Visiting Chiang Mai with Kids

5 fun things to do in Northern Thailand with young children

With it’s cooler-than-Bangkok weather, thrilling attractions, and laid back vibe, Chiang Mai is a paradise for traveling families. Not everything is inexpensive, but in general your money will go a long way here.

In the high season, you should definitely book popular activities — such as elephant camps — well in advance. In the low season, you’ll have a lot more wiggle room.

Here are some of our favorite things to do in Chiang Mai with kids. You could easily spend a week here — more if you want to be lazy now and then.

If you’re in the early stages of planning a trip to Thailand with kids, there’s no substitute for a good, old-fashioned guidebook.  Even I use them, and I blog for a living!  Here are my top three choices to get you started:

National Geographic Traveler: Thailand
Lonely Planet Thailand
Thailand’s Islands and Beaches

Things to do in Chiang Mai with kids
I used to question the mental competence of people who do this. Actually, I still do.

1. Taming tigers

If you’ve ever dreamed of cuddling a tiger — and really, who hasn’t? — you’ll love getting up close and personal with extra small, small, medium, and big tigers at Tiger Kingdom. Our 12-year-old daughter was big enough to interact with the medium tigers (which were 18 months old and more than big enough for me), while our 10-year-old son was too prey-sized for all but the small and extra-small cats.

After reading the rules and signing the waivers, handlers take you into the cages where you can touch, pet, and pose for pictures with the tigers. The only time you feel unsafe is later, when you’re looking at the pictures (a bit of an optical illusion: you pose by the tigers’ butts, the photos are taken head on, and presto!  You look much closer than you actually are).

Like many animal encounters, this one is controversial. Tiger Kingdom claims the animals aren’t drugged, and while they seemed alert to me, I’m no expert. Also, what happens to the tigers when they grow up?

Things to do in Chiang Mai with kids
Ziplining is another good activity for crazy people. Plus, it features attractive hats.

2. Ziplining

I’m not much of a thrill seeker. I’ve never, for example, longed to soar at high speeds through a tree canopy, hundreds of feet above the forest floor.

My kids, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine anything better. Which is how I came to find myself plunging 800 meters at a time through 1,500 year old rainforest while I screamed my head off. And paying for the privilege.

The all day ziplining tour at Flight of the Gibbon includes round trip transportation, lunch, a hike to a waterfall, and over three hours of zip lines, sky bridges, and two very memorable straight-down vertical abseils. We even saw two gibbons, though they’re fed mangoes regularly, so they’re not exactly wild.

On the course right behind us was a 3-year-old boy zipping tandem with his dad, but I wouldn’t take kids younger than 5. The safety standards were very high, and all but 2 of the 36 ziplines are relaxing and mellow. The other two are total screamers.

Things to do in Chiang Mai with kids
The first rule of feeding elephants is: one banana is not enough.

3. Riding elephants

Of all the things we planned for our family vacation to Thailand, we were most excited about the elephant owner for a day program at Patara Elephant Farm. We weren’t disappointed. Exhausted, wet, and dirty? Yes. Possibly with elephant poop? Yes. But not disappointed.

Our orientation began in the nursery. The farm’s owner explained the farm’s mission and conservation philosophy while three young elephants frisked around and periodically checked our pockets for bananas. Yes, it was hard to pay attention.

Next, we were fitted with mahout uniforms, split into groups of eight, and driven to the fields where we were matched with our elephants.  I was assigned a handsome but fairly headstrong beast named Teelorzuu.  The rationale?  As a mother, I had the most experience managing creatures that “didn’t always listen”.

We learned to give them commands and perform a 4-point health check before heading out on a 2-hour bareback trek to a waterfall.  Staying on a 10,000-pound animal without a saddle as it slides up and over a muddy mountain is actually harder than it sounds, assuming that’s even possible.

After that, we tumbled to the ground, ate a delicious picnic lunch, and bathed our elephants in the river. Then we swam with them and had a water fight — humans against elephants.  On a scale from one to ten, the whole experience was an eleven.

Things to do in Chiang Mai with kids
If this makes you scream and squirm, you are a lot like my husband.

4. Visiting a fish spa

Would you plunge your feet into a tank of algae-eating fish who nibble all the dead skin cells off your toes, heels, and ankles for 15 or 30 minutes, leaving them (allegedly) cleaner, softer, and sweeter smelling?

I didn’t think I would either, but after swimming with elephants and cuddling with tigers, I just wasn’t all that worried about man-eating minnows. Also, we had a free day that we needed to fill.

The internet was full of dire health warnings about water hygiene and the risk of infection, so I did a little research and chose Mae Ping Fish Spa. As an added bonus, their prices were 50% off during the low season.

Having your feet nibbled by fish feels exactly like having your feet fall asleep. Like so many things in life, it’s only scary if you look down.

Things to do in Chiang Mai with kids
World’s cutest Chinese guy demonstrates the correct way to use chopsticks.

5. Seeing pandas

Years ago, we took our daughter to see the pandas at the San Diego Zoo. With all due respect, it was kind of underwhelming. We stood on a moving walkway and glided past the pandas, who were asleep under a log in the distance. We didn’t even see their heads. I felt cheated.

Even so, I perked right up and decided to give it another shot when I found out the Chiang Mai Zoo had pandas. And I’m glad I did.

We were 15 feet from the wide awake pandas at feeding time. Also, there was no glass between us and the three pandas (all kept in separate areas).  Best of all, after the initial rush we had the whole exhibit to ourselves.

That’s not the only thing we liked about the zoo either. In general, we were able to get very, very, very close to the hippos, gibbons, flamingos, and crocodiles.  Many exhibits had piles of bamboo leaves or bowls of kibble, which we were welcome to feed to the animals.

Mid-week, the zoo was deserted. When we got tired of walking (it’s a little hilly), there was a hop on hop off tram that hit all the highlights.

We traveled to Thailand on a private guided trip organized by Kensington Tours.  While we were accommodated with a media rate, they did not request that I express any particular point of view.  All opinions are my own.



  1. says

    Taming the tigers is one of my wife’s must-do things in life…we have actually been waiting for our kids to be older, but it appears doable with kids!

  2. says

    It surprises me how many people don’t consider Chiang Mai a family friendly destination, but there is so much to do and so many activities that children of all ages can enjoy. Thanks for the quick overview and showing how a trip to Chiang Mai can be fun for the whole family.

  3. Elle says

    Love these ideas! Maybe not so much the Fish Spa, but it does sound interesting. This location is definitely going on our to do list. :)


  4. Sean from NZ says

    Loved that zoo. The aquarium in the zoo is also awesome, and a great air-conditioned break after a hot morning outside looking at the animals.

    My family (kids 5 & 7) loved Chiang Mai. It was foreign in an exciting way, but easy and safe. Strongly recommended as a family tourist destination.

  5. says

    The expression on that Tiger’s face is hilarious: it almost looks like he’s rolling his eyes and just wants to get the photographing over with so he can get on with his day. I’ve worn the same expression in many a family portrait.

  6. Rebekah says

    My husband and I had been to Chiang Mai a few times prior to children and knew it was somewhere we would return with kids and we did. We went back when our daughter was 18 months, for almost 4 weeks. We loved it and so did she. We did things we would not have otherwise, like go to the zoo which was amazing. We went on an elephant trek, rode bamboo rafts and simply toured around. It was easy and the thai people were so wonderful. We stayed at backpacker hostels ( SK house) and did it rather cheaply. We spent about a week there, then headed south to the beaches which was also fabulous and easy with kids. We plan on going back when our son is 2, our daughter will be 4 1/2. We booked our hostel before leaving but the rest we did there.

  7. Courtney says

    I was excited to find your site until I saw this post. While I understand that these tourist places seem like harmless family fun, they do a lot to keep up appearances without showing you the true horrors of the animal tourism industry. Please just Google “phajaan ceremony” to learn what elephants go through to be tame enough to ride. Also Google “why you shouldn’t ride elephants” because there are hundreds of articles that can explain it better than I can. If you ever take your family back to Chiang Mai, please visit the Elephant Nature Park ( You can volunteer with elephants rescued from trekking camps in an ethical and humane way instead of riding them.

  8. Courtney says

    Also, and I think this is common sense, but think about how and why the tigers are tame enough to cuddle. They’re abused, broken, and even drugged. I understand many tourists aren’t aware, and again, the companies are very sneaky about how they handle their animals because they don’t want to lose business, but in the future, I’d recommend doing your research and teaching your children how to travel ethically.

  9. Erin says

    Shame on you. This is literally just a list of how to support international animal abuse internationally.
    Never ride elephants, horrible practice that Thailand is trying to move AWAY from for good reason. I won’t even do a homestay with a company that affiliates with elephant riding (thereby changing the practice as ethical travelers do).
    Even rumors that an establishment would drug animals for human viewing and photographs should have sent you running in the other direction.
    I will be in Chiang Mai in 7 days with my 2 year old, proudly avoiding all of these cruel activities.

  10. Madalina says

    While I appreciate you taking the time to share your experience with us and do not want to seem mean, I simply for the life of me do not understand why you would take the kids to your choice of elephant activity when Chiang Mai is famous for so many wonderful rehabilitation camps where the kids can feed and wash elephants. That would not only be good for the animals, but also a great perspective for the kids…

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