendly dishes on the teaching menu. Cooking together as a family makes for a lovely bonding moment and is highly recommended.

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Visiting a hill tribe

The hills and mountains near Chiang Mai are home to many tiny villages. Most of them only consisting of only around 20 to 25 households and home to different tribes, all with different cultures. The families live in wooden houses with room for their animals under the house. We visited the Karen hill tribe with only a few people in our group.

When booking a tour, please make sure it’s not aimed at mass tourism with a short visit of only 15 minutes with time to shoot pics, buy a souvenir and hop on the bus again. Remember, these are people and not zoo animals.

Sit down and try to have a conversation with them (with hand and feet) and you will have a great afternoon and leave with a bit of a clue of how hill tribes live and what they do to provide for themselves. It’s amazing how soon kids connect with each other. They will play together in no time.

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Taking a scenic bike ride

One of our favorite things to do when exploring a city or an area is to rent a bike or go on a bike tour to explore. In Chiang Mai we chose to go on a 12km bike tour. Our teen was up for it and if you’re with a toddler, no worries, because there are multiple rental companies who rent out bikes with a children’s seat on the back of the bike. But make sure to check if they also have helmets in smaller sizes, because that is not always the case.

The ride was beautiful. We quickly drove away from the busy inner city and into the suburbs and then to some villages close to the city. It was a very scenic drive with a few stops along the way, to get a drink or ice cream, to visit a temple or simply enjoy the view. Just one tip: when it’s hot you should bring extra water, because you’ll need it.

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Swing from a tree like a gibbon

Just outside Chiang Mai you get the chance to swing from a tree like a gibbon. In the rainforest in between Mae Takhrai National Park and Chae Son National Park in the village of Mae Kampong, an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, your adventure awaits. You can hike trails, abseil and zip line. You do not only get the chance to swing from a tree like a monkey, but you also get the chance to spot gibbons in the wild. We didn’t see them in Chiang Mai, but we did spot them while zip lining in Siem Riep (Cambodia) and it was an amazing experience. I really hope you’ll be lucky enough to spot them. Your best chances are really early in the morning when they are most active.

Zip lining through a rainforest never gets old. I will go for it anytime and if your kids are thrill seekers, so will they. The minimum height is at least a meter and in this case there is no age limit. In fact, when we where there we saw a 6 year old screaming with excitement and joy while zip lining through the jungle. She loved it!

The organization deserves a shout-out: Flight of the Gibbon. They make you feel safe, are great pep talkers when in need for a pep talk and are very friendly. Sadly they recently stopped their activities in Siem Reap, Cambodia, but you can still book with them in Pattaya and Chiang Mai.

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A day trip to Chiang Rai

If you spend more than a few days in Chiang Mai visiting Chiang Rai is a welcome change from the busy city vibe of Chiang Mai. It is a 4 hour drive, so it’s much easier when you have your own rental car at your own disposal. And if not, you can book a tour and visit the city by tour bus, but know that they’ll stop at various tourist traps along the route. It will take you an hour or two extra back and forth.

But even though it takes you multiple hours to get to Chiang Rai, it is worth it. It’s a lot smaller than Chiang Mai, but just as pretty and it’s more or less of the beaten track. Most travelers only go there because their multi day hiking tour starts and ends in Chiang Mai. You’ll only bump into locals and backpackers here.

The two things you must do on a day trip to Chiang Rai is a stroll through the city center and a visit to the White Temple, about 13km from the city center. The White Temple is called Wat Rong Khun in Thai and is probably the most bizarre temple you’ve seen yet. The white is supposed to represent the purity of Buddha, but there are many signs that are supposed to teach you that to reach purity you should pass the gates of hell uninterrupted and avoid the temptations of life along the way. That’s why you’ll spot some weird statues of deformed heads, but also of superheroes like Batman, Superman and Deadpool. And that is exactly why teens love this place.

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A visit to Bo Sang Umbrella Village

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Is Bo Sang Umbrella Village in Amphoe San Kamphaeng a tourist trap? Yes. But in my opinion a very interesting and fun one. As soon as you arrive the walking trail, that will ultimately take you to the umbrella shop, leads you via the various steps the craftsmen and woman undertake on the way to a finished product. All of this with the goal to entice you to buy a souvenir. And you probably will. Their work is impressive and in the end we left with a hand painted iPhone case (with a beautiful elephant on it) and multiple umbrella’s for family members back home and for ourselves.

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Hike up to the Doi Suthep temple

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of Chiang Mai most famous temples and a must-see when in the city. You could easily spend a whole day in the Doi Suthep area, but kids will probably have their limits when visiting cultural highlights. So if you only have a few hours before heading back to your hotel for a swim with the kids, you should stick to a visit to the temple itself.

To get there you have to hike up to the Doi Suthep temple via a 3000 step staircase. It’s beautiful and you’ll be rewarded with the most beautiful Buddhist shrines and architecture once you’re upstairs. When your kids are too small to take on this mission, you can take the cable car.

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Take the night train back to Bangkok

The last top tip on this list is to take the night train back to Bangkok, or flip it and arrive in Chiang Mai by night train from Bangkok. It was a great family experience playing games on the table together, enjoying the view and then watching the train crew make beds from all the seating area’s. If kids haven’t slept on sleeper trains before, they’ll probably be excited and will really like it. In the morning when you wake up you’ll arrive at your destination. Do make sure you’ll bring your own snacks and fruits, because the offers are limited on the train itself and not necessarily kid friendly.

If you decide to road trip through Thailand by yourself make sure you rent a car in either Bangkok and Chiang Mai and return the car in the other city (aka your last destination of the road trip), so you can take the night train back.

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Chiang Mai and animal cruelty

I promised to close this blog post of with more info about why I didn’t include any activities involving animals. Like I already told you about in my post about 10 things to do in Bangkok with kids Thailand isn’t exactly known for treating animals in a respectful manner. In most zoos you can pet animals like elephants, tigers and monkeys. There are live shows where all kinds of animals have to perform circus acts, some even with clothes on. And of course we all know about riding and/or bathing elephants. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can offer you my opinion. This is animal abuse and nobody should be able to get this close to animals, pet them, ride them or treat them like clowns. Clowns choose to perform for a living, an animal is forced to do so. This is why I won’t promote any activities involving animals and why I didn’t add any activities in this blog post involving animals.

I am far from perfect. In fact: the first time I visited Thailand in 2013 I made a huge mistake and rode an elephant and put a (probably drugged) python around my neck. Shortly after I saw a documentary about animal cruelty in Asia and did some research. I learned my lesson, taught my children the same lesson and wrote a blog post about animal cruelty where I write about the horrors these poor animals go through behind the scenes and in front of our camera’s. If you read only one other blog post from my hand, I hope it will be that one. Together we can put a stop to this cruelness, by not participating or paying for any of the mentioned activities.