Four Things Not To Do In Chiang Mai

Mrs. Pa, Chiang Mai

Today I am pleased to feature a guest post by writer and tech expert Dave Dean. Dave has been traveling the world for fifteen years, amassing an incredible amount of expertise along the way. He writes about travel technology at Too Many Adapters and the highs and lows of life as a long term traveler at What’s Dave Doing?

With seemingly every other travel blogger passing through – or staying in – Chiang Mai these days, finding lists of things to do in this large northern Thai city isn’t too difficult. Stories about trips through the temples or out to Tiger Kingdom abound. Photos of glorious food and incredible lantern releases tantalise the taste buds and spirit in turn.

But what about the other side of coin?  Where is the list of things that you really should not do while you’re there?  Who is telling that story?

Well, actually … me.

So here goes:

1. Don’t visit Mrs. Pa’s smoothie stand on your first night in town

Mrs. Pa has a smoothie stall that she sets up at the Chiang Mai Gate night market most afternoons.  At first glance it looks much like any other street stand, with a couple of blenders and a range of different fruit piled high, until you spot the queue of people approximately 17 miles long waiting for their opportunity to pray at the altar of Pa.

Yes, the smoothies are that good, and for 20 baht (around 70c) it isn’t going too far to suggest that they may well be the best you have in your entire life. For that very reason, do not visit Mrs Pa on your first night in Chiang Mai.

If you do, you will not be able to order a smoothie anywhere else in the city for the entire time you are there. You will find yourself anxiously counting down the hours until 4pm when Mrs Pa’s smiling face reappears at Chiang Mai Gate. If you do happen to order somewhere else, you’ll find yourself downing a perfectly fine smoothie, turning to your companion and saying “well it was good, but…”.

Trust me, I know.

 Thai elephant

2. Don’t ride an elephant.  No really, don’t.

Elephant’s backs aren’t built for humans to ride, and they often end up with foot injuries and permanent spinal damage as a result. Young elephants destined for tourism are abused, beaten and starved to crush their spirits. When not working, the animals are frequently chained up and under-fed, leading to severe psychological and physical problems.  All this, so that tourists can spend lots of money to ride them round for a while.  It doesn’t seem worth it, does it?

Head out to the Elephant Nature Park instead, a renowned rescue and conservation organisation near Chiang Mai. You’ll have all of the elephant interaction you could hope for – feeding, bathing and more – without any of the guilt.

 Photo courtesy of Daniel Nahabedian, Canvas of Light Photography

Photo courtesy of Daniel Nahabedian, Canvas of Light Photography

3. Don’t go for a midnight swim in the moat.  Or any other time, for that matter.

Chiang Mai is famous for the moat that encircles the old city.  On those long hot days in the dry season, cooling off in that body of water might seem like a good idea. After half a dozen large bottles of the local beer, it might seem like a great one.

The thing is that the moat is deep. Like, several metres deep in parts. Back in the day it was meant to keep invading armies out, remember? Combine that with everything on the streets that gets washed into the moat when it rains and … well … it sounds like a recipe for a quick visit to the hospital at best. If you must do it, wait until Songkran in April when the moat is full (making it easy to get out) and possibly chlorinated.

None of that seems to stop the occasional scooter or car driver from checking it out right up close, mind you. One can only hope that’s by accident…

 Thai beach

4.Don’t dress like you’re on Koh Phi Phi. 

The dress code in northern Thailand is quite different to the islands in the south. T-shirts and shorts are fine (except in the temples and high-end bars). Flip-flops are still an expectation. Bikini tops, however? Not so much. While a guy wandering around shirt-less is tolerated on the streets and in the bars of Phi Phi, you’ll just look silly if you try the same thing in Chiang Mai.

The nearest beach is hundreds of kilometres away. Remembering that when figuring out what to wear in the morning probably wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Have you been to Chiang Mai? Is there anything you think that should be added to this list?

By: Dave Dean

Dave grew up in a small town in New Zealand, which seemed like the perfect incentive to get out and see what the rest of the world looked like as soon as possible. Fifteen years later he still hasn’t quite figured out how to stop. He blogs about travel technology at Too Many Adapters and the highs and lows of life as a long term traveller at What’s Dave Doing?

43 thoughts on “Four Things Not To Do In Chiang Mai”

  1. Great post Dave. I will have to remember Mrs Pa next time I’m in Chiang Mai.
    Also, I completely agree with you about the elephants. I had the unfortunate experience of going to one of those elephant camps to ride an elephant – it was a very sad experience.

    1. Hey Dean – yup, you should definitely try to remember Mrs Pa next time you’re in Chiang Mai! Of course once you’ve experienced her smoothies, you’ll never be able to forget her. ;-)

  2. Dave, it was great to meet you in Chaing Mai, but the other thing I might suggest is not to go to Chaing Mai. I know it seems like heresy, but when we were there, it seemed a bit, well, Western for my tastes. Too damn many travel bloggers and over-tattooed backpackers all over the place. Not too different from Khao San Road in Bangkok, if you ask me. Of course, I’m old…

  3. Hey Tom, was great to meet you too a few months back.

    I think Chiang Mai is a bit like several other places in Thailand really – it can be pretty Western in parts (esp. in the south and east of the old town) and completely Thai in others. It is definitely possible to get away from the backpackers and bloggers – just jump in a songthaew or get on a scooter for a few minutes. :)

  4. Riding elephants seems the perfect example of people not engaging their brains whilst on holiday. Of course being encouraged by locals to do something so damaging to the animals does not help. I love meeting and sharing encounters with animals, but always try to understand what impact I might have before doing something potentially damaging.

  5. I’m not advocating the elephant rides, and I agree about the problem of abuse, but unfortunately tourism is the only shot many of them ever had. The former work elephants were put down en masse as they became obsolete, save for the ones that could “earn” their keep in tourism.

    1. If you’re in Chiang Mai for Songkran plenty of people will fill buckets with water from the moat. They then hurl their buckets of moat water at anyone/everyone they meet. If you’re lucky the moat comes to you…

  6. This is great! Completely missed the smoothie. We had an amazing time at Patara Elephant Farm. It sounds very similar to the place you mentioned.

  7. I’m guessing since you didn’t include “Don’t Try Muay Thai Kick Boxing” because you are either a skilled fighter mixed martial arts fighter or maybe you got beaten up and didn’t want to tell anyone. Either way, Thailand has a thriving National sport of Thai boxing and you can find organized fights happening nightly around the city. Last time I was there I ran into 3 over zealous Irish guys in their 20’s. They were on their way to the fights and one of them had signed up and paid to fight. Never knew the outcome. Gonna guess it probably wasn’t a smart idea. Brave and gutsy, yes. Makes a great story, yes. Very smart…NO!

    Don’t Try Thai Boxing!

    1. Hmm.. im now getting ideas in my head. I WILL sign up for the kick boxing. Didnt know it wa that wasy to enter.. just pay!

  8. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for mentioning not to ride the elephants. There are way too many bloggers out there with pics of them astride an elephant and thinking it’s cute. It’s not, it’s cruel.

    Good for you for pointing this out.


    Larissa and Michael

  9. Haha, love it. I’m in Chiang Mai right now – we’re I’ve been for more than a week – and I can honestly say I haven’t done any of those things. Except for one thing: swimming in the moat. Normally I wouldn’t but it was Songkran and everyone else was doing it!

  10. As one who lives here, rather than being a “few weeks at a time blow in” I can correct all of your errors, but one will suffice for now, the moat you talk of was built recently and is purely decorative, it was never part of the defensive system of Chiang Mai.

    To find the real moat and defensive ramparts you need to look and listen a whole lot better than just a cursory glance before adding to the misinformation pile….

    1. Thanks for the update on the historical relevancy of the current moat, Tim.

      I’ve “blown back” into Chiang Mai for a bit, so if you’d like to correct all of my errors in person and help me look and listen a whole lot better, my contact details are on my site.

    2. I agree with you, if we all assume that the 14th century is “fairly recent” and “purely decorative purpose” also includes keeping out Burmese armies :)

    3. Hi Tim,

      I have just arrived in Chiang Mai. If you are not too tired from being condescending to Dave, especially in this heat, maybe you could create an interesting and helpful internet post which we could all appreciate. That would be helpful and kind, however if you are too tired I will understand, as will Dave i’m sure. I will also undestand if you are too tired to write anything else on this post.

  11. I totally agree with you about the elephants, I wish more travellers refused to go on elephant rides while they are in Thailand – the carriages they put on the elephants’ backs so that two people can ride at once twist the elephant’s spine and cause them excruciating pain. It surprises me how many bloggers endorse elephant rides as a Thailand ‘must do’

  12. Don’t go to Chang Mai at all during Songkran if you don’t like getting absolutely drenched! The reality is as soon as you step near the most you can expect to be covered in water (sometimes ice cold) and remain wet until the sun goes down!

  13. I suggest you to go to Lampang Elephant conservation which is run by government, non -profit.
    Not an Elephant Nature Park, it’s another idea of one business woman and she has made good profit indeed.

    1. She’s one of the many vendors at the CMG night market – it’s on one of the covered parts of the moat. The market runs every evening from around 5pm or so, and Mrs Pa is there six days a week. :)

  14. Do not visit the long neck tribe in chiang rai!
    The tour company’s give the impression that you will be visiting a village when in actual fact, it is pretty much staged for tourists and a bit of a disney land. No culture there. Just the ladies and little girls sitting by stalls all day trying to sell you things. Very disappointing.

  15. Hi Dave, any suggestion where to visit and where to eat at Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai? I’ll be travelling there in Aug 2013. Are you still at Chiang Mai? Anyone who you know can be our travel tour guide?

  16. We’re about to embark on a month-long stay in CM (and our first time to Thailand) and will def keep Mrs. Pa in mind for our last week… Do you think there’s opiates in those smoothies or something? ;-) We are, of course, only visiting the elephant sancuary. Thanks for helping spread the gospel of not partonizing those other, horrible establishments. Happy traveling to all!

  17. For your list of things NOT to do:

    Don’t bargain if the shopkeeper doesn’t want to bargain. You make yourself look bad and make the lovely local people think less of tourists.

    I am in CM right now and witnessed this yesterday. I am an experienced traveler and bargainer, but I can tell when its not right to do so. A young lady was trying to buy a locally made expensive bag that had a set price on it. She kept offering a lower price and the shopkeeper said it wasn’t her shop. This went on and on and on and on.

    Finally I asked the young lady where she was from (a very wealthy country!). I pointed it out to her how little they make here, versus her country and her reply, “I do it because I know they can.” (The difference was about a dollar and a half.)

    I told her it made her look bad and left.

    Can’t wait for 4 pm, to discover Mrs Pa. Thanks for that tip!

  18. Robert Williamson

    I was in northern Thailand from mid February to mid June 2013. Based in Chiang Mai, but also travelling in the mountains north west of Chiang Dao….. visited some tribal villages where the kids come up to you and want to touch your skin and hair. There were no other westerners there…. no cell service, no wifi…. no hotels… I was with a student that was from one of the villages… Lisu tribe. He could speak English, Thai and Lisu. They aren’t even Buddhist…. they are animists. Stayed for a few days in the one village… a family took my in. What an experience for me at my age of 62. Anyways… if you go to Chiang Mai…. they say you have never really been to Chiang Mai if you do not go to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep up on Doi Suthep mountain., In my four months there…. I made it up there three times. Spent a lot of time at temples…. talking with monks. My Thai friends ended up taking me to a Buddhist monk outside the city,,, and he gave me sacred Yantra Sak Yant tattoos on my back using Khem Sak. …. Again… the only westerner there…. all the Thai men there watching me as the monk gave my tattoos and blessings….yeah…it hurt… Been back in Canada for more than a year now. I have to return ….. Chiang Mai and northern Thailand feel like home now. I miss it very much. First thing I did when I got back to Canada was to install a “bum gun ” hand held bidet sprayer by the toilet. People who have been to that part of the world know what it is….. Can’t wait to get back there… as long as I am strong enough to carry a max size carry on travel pack….

  19. Thank you so much for the suggestion of the Elephant Nature Park, Dave! I’ve got my travel plans set for Thailand in February, and some time in Chiang Mai, with some other time I had yet to plan. I really wanted to find a way to see and interact with elephants that was respectful and ethical, and not ride them! I checked the place out online and reviews and other info about them and they’re so lovely! I can’t wait! It was meant to be since the only overnight they had available during the two weeks I’m there they had one spot left for the two days I was looking for something to do! Perfect!
    If future people want to go, book in advance! Especially if you’re there in high season!

  20. I’ve got one! Don’t be disrespectful of Thai sacred spaces. Yesterday we saw folks taking pictures of monks during the middle of a service. I certainly wouldn’t want people standing outside my place of worship and taking photos while I was praying, so I think it’s unchill to do to someone else.

  21. Thank you Dave and all others for your advice, we are going in May to CM and some of the places you mentioned to avoid was on our “to do” list, I will definitely avoid it, but Mrs Pa will be added to that list now

    Thank you for your interesting blog

  22. Mate, I live in CM and am married to a Thai.. It’s a great place to live as long as you’re out of the city, which we are.. I rarely venture into the city except when the missus wants to go and make merit at Wat Phra Singh, and I see the hordes of travellers, and it’s going to get worse as winter sets in… A couple of things, you never mentioned the Tiger Kingdom at Mae Rim, and how you feel about it… I’ve been two years ago when my wife and I first shifted here, and hmmmm, it was okay, of course there is endless debate as the whether the cats are drugged off their nuts or not, I don’t think so, but in a way, it’s like the riding elephants debate, it’s contentious… Tiger Temple down south, is a totally different kettle of fish, but the Kingdom does have a successful captive breeding program and has increased numbers in the wild because of that, so it gets a tick…
    Burning season…. Starts anywhere from Janruary and finishes maybe April, the air quality gets so bad many locals leave for a few months. The Govt blames fires in other countries but it’s not hard to spot the spirals of smoke all over Suthep and the local fields… And it’s all over Thailand but CM being in a valley, the stuff just sits here…
    Ye Ping, the release of lanterns in November, and Loi Krathong… The big release that everyone gets photos of is a paid entry event up at Mae Jo university, and it gets sold out every year, you can buy lanterns anywhere, plenty on the side of the road, 20 baht each… The whole idea is that you light the candle and fill the lantern, and pray as it’s filling then let it go, you’re releasing your prayers aloft.. Same with Loi Krathong, you can go and buy your Krathong near Narrawat bridge, go down to the bank, light the candle and there’s generally a few souls in the water you can hand the Krathong to and they send it off… The Thai take this all very seriously, though in their general good humour, are happy to see farang get involved.
    Chinese tourists…. Thailand is expecting something like 16 million next year, thankfully 90% of them won’t be going where you are but they are hazards and annoyances, some are incredibly rude and disrespectful to everyone. Thais just smile and take their money but they choke up many a venue and jostle their way into queues and entrances, worse than the Russians in Pattaya…
    And be repectful if you’re going to a temple, dress properly, respect the monks and the Buddha… At least cover your shoulders, you can get away with shorts unless they are super short, but you should have shoulders covered… Dip your head when either a monk passes or you pass one, you shouldn’t be taller then them. And don’t take photos with the Buddha if you’re not dressed properly, some silly chick was getting her photo taken sitting on the knee of a Buddha and my wife broke into tears and wanted to go, she and others were aghast at it.. So, think…
    90% of the travellers are pretty switched on here, which is great, this city has a ton of cool stuff and a healthy farang population, mostly ex professionals and business people, certainly not a Patong or Pattaya… Just do the research before you rock up, and stay away from the moat water…

  23. Thank you for the tips! Were the fruit smoothies Vegan? We’ll be staying nearby in April ??

  24. Every time I visit Chiang Mai it is becoming more livable as the garbage management and air quality has vastly improved with recycling and modern engines replacing the old smokey diesels and two sttokes and LPG on the tuktuks. Vegan and vegetarian optioms in many eateries around the city are a sign of a more aware type of traveller frequenting this city than you will find in other parts of the country. Chiang Mai has become my favorite destination and I love this city. All places have good and bad but for me there is very little to complain about here. It is relatively cheap safe and easy but for some of those obnoxious Chinese and French tourists who have no awareness outside of themselves but they seem to prevail in much larger numbers in other parts of the country.

  25. Yes the elephant thing is indeed a double edged sword as the there usefulness is harboured by there ability to provide an income for the people that own them.The best you can do is refuse to ride then but do visit them to help re educate the owners to the idea that the cruelty is unacceptable to most of us and must be eliminated. Don’t give tips and buy some food for those unfortunate creatures instead. The Lampang park is a good place to visit.Animal abuse is alive and well in many parts of the world and is a direct contradiction to the teachings of Buddha. With our combined economic wealth we can encourage change by where and how we spend our money. Good one Dave for pointing this huge negative out for us.

  26. My daughter an I cant decide whether to go to Chiang Mai this march or add additional days to Bangkok, Siem Reap and Phuket. We would have 2 days to spend in CM. is it worth the plane fare for just 2 days?

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