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Tours, Treks & Outdoor Adventure

There are so many tour groups in Chiang Mai that specialize in trekking that it can seem impossible to choose one. Below are some of the better options -- and most reputable operators -- for each type of trip. Most of the smaller companies have offices along Thapae Road, in guesthouses, and all along the major tourist routes in the city, and they are always happy to talk about what's on offer. Many adventure tours mix mountain biking or motorcycling with tribal village tours.

For jungle trekking, one of the most efficient and reliable organizations is Contact Travel. Combining treks and village stays with multisport adventures by jeep, bicycle, and kayak, the folks at Contact can cater a tour to any needs and price range. They also offer more traditional itineraries with elephant treks, visits to caves, and relaxing bamboo-raft river trips, and their English-speaking guides are the best in the area. Treks from Chiang Mai stop at Lisu, Lahu, and Karen villages. A 2-day/1-night trip is 4,600B per person if you join their regular tour, or 5,600B per person for a private group trip. A 3-day/2-night trip, which takes you to a greater variety of villages, is 5,500B per person if you join their regular tour or 6,850B per person for a private group. Their office in Chiang Mai is at 420/3 Chang Klan Rd. (tel. 05320-4664; fax 05327-9505; www.activethailand.com).

Another company with lots of experience specializing in customized trekking tours (with a focus on bird-watching or rare orchids, for example) is the Trekking Collective (tel. 05320-8340; 3/5 Loy Kroh Soi 1; www.trekkingcollective.com). Expect to pay around 2,000B per person per day, depending on the itinerary.

Boat Trips -- Within the city, a boat trip along the Mae Ping River is a fun diversion. Head for the boat landing beside Wawee Coffee on the east bank of the Ping River just north of Nawarat Bridge to join a 90-minute tour on a rice barge, starting at 9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm, or 5pm (minimum 2 people, 250B per person), operated by Mae Ping River Cruise Co. (133 Charoen Prathet Rd.; tel. 05327-4822; www.maepingrivercruise.com). They also run private tours, including hotel pickup, which start at Wat Chaimongkol, on Charoen Prathet Road (opposite Alliance Française). These tours follow a similar route (heading about 8km/5 miles north of town before heading back). They last about 2 hours and cost 450B per person with fruit and drinks included. You'll get great views of old teak riverside mansions, behind which rises the tall skyline of this developing burg. While on the outskirts of town, you'll see villages that offer scenes of rural living.

History buffs might prefer to cruise the river in a scorpion-tailed boat of the kind that used to be poled up and down the river in the late 19th century when first missionaries and later teak traders turned up to try their luck in this remote outpost. The modern version is propelled by an engine, but visitors can look forward to a running commentary on the historical significance of places passed along the route. Tours are by arrangement and rates depend on numbers of passengers in the group. Call tel. 053254-5888 or visit www.scorpiontailed.com for more information.

Elephant Encounters -- One of Thailand's greatest treasures, the domesticated Asian elephant has worked alongside men since the early history of Siam, and these gentle giants are an important symbol of the kingdom. Elephant training culture is strongest in parts of Isan (the northeast) and the far north. In and around Chiang Mai alone, there are a grand total of 14 elephant camps that try to cash in on the popularity of these gentle giants. Not all elephant camps are pleasant: At shoddier camps, creatures are drugged to keep them placid, and conditions are grim. Choose your elephant camp wisely. Resort-run elephant camps, such as those at Anantara and Four Seasons' Tented Camp, occupying adjacent sites north of Chiang Rai in the Golden Triangle, are among the most humane. If you don't want to spend a fortune to interact with the animals, a visit to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang is highly recommended. In and around the immediate Chiang Mai area, though, there are several camps to choose from. Just north of town in the Mae Rim Valley, a number of camps offer shows lasting an hour or so (with rides to follow) that are fun, especially for kids. Some camps offer a few hours of hill trekking on elephant back with two or three passengers to a howdah (elephant seat), followed by ox-cart rides to so-called "primitive" villages and even bamboo rafting back to camp. Maetaman Elephant Camp (535 Rimtai, Mae Rim, Chiang Mai 50180; tel. 05329-7060; www.maetamanelephantcamp.com) is one such place. They charge 550B per person, which includes the show, an oxcart ride, bamboo rafting, an elephant ride, and a simple meal.

Mountain Biking -- In the fresh air in the hills outside of town, you can get a slower, closer look at nature, sights, and people. Many small trekking companies and travel agents offer day trips, but I recommend the folks at Contact Travel (420/3 Chang Klan Rd; tel. 05320-4664) for their 1-day excursions just north of town, or for multiday adventures in the region. Day trips start at 2,100B.

Other Activities

Chiang Mai has a few noteworthy venues for adventure and extreme sports. This is the only place in Thailand where commercial Hot-Air Ballooning has been approved. Earth Wind and Fire (158/60 Moo 6, Cheungdoi, Doi Saket; tel. 05329-2224; www.balloon.wind-and-fire.com) is a highly reputable and certified outfit with professional pilots operating predawn rides between November and March -- depending on the weather. Prices are available on request.

Chiang Mai has succumbed to the bungee jumping craze; addicts can head north to the Mae Rim area to try out this sport. First-timers pay 1,500B, but thereafter it's 1,000B. For details, call the X Center at tel. 05329-7700.

Rock climbers can get their kicks at the north's main climbing area near Sankampaeng, about 35km (22 miles) east of Chiang Mai. Hundreds of routes have been pegged on Crazy Horse buttress, and climbs are organized by The Peak Adventure (tel. 05380-0567; www.thepeakadventure.com) for around 1,100B per day. If you're a beginner and you'd like to learn the ropes, so to speak, contact Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures (tel. 05329-7102; www.thailandclimbing.com), which organizes 1- to 3-day introductory courses for 2,495B and 8,495B, respectively.

Ultralight aircraft flights have come to Chiang Mai as well. A small but very organized operation, Chiang Mai Sky Adventures, flies from a private airstrip north of the city in Doi Saket. A 15-minute flight, more or less a piggyback ride on the pilot's shoulders, costs just 1,900B and takes you on a great loop out over a large dam and reservoir and past a spectacular hilltop temple. They also do flight instruction and certification. Call Mr. Chaimongkol, at tel. 05386-8460, or visit www.skyadventures.info for info.

Hitting The Links

For Thais and Western retirees, golf is a favored hobby in Chiang Mai, especially in the cooler months. All courses below are open to the public and offer equipment rental. Call ahead to reserve a tee time.

  • Chiang Mai Green Valley Country Club, located in Mae Rim, 20 minutes north of town on Route 107, 183/2 Chotana Rd. (tel. 05329-8249; fax 05327-9386), is in excellent condition with flat greens and fairways that slope toward the Ping River (greens fees: weekdays 750B, weekends 1,500B; closed Tues for maintenance).
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  • Royal Chiang Mai Golf Club, a 30-minute drive north of town toward Phrao (tel. 05384-9301; fax 05384-9308; www.royalchiangmai.com), is a fine 18-hole course designed by Peter Thompson (greens fees: weekdays 1,400B, weekends 1,800B).
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  • Lanna Golf Club, on Chotana Road, 2km (1 1/4 miles) north of the Old City (tel. 05322-1911; fax 05322-1743), is a challenging, wooded 27 holes, and a local favorite with great views of Doi Suthep Mountain (greens fees: weekdays 1,200B, weekends 1,400B).
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Spas & Massage

The spa industry is big business all over Thailand, and Chiang Mai is no exception. There are a few fine, full-service spas in and around town, and treatments come with a price but are worth it. Many hotels offer massage and beauty treatments, but some new "spa" areas are no more than converted guest rooms with subdued lighting and overpriced services. You can pay a fraction of the cost for the same treatment at one of the many small storefront massage parlors in and around any tourist area of the city. Note: The offer of an oil massage in a back room often covers for soliciting for sexual services.

Some of the most luxurious spas can be found in luxury resorts near Chiang Mai:

The Dhevi Spa at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi (51/4 Chiang Mai-Sankampaeng Rd., 5km/3 miles east of town; tel. 05388-8888; www.mandarinoriental.com) is an enormous complex built of teak to mimic a Burmese palace. The treatments and spa environment are extensive, with the unusual addition of a starlit sauna, or rasoul, and therapies that reflect local Lanna culture.

Oasis Spa offers a good standard of service at its two locations in town: at 102 Sirimangkalajarn Rd. and 4 Samlan Rd. For reservations, call tel. 05392-0111 or visit www.chiangmaioasis.com. A luxury campus of private spa villas, Oasis Spa offers a long roster of treatments and provides free pickup and drop-off from hotels in Chiang Mai.

Ban Sabai (219 Moo 9, San Pee Sua; tel. 05385-4775) is the bridge between the expensive services of a five-star spa and the affordable streetside places. You get the best of both worlds here: a stylish facility and escape for a few hours at affordable rates. The spa is located in a rural setting 5km (3 miles) northeast of town.

Let's Relax, located in Chiang Mai Pavilion (on the second floor above McDonald's, 145/27 Chang Klan Rd.; tel. 05381-8498), and its sister, Rarin Jinda, just north of Nawarat Bridge (14 Charoenrat Rd.; tel. 05324-7000), have affordable massages and are perfect for a quick rest and recharge when wading through the Night Bazaar area.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.