The Chiang Mai Tours of Chiang Mai a la Carte
Table of Contents
Chiang Mai, the Rose of the North
Introduction to Chiang Mai, Lamphun and Lampang tours
We consider trips to Lampang and Lamphun also Chiang Mai tours because they usually are trips starting and ending in Chiang Mai. On this page we tell the stories behind our Chiang Mai tours based on different subjects.
We can design a customized trip for you if you are specifically interested in certain handicrafts, Thai food, markets, or any other subject. Besides these destination pages, we also have the “Things to do” pages, such as Things to do in Chiang Mai, which are more about activities and specific places of interest. In the sections about the topic, we refer to the tours in which we feature them.
The biggest tourist destination in North Thailand
Chiang Mai is the political, economic, and cultural center of the north of Thailand. Chiang Mai Airport receives more daily flights than any other city in the north. The first airfield in Chiang Mai opened in 1921 but the first tourists arrived in Thailand by train. In 1922 the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) opened the railroad connection from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. It was the SRT that started to promote tourism to Chiang Mai and opened the Railway Terminal Hotel opposite the railway station. Not many people know that the first railway station was bombed during World War Two. The current station dates back to 1947. I recommend everyone take the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai or vice versa.
Margaretta Wells wrote the first tourist guidebook of Chiang Mai in the early sixties. Roy Hudson published the Hudsons Guide to North Thailand in the late sixties but from then on the Australian company Lonely Planet took over with its popular guidebooks “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” and “Thailand: a Travel Survival Kit” starting the backpacking wave of young western tourists. When tourism started to grow in the 1980s and 1990s, Chiang Mai became the most popular tourist destination of the north, simply because it was easier to reach than, for instance, Lampang and Chiang Rai. If they would have extended the railroad to Chiang Rai, that city might have been the most important tourist destination in the north. Who knows?
The center of Hill Tribe trekking
Backpacking became an increasingly popular way of travel for young tourists in the 1970s. Guidebooks such as South East Asia on a Shoestring and Thailand: A Travel Survival Kit became household names amongst backpackers. The first hill tribe trekkings probably took place in the late 1970s or early 1980s. A local guide would take groups of young tourists trekking in the hills and mountains of the north, spending the night in hill tribe villages. Those early trekkings sometimes took four or five days and took tourists deep into the jungle. The hill tribe villages were remote, primitive and only accessible by foot.
That has changed in the past 30-40 years. There are now sealed roads to most villages and they are more prosperous and developed. Trekking still is a popular activity but the trips are mostly only two days. Our mother brand Green Trails offers a wide range of trekkings. Trekking has changed a lot in the past 40 years but still is a great activity. Family trekkings are very popular.
The center of textiles
Chiang Mai has an outstanding variety of textiles and most textile tours spend many days in Chiang Mai. In and near the Warorot and Ton Lamyai Markets it’s a paradise for textile lovers. There are shops selling Tai Yai (Shan) textiles and tribal textiles, not only from Thailand but also from Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Studio Naenna of renowned textile experts Patricia Cheeseman and her daughter Lamorna is a fantastic place for learning about indigo dyeing.
Green Trails specializes in textile tours to ethnic minorities such as Akha, Palong (Dara-ang), Karen, Hmong, and others. We can also organize trips to lesser-known groups such as the Tai Lue and the Tai Ya (not to be confused with the Tai Yai).
The Buddhist Temples of Chiang Mai
Besides trekking, the magnificent Buddhist temples of Chiang Mai have been the main tourist attractions since the early days of tourism. You often hear the comment of guests that their itinerary contains too many temples. People who arrive in Chiang Mai usually have been to Bangkok and visited Wat Phra Kaew and sometimes also Wat Po and Wat Arun. After Bangkok they are “templed out” and don’t want to see more temples. It is the task of our guides to help them overcome this “temple phobia”.
As in the rest of the country the temple is the heart of a community. Besides that, they are very beautiful, have a lot of history and many stories. Temples such as Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh are very different from each other and also vastly different from the Bangkok temples. We offer several tours that include visits to these temples such as The Heart and Soul of Chiang Mai and the Active Chiang Mai and Doi Suthep tour. We have one whole page dedicated to the temples of Chiang Mai.
The Elephants of Thailand
The Asian elephant is the national animal of Thailand. A century ago there are wild elephants in the area of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in the country, and in many other parts of the country. In the beginning of the 20th century there were approximately 100000 elephants in Thailand. It is unclear how many of those were wild and how many so-called domesticated elephants. The Thai people have captured elephants and used them for different purposes since more than 1000 years ago. Images of elephants adorn temple ruins of Wiang Kum Kam and Sukhothai.
The current situation of the national animal of Thailand
Now there are about 4000 elephants left in the country, of which about half are living in national parks and wildlife sancturies and the other half in captivity. Most of the elephants in captivity are working in tourism. Over the decade there has been a lot of controversy regarding the treatment of elephants in tourism venues. We share that concern. On the other hand these elephants will not be reintroduced in the wild so we will have to support them as much as we can. We only work with a couple of elephant venues that we visit regularly to check on how the animals are being treated. One of those camps is the Mae Sa Elephant Conservation Park, a venue that used to offer elephant shows and riding but not anymore.
Religious diversity in Chiang Mai
Thailand is a Buddhist country. Buddhism, the Monarchy, and the Thai language are the three main pillars of the Thai Nation State. In general Chiang Mai has been very tolerant of other religions. I never felt any tension between religions or any discrimination. Druing our historical walk you will visit or pass a Buddhist temple, a Chinese temple, a Sikh temple aka gurdwara, a Christian Church and the Ban Ho Mosque.
We also have a missionary history tour focusing on the Presbyterian Mission in Chiang Mai. In and around the Warorot and Ton Lamyai markets there Chinese places of worship. In the future we would like to organize a tour that focuses on the history of the Islamic community in Chiang Mai and on Muslim food and traditions.
The traditional bicycle taxi: the samlor of Chiang Mai
In the 1930s someone brought the first samlor (three-wheeled bicycle taxi) to Chiang Mai. They became a popular means of public transportation as in most Southeast Asian cities in those days. The increase of motorized vehicles pushed the samlors out of city centers. That has not been the case in Chiang Mai though. As far as I know, they are allowed to operate everywhere in the city but you seldom see them outside the Ping River/Thapae Road and the Old City areas. Most of the remaining samlors are now based at the Warorot Market.
Since 2016 we have operated samlor tours to support the drivers and to help preserve this traditional means of transportation that is so typical for towns and cities in Southeast Asia. Join us on half-day tours such as our Temple tour, Handicrafts tour and Markets tour.
Cooking Lessons and Thai Food
Another great way to connect with local people is a joining a cooking course or a food tour. There is also a dazzling variety of snacks, sweets and other delicacies in Chiang Mai and North Thailand. In Chiang Mai you can find food in Chiang Mai from Burma, Vietnam, India and China. Moreover the Shan people have their own specialties which are different. We can bring you to a Tai Lue village and spend a morning learning to prepare their traditional food.
Khao Soi is a tasty noodle curry which is one of the signature dishes of North Thailand. Join our Chiang Mai Food and Doi Suthep Temple Tour, we offer you a glimpse of the many unique snacks and delicacies that are on offer on Chiang Mai Markets. Near Chiang Rai we offer an Akha food experience, which is very unique and great fun.
A paradise for coffee lovers
It is only in recent times that Thailand became a coffee addicted country. I remember that there was only instant coffee when I first visited the country as a backpacker. On the contrary, Vietnam had a coffee culture, the legacy of French colonialism. In the past twenty years coffee shops have mushroomed across Thailand and there are great small coffee breweries in the north. The organic coffee plantation Suan Lahu is an example but there are great coffee producers on Doi Suthep and on Doi Inthanon. We offer several tours during which we visit coffee producers such as Doi Pui Opium and Coffee Tour. A tour that focuses on growing organic coffee is the trip to Suan Lahu.
The Handicraft Capital of Thailand
Chiang Mai is without a doubt the handicraft capital of Thailand. You can find lacquerware, silverware, woodcarving, sa paper, textiles, celadon, and pottery, just to name a few of the handicrafts Chiang Mai has to offer. Producing things by hand is something that has disappeared from advanced or modern society. We just don’t learn handicrafts anymore. That is not the case in Thailand. We can bring you to places where people and artisans hand-weave textiles and paint dolls. Chiang Mai has some of the most talented artisans in the country.
The Chiang Mai Doll Making Centre and Doll Museum is a good example. The museum alone is worth a visit because it exhibits thousands of traditional dress dolls from all over the world. I had never seen such a unique collection, which must be worth a fortune. Behind the museum is a workshop where people handcraft beautiful dolls in traditional dress. I am not into souvenirs but bought some of them for my office.
Chiang Mai has a long tradition of producing handmade parasols and umbrellas but there is a huge variety of other crafts such as lacquerware, paper flowers, wood and celadon. Try out our Handicraft tour that also involves a samlor tour to Wat Sri Suphan, the Silver Temple of Chiang Mai.
Traditional Music and Dance
Performances of traditional music and dance take place during the festivals. The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre, now renamed Old Chiang Mai, was the first venue that showcased traditional Thai and Northern Thai music and dance as well as performances by hill tribes for tourists in the early 1970s.
This cultural center is also the birthplace of the famous Chiang Mai Khantoke dinner, during which guest enjoy Northern Thai food and watch music and dance performances. Temple Fairs or Festivals also usually feature traditional music and dance performances. The fingernail dance is a popular dance you will always see during events and festivals. Check out our page about festivals of North Thailand.
Great markets in Chiang Mai and North Thailand
We love to include visits to local markets to go shopping, buy some fruit of the season and chat with the vendors. Markets are living museums of intangible heritage. You can learn so much by spending time at markets. For example, you can spend hours at the Sanpatong Saturday Market, which is the largest open-air market in North Thailand. It features in one of our Chiang Mai tours.
Very few tourists visit this market, as opposed to the Warorot Market in downtown Chiang Mai. That doesn’t mean the Warorot Market has been spoilt by tourists. On the contrary, you will see them roaming around but they don’t dominate this most interesting and historic market of Chiang Mai. I wrote this market is the ‘beating heart” of the city and I truly believe so. The Warorot Market aka Kad Luang features in several of our tours.
Every city, town or village in Thailand has a main market. This market is usually in the center of the community, within easy reach of everyone. Most of these markets come to live very early in the morning, some as early as 4AM. Some markets close around noon, others stay open the whole and there are also markets that start in the later afternoon and continue until late in the evening.
The Chiang Mai Walking Streets
The “walking street” concept became fashionable about ten years ago. In short, on one day in the week, usually a weekend day, authorities close off a public road in the center of the city for traffic from about 1600 until 2200 to allow local people to sell their produce on the street side. Vendors usually were part-timers who didn’t make a living from this and sold their homemade products.
This concept became hugely popular and spread around like wildfire. Now every city or town seems to have a weekly “walking street.” Over time the vendors have become more professional, but that has not dented the popularity of these markets. In Chiang Mai, there are two walking streets: the Saturday walking street on Wualai Road and the Sunday Walking Street on the Rachadamnoen Road in the Old City.
Archaeological sites in Chiang Mai
Wiang Kum Kam, the temple ruins of a settlement that predates the founding of Chiang Mai, is the main archaeological site of Chiang Mai. The Fine Arts Department started to excavate and restore these ruins in the 1980s. It is now an established tourist attraction with horse cart rides and a small, but very interesting visitor center.The best way to explore Wiang Kum Kam is by bicycle. There are about 30 sites, scattered over a large area and some are not easy to find.
Chiang Mai has many archaeological sites scattered in and around the city. Most of these are brick temple towers of which no one knows the history and the name. They are not tourist attractions but some of them certainly deserve attention and they give the city something special and mysterious. We don’t consider the five city gates and the city walls archaeological sites. On old pictures the walls appear but not much was left of these walls in the 1970s. The current gates and walls have been constructed in the 1990.
Historic houses and buildings
Chiang Mai has a number of significant historic building such as the former Borneo Company office and the old British consulate, that have been turned into restaurants of, respectively the 137 Pillars House and the Chiang Mai Anantara Resort. Many of these houses feature in our one day and two day Chiang Mai tours about the teak industry.
I want to mention in particular the well known Louis T. Leonowens House in Lampang. Over many years we supported and highlighted the renovation of this historic house. It features in our two day Teak Wallah tour.