Like Bangkok, Phuket, Krabi, and so many other cities and islands around Thailand, Chiang Mai is a favorite of LGBTQ travelers. Though this northern enclave in particular—with its mountainous surroundings and cooler weather, markets and old town, laid-back vibe and youthful intellectual energy, progressive hipster culture, and affordability—casts such a powerful spell that visitors of all sexualities often stay for extended periods.
In February 2019, Chiang Mai saw its first Pride march and celebration in over 10 years. After a 2009 attempt was cancelled due to protestors, the event showed promise as a reboot of an annual—and far more welcome—tradition. (For updates on upcoming editions, check the Chiang Mai Pride Facebook page.)
Yet LGBTQs are woven into the city's everyday life and culture. The Tourism Authority of Thailand's LGBTQ website and campaign, Go Thai, Be Free, includes content specific to Chiang Mai. The website Gay in Chiang Mai also features plenty of listings and resources, such as a map marked with LGBTQ-interest venues. For English-language news, resources, and events, also check City Life Chiang Mai.
Things to Do
Elephants are adorable, and many tourists visit North Thailand with hopes of getting up close and personal with these majestic giants. However, recent years have shed light on the cruelty and exploitation inherent to many "elephant experience" camps, including their trainers' wielding of a painful, cane-like bullhook on the animals, metal chains to control and restrain them, and the use of saddles for rides.
To combat this cruelty, be sure to only visit an ethical, ride-free elephant sanctuary. Here you can experience quality time with elephants—many rescued from circuses and other exploitative owners—for just a few hours or several days (those who really want to connect and make the elephants' lives better can opt for volunteering for extended periods of time as well).
Located about 37 miles outside the city center in the Chiang Mai province's Mae Taeng district, Elephant Nature Park was founded by elephant conservationist Lek Chailert during the 1990s. Experiences with their herd range from "hands-off" tours and elephant watching to helping the mahouts (human caretakers) bathe, pamper, and walk with the elephants. During peak months, reservations are highly recommended since they can book up well in advance.
Those seeking an even deeper dive into the life of these creatures can opt for a two-day itinerary or volunteer for seven days with the elephants or the park's Dog Park Rescue Project. Bookings include round-trip transportation from the city.
Also highly recommended and ethical, Ran-Tong Lanna Kingdom Elephant Sanctuary was founded in 2009 with the blind and comatose Boon Som, who was rescued from the clutches of an abusive mahout. Almost two dozen elephants currently occupy the Ran-Tong camp, and experiences range from half- or full-day "elephant care programs" that allow you to feed, walk, and pamper the pachyderms. Overnight and multi-day volunteer programs are also available.
The architecturally striking MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, a 25-minutes drive from the city, was established to exhibit the extensive private collection of couple Jean Michel Beurdeley and Patsri Bunnag. Emphasizing the work of modern Thai artists such as Chiang Mai-based Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, MAIIAM's collection is balanced by temporary themed exhibitions from creators around the world.
Right inside the city center, the Art Mai Gallery Nimman Hotel doubles as a showcase for some of the coolest Thai contemporary names: Its fifth floor and signature room was designed by openly gay rock star and artist Thanachai Ujjin, aka "Pod," from the phenomenally popular band Modern Dog (the country's U2 equivalent).
Strolling Chiang Mai's markets and night bazaar for souvenirs, fruit, and all sorts of eclectic goods is a must, although on super hot days a visit to the air-conditioned indoor modern shopping center MAYA Lifestyle Shopping Center is most welcome.
Like Bangkok, there are also all-male, adults-only saunas and massage venues around Chiang Mai. The facilities at the foreigner-friendly Club One Seven guesthouse include a swimming pool, gym, dry sauna, and steam room, and they offer a full range of massage and body work services. Nimman's House of Male, meanwhile, features a pool, gym, and steam room. For a luxury spa experience, Nimman's branch of Thai chain The Oasis Spa is well worth a visit for pampering.
LGBTQ Bars and Clubs
Two of the most popular Chiang Mai gay bars are located at the Kalae Night Bazaar. The partly open-air Pandee Bar, which is essentially a market stall, bills itself as the city's friendliest venue of its kind; it draws a crowd of both locals and Western expats/tourists, so there's plenty of English spoken (including by amicable bartender Pan), as well as affordable beer, cocktails, and snacks.
Upgraded and reopened in July 2020, "straight-friendly" Ram Bar offers both outdoor and air-conditioned indoor areas, plus a full cabaret stage for nightly drag shows at 10 p.m. (These can be delightfully elaborate and even feature visiting celebrity queens from the country's official "RuPaul's Drag Race" spin-off, "Drag Race Thailand.") Food is available as well as drinks. For a proper dance club experience, Sound Up CMI and Take It are not expressly gay but draw a mixed crowd.
Where to Eat
Gay Thai restaurateur Thanaruek "Eh" Laoraowirodge opened a Chiang Mai branch of his delightful, affordable, and delicious Isaan chain, Somtum Der, in 2019. Located at the One Nimman shopping center—a stunningly European-style, cavernous food hall and market—take your pick of somtum salads, spicy shrimp sashimi, and other Northeast Thai specialties.
For deluxe takes on Chiang Mai and Northern Thai classics like khao soi in unbeatably romantic traditional surroundings, The Dining Room restaurant at 137 Pillars House resort is fantastic and extremely LGBTQ-friendly (and the chef can cater to gluten-free, lactose-free, and other dietary requests).
Satisfy your sweet tooth at Maitri Donuts with a decadent selection of artisanal donuts and beverages. Craft coffee fans will find plenty of great java created with excellent Thailand tribe-sourced beans at venues like the hipster and laptop-friendly Gateway Coffee Roasters (which boasts a small art gallery) and Graph Coffee Co.
Where to Stay
Located smack dab in trendy Nimman, the 62-room contemporary style boutique hotel Akyra Manor Chiang Mai includes a rooftop bar and glass-enclosed swimming pool, RISE, with incredible panoramic views of the city and mountains. If traditional Thai teak style is more your vibe, book a reservation at the aforementioned male-only Club One Seven, the latest addition to the mini-chain (locations include Singapore and Phuket).
Situated in the Old City and drawing from Lanna historical heritage and Southeast Asian architecture, the LGBT-owned Rachamankha offers 23 rooms, two suites, and a very sophisticated vibe and décor. Its restaurant—serving Lanna, Burmese, Shan and Chiang Mai cuisine—is also a favorite among local LGBTQ folks.
One of the most luxurious properties in the region, the 30-suite 137 Pillars House is located just 10 minutes by foot from the market and night bazaar. Its namesake, central structure was once famously owned by Louis Leonowens—son of the real-life Anna from "Anna and The King"—and this gorgeously maintained, lush enclave of colonial-style suites boasts a lap pool, modern gym, full-service luxury spa, restaurants, and bar. Be sure to chat with and get some local scoop from openly gay head butler Khun Toto!
While at least a 30-minute drive outside the city center in the Mae Rim Valley, The Four Seasons Resort is gay honeymoon heaven, with unmatched privacy, sprawling pavilions and villas, and plenty of activities such as cooking school lessons and spa indulgences.