I hesitate somewhat to write a Things To Do in Chiang Mai post, because they’re everywhere. There’s no shortage of Internet content singing the praises of this northern Thai city—digital nomads love this place. It’s cheap, it’s relatively modern, and it’s so full of foreigners you can get by on English just fine. But it’s a different experience as a working parent. When you’re here long enough to not spend all your hours doing the touristy stuff, but still a short enough time to want to make the most of it, you can wipe yourself out trying to juggle the fun with the daily rhythms.
But I’ve been asked by more than one to go ahead and write about Chiang Mai already, so this post is for you. Here are my thoughts about traveling here with kiddos, but know that many of our days were spent quietly doing work and school at our house, cooking meals and pretty much living life the way we do at home. This is a gift, in my book—it makes for breathing space during the often-cacophonous Asian travel experience.
Thai love children
We came here from China, a culture that loves children but also sees them as a public commodity—they can take pics of your kids without asking, pinch their cheeks, ruffle their hair, and sometimes even pick them up. Personal space and privacy isn’t really valued in communist China, so they express it as a compliment when they pose for a photo with your children and assume you’d be perfectly fine with it. Stressed. Me. Out.
Thai people love children, too, but there’s a gentleness and respectful distance that I’ve grown to love, particularly having come from China. They smile and welcome children gladly (unlike some restaurants in the States), but they also just… smile. No photos, no touching, really. It’s a very safe, welcome place for families. Our kids loved the Thai people.
Best places to eat
• Cooking Love: Our absolute favorite Thai restaurant in the center of town—all five of us love it here, and they loved our kids. Mouth-watering food (try the pad thai, mango chicken curry, and fried rice with pork—none too spicy for kids), and don’t prepare to spend more than $10 US total for a larger family like ours. Small space, but the owners are great about letting our kids watch them prepare the food.
This curry and rice together cost about $2 US at Cooking Love. We miss it already.
The kids watching the magic at Cooking Love.
• Good Morning Chiang Mai: Fantastic western breakfast; our kids love the pancakes and French toast. Try the fruit pancakes full of banana and pineapple—they’ve become a favorite craving. Great homemade sausage as well. It’s part of the Tropical Guest House, and even though there’s not an official kids’ play area, its quiet garden setting allows for plenty of wandering. Our older daughter likes to bring her Kindle and read upstairs in the breezeway while she waits for her food.
• Mall food courts: Yep, you read that right. Most of the modern malls here have delicious Asian food courts, and they’re unbelievably cheap. Our favorite is in the Promenada—quiet, spacious, good lighting, and simple fare (filling pad thai for one dollar).
Best places to work and play
Nic’s: This place has become a godsend for us. Nic’s is run by a German couple, and the large bamboo play structure and trampoline means the place is swarming with kids. Which is a good thing, in our book. Decent gin and tonics, reasonably-priced western food, and hours of fun for the kids practically meant a date night for us. We may have gone here one or ten times.
Kids at Play: Yeah… we caved a few times and took the kids to one of those ubiquitous, overpriced indoor play areas. But we figured it’s still cheaper than paying a babysitter at home, and when you have to work, well—business expense. Our favorite was Kids at Play in the Promenada—three hours of play at a time, good wifi, and the kids are safely watched by the staff. They’ve got good stuff for a wide range of ages; both our four-year-old and almost ten-year-old enjoyed it.
This is a comprehensive post (and map!) of the best coffee shops in Chiang Mai for working. Not all are kid-friendly, but I did do school with the oldest a few times while I worked from some of them. It was fine.
Best things to do
• Elephant Nature Park: We highly recommend supporting this elephant preserve, one of the only ethical places in Southeast Asia. No riding or making them do tricks, ELP is a haven for elephants who’ve been rescued from abusive situations such as forced labor their bodies aren’t made to do, neglect, or both. We enjoyed feeding them, learning the ins and outs of basic elephant biology and care, petting and walking around with them, and ending our afternoon splashing with them in the river for a bath. It was fairly epic. (Tate’s next blog post will be about elephants… get excited.)
• Cooking class: Tate and Kyle went on a father-daughter date at Asia Scenic, learning a few basic Thai dishes. They had a great time bonding over open flames and sharp knives, and left with a decent knowledge of how to make some classic Thai food like tom kha gai, pad thai, chicken and cashews, hot and sour prawn soup, green and massaman curries, and spring rolls. Free cookbooks, too.
• Mae Sa waterfalls: We were itching to get out in nature, so one afternoon we made the short trip to Mae Sa, a ten-level chocolate-covered waterfall. It was heavenly getting back out in nature (our Pacific Northwest sensibilities came with us) after months of concrete, and though there were some steep climbs, all five of us hiked to the top with no problems.
• Dentist checkups: Okay, this isn’t exactly fun—but if you’re due for checkups, Chiang Mai’s a great place to go. Dental care is outstanding (some even say it’s better than from the States), and considerably cheaper, too. Our kids’ basic checkups and cleanings at Dental World cost between $12 and $15 US dollars—modern, clean, efficient, and fast. Dentaland is great, too.
I’m afraid I’m not much help with accommodation, since we mostly housesat for a friend of a friend (though we did stay at a guest house for people who work for non-profits). I’d recommend trying some of the houses on Airbnb or HomeAway if you plan to stay more than a few weeks, particularly in neighborhoods like World Club or Koolpunt. These quiet neighborhoods are mostly standalone houses with small yards surrounded by a fence, often with community pools. Makes traveling here with kids fairly easy, since you get a daily breather away from the noisier, crowded city center (though you would need a car rental).
We had an older car for a chunk of our time in Chiang Mai (the house where we housesat included a car), but we still rented one for a few longer day trips, when we needed reliable transportation (Journey fit the bill).
But you really don’t need a car to do things in the city center (inside the moat and surrounding areas)—a songtaew can easily take a larger family anywhere for just a few dollars. Flag one down, name your destination, and hop in the back. Kids love it.
Chiang Mai is a small city with reasonably-priced everything, friendly people, and a laid-back vibe. It’s a great place to park when you want a break from sightseeing or overly-famous places. It’s just a nice… city. Nothing monumental here, but sometimes that’s a good thing.
Any other questions about traveling to Chiang Mai with kids?