Located more than 400 miles north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai presents visitors with the relaxed feel of a city that is better known for its lovely temples than its bustle and energy. Among travelers, Chiang Mai enjoys a dual reputation for both its relaxed atmosphere and as a base for pursuing adventure sports in the highland forests of northern Thailand.
The highland jungles of northern Thailand provide the setting for myriad mountain biking, hiking, ATV and motorcycling trips. A variety of tours for all four of these activities are available, but it also is possible to strike out independently on a bicycle or rented motorcycle with enough planning. Many of these trips focus on both the jungle and the villages of the area’s hill tribes, such as the Karen and the Hmong. The region also is riddled with caves and cliffs, with the 200-foot monolith of Crazy Horse Buttress offering a particularly tempting challenge to rock climbers.
Serious adventure sports enthusiasts in Chiang Mai should pick their tour operators carefully or try to plan independent excursions. A variety of travel agencies in Chiang Mai offer day trips and overnight “trekking excursions” that will leave an avid hiker feeling underwhelmed. These trips are very touristic, not very demanding and often lump multiple activities (elephant riding, hill tribe visits) into a single day. To ensure that an adventure trip offers a proper challenge, focus exclusively on adventure tour companies and avoid the offerings of the general-purpose travel agencies.
Chiang Mai is surrounded by elephant sanctuaries, such as the Elephant Nature Park, Baanchang Elephant Park and Maesa Elephant Camp. While most tourists limit their visits to these elephant centers to a single day, the more adventurous might be interested in a longer stay. The more eco-oriented elephant centers offer overnight stays, while centers like the Elephant Nature Park have volunteer programs allowing visitors to stay for up to a month and learn all about elephant training and care.