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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.