Chiang Mai: The Jewel of Thailand

Chiang Mai's reputation marks this small city as the jewel of Northern Thailand, a quaint city cozily nestled into the foothills of a lush green mountain.

Chiang Mai is often just another stop on the average backpacker's whirlwind temple tour of Southeast Asia.

But change is underway. With numerous classes, volunteer options and opportunities for adventure travel, Chiang Mai is slowly making a name for itself as a top-notch destination.

These suggestions promise to make your journey to Chiang Mai more than just scenic and will ensure that you leave Southeast Asia with more than just a suitcase full of souvenirs.

Educational Adventures

Beyond the requisite offerings of yoga classes and language lessons, Chiang Mai offers a unique and ostensibly endless list of options.

Thailand's natural beauty is unmatched and this northern Thai gem boasts forested mountains, perfect rice patties, and active wildlife. Day trips to elephant camps, where tourists can observe and ride elephants, have long been a routine stop for travelers here.

These days, however, nature lovers can take their elephant experience to the next level -- spending between one to three days learning the art of becoming a mahout (elephant trainer). Run by elephant conservationists, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, located roughly one hour outside of Chiang Mai, is an optimal spot for this adventure.

Unlike many elephant adventure sites in the area, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center runs a company more concerned with the well-being of the elephants than with the money coming in. Courses here include bathing, feeding, and general elephant care.

If something more practical interests you, Chiang Mai also has a wide selection of cooking classes. Places like Baan Thai Cookery School offer regular and intensive cooking courses where students can learn to cook numerous Thai dishes.

Volunteer Experiences

For a more rustic and remote experience, Thai Farm Cooking offers courses taught at an organic farm where participants are able to pick their own ingredients from the organic gardens and spend the day cooking in the school's farmhouse.

Additionally, yoga studios and Thai massage parlors are available on nearly every corner in Chiang Mai, and so are the opportunities to learn the tricks of these trades.

Thailand offers many five-star vacation experiences, yet there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer and help those in need.

Cultural Canvas Thailand is one of many ways to explore volunteering in Chiang Mai and the surrounding areas. It provides opportunities to volunteer with different population groups, such as Burmese refugees and single mothers, as well as work on programs which focus on the healing power of art as a catalyst of social change.

According to Sara Latshaw, executive director of the program, "Our typical volunteer is an adventurer who wants to make a difference." This explanation could also easily sum up the type of traveler perfectly suited to life in Chiang Mai -- someone who wants to have a more meaningful experience on vacation.