The Old City in Chiang Mai, Thailand is surrounded by a moat and the vestiges of a wall built to repel Burmese invaders.
As the main tourist district, most stay within the Old City’s boundaries even though some of the greatest rewards are just outside the walls.
Contributing writer Dan Lawton ventures into the heart of the real Chiang Mai and offers up four recommendations for local favorites.
Local Favorites Of Chiang Mai
Every year thousands hunker down in the Old City in Chiang Mai, where you can only experience a fraction of what the city has to offer. Working there as a writer this spring, I went on hunt for the local’s Chiang Mai. I wanted an authentic, spontaneous experience—not another group tour or highly programmed outing.
Inevitably, my favorite experiences were never those I planned. Instead, as a I looked for authentic cuisine I would stumble on the real Muay Thai boxing experience. Traveling to the popular Buddhist temple, I found the local villagers’ favorite picnic spots. Unmarked roads, winding alleyways, all lead me to the jewels of the city.
From the night markets to the mountains of Doi Suthep National Forest that perch above the city, here are a few adventures to whet your appetite for the local’s Chiang Mai:
Muay Thai boxing at the night bazaar
You’ll see advertisements for Muay Thai boxing all over the Old City, as there’s a stadium conveniently located on the main drag, Moon Muang Road. However, if you want a more authentic Muay Thai experience, head to the night bazaar.
Once there, trek past the food court toward the back alleys. If you’re lucky, there will be a few signs posted, but your best bet is to follow the rumble of the announcer until you arrive at a fenced-in stadium.
Pay the entry fee ($15-$20) and you’ll be in the midst of a backyard brawl.
Ringside seats, usually plastic or folding chairs, are readily available and you can snag as many cold beers as you want from the coolers in the back. The action is fast, violent and furious—you’ll definitely see some blood—and the fighters, many of whom are teenagers, celebrate their victories with tons of enthusiasm.
A motorcycle picnic on Doi Suthep
Doi Suthep is the legendary Buddhist temple that sits about 7.5 miles above Chiang Mai. It’s a must-see, as is the surrounding heavily forested national park. If you’re headed to the summit, consider renting a motorcycle and breaking away from the crowds on a spontaneous side trip.
At numerous junctures, you’ll see unmarked paths on the side of the road. Just pick one, any one, and dive in. Most of the trails slope gently through the mountain, weaving through the canopy of sun-lit trees. Scenic vistas pop out of nowhere and there are plenty of great spots to set up shop for a picnic.
Small, self-sufficient villages also dot the area, and the residents are generally happy to indulge erstwhile hikers, so don’t be surprised if you meet some friends along the way.
A psychedelic rock concert in a warehouse
What do you get when you mix four Chiang Mai University students with massive guitar amps and an endless appetite for laying down blood-pumping, shoulder-shaking, distortion-heavy classic rock covers?
You get a great party.
Though hard to find, local underground music groups often host impromptu gigs at abandoned warehouses and buildings. The bands will show up with their gear and a few coolers of beer and wail away, until the exceedingly diplomatic Chiang Mai police arrive and politely ask them to turn it down a few notches.
Unless you happen to stumble into one, finding these shows can be tricky. Your best bet is to ask at a local music store or check out concert postings in the University area.
Volunteering in the slums
The outskirts of Chiang Mai are poverty-stricken; many families from the surrounding hill tribes come to the city looking for jobs and find none. As a result, they build their own housing, where they often live without basic shelter and necessities. If you want to make volunteerism part of your visit, consider spending a day with the children in one of these neighborhoods.
The Chiang Mai YMCA runs an outreach program in which volunteers travel to different communities to play with the children there. Activities range from helping kids learn basic English to origami. Regardless of what you do, you’re bound to giggle a lot with the kids and have a good time.
By Dan Lawton for PeterGreenberg.com. Photos by Kristin Mancina. Dan Lawton is a freelance writer who blogs about travel and the outdoors for Camping Gear Outlet.
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