On the second full day we were in Chiang Mai we had booked a day with Elephant Nature Park to go look after elephants for the day.
Thailand has a poor reputation with tourism and animals such as elephants and tigers in particular and generally any excursions that offer elephant riding, painting, tricks or anything similar should be avoided as well as anything that involves a tiger. Elephants do not paint or do tricks as a normal behaviour and the amount of cruelty and essentially torture that is involved to bend them to human submission should most definitely be outlawed. Riding an elephant is also cruel as the seat is an incredibly heavy metal structure and the animals get worked long hours in the gruelling heat. As for tigers, if they were behaving naturally, there is no way you can get anywhere near them for a picture without coming away with severe injuries. Tigers must be drugged off their faces in order for you to be able to do what they offer. Human entertainment seems a pretty poor reason for these beautiful creatures to be so heavily sedated on a daily basis, unable to live a proper life. It’s like the Chinese tourists I observed yesterday at a waterfall in Pai who were repeatedly throwing rocks into a pond trying scare the frog that was making regular croaks to make an appearance. These animals do not exist for your mere entertainment. They are sentient creatures of their own right. If you’re against human trafficking and human abuse, then consider the methods that are involved in order to make these ventures possible.
Rant over. Saying all that, eco-tourism is booming in Chiang Mai with lots of elephant “sanctuaries” who provide customers with a day feeding, “walking” and bathing elephants. Some of them offer riding without seats (although I’m undecided how I feel about this). Even if the owners of these establishments might be jumping on the bandwagon as opposed to doing it for the animal’s rights, it’s still a step in a better direction.
We ended up booking a day with Elephant Nature Park who, after extensive research, is highly recommended by lots of travel media publishers as well as won lots of awards on its work on rescuing elephants from commercial exploits (like riding, logging and performing). The single day excursions at their parks were all full up when we booked three days before we went. But they have plenty of side projects within the Karen villages where they involve the locals to look after rescued elephants which is good for the village giving them good stable income as well as providing lots of space and care for the elephants. We went to one of these side projects and it was easy to see that the three elephants there were well looked after. They were free to roam and were happy with their flappy ears as we fed and bathed them. The day we had didn’t involve any bare back riding which I preferred anyway as I have no desire to ride on such a magnificent creature.
So if you are around in Thailand and are looking for an elephant excursion, do do your research and work out which ones operate without abusing the animals.
We ended up spending two and a half days in Chiang Mai before heading to Pai for two nights (currently on the minibus heading back to Chiang Mai). Even at first sight Chiang Mai is so much more relaxed and friendlier than Bangkok. The airport is only 15 minute drive away from the downtown square. There is a shuttle bus available for 40 bahts per person. The counter for this is at the very end of the airport near door 12 (by the international side) however this has limited capacity and when we went we were told there would be a 40 minute wait. There are lots of counters that offer taxis for a fixed price of 150 thb to get into town which isn’t too bad particularly as we were sharing between two.
We chose a hostel at the east edge of the main downtown Square to stay called Thunder Bird Hostel. In fact we’re staying there tonight on our one night stopover. The hostel wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch with its scandi inspired decor with lots of minimalist metal work. It’s clean, good toilets, hot showers, has a small rooftop and a comfortable chill out lobby where they serve the included breakfast as well as have a piano and guitar for those musically gifted to have a strum (or even those who just fancy a tinkle). Prices are not extortionate, a bed in a 6 bed mixed dorm is 315 baht per night. The hostel is a little hard to find but just use the GPS on Google maps to navigate your way there. There is also a lovely food market right outside the hostel with plenty of fresh fruit that you can devour.
The first full day we were there we set off on a self-trek to Wat Pha Lak and Doi Suthep. If you’re up for a day of adventure in some stunning sceneries and seeing some awesome temples, it’s definitely worth a go. We followed the directions in this article as well as used the GPS on Google maps. Whilst the first bit is useful, the directions for the actual trek was a bit foggy and we got lost multiple times so ended up taking all day to trek up to Doi Suthep. I don’t know how much has changed since that article but the path is certainly not as easy as following the trees with the monks’ markers as there were multiple routes that had it. My main advice would be:
- Follow the trail, it doesn’t suddenly turn off at a 90 degree angle
- One thing the article really didn’t make clear is that the trek to Doi Suthep continues FROM Wat Pha Lak. Don’t walk back out to try and find the area with the plaque that suggests you sit down before continuing the journey. It’s just misleading.
- Once you’re through the grueling hike after Wat Pha Lak and have hit the second road and near Doi Suthep, walk on the main road. We ended up going up a smaller road which we thought was a pedestrian road and I think ended up trespassing on alot of people’s village/properties!
Make sure you arm yourself with some sustenance and water – it can get hot and if it takes longer than you planned you don’t want to get caught out. There are stalls up at Doi Suthep so it’s easily to fuel up when you get there so only take enough to ease any hunger or thirst on the journey. And despite monks doing the trek in flip flops, I would definitely recommend trainers as a bare minimum as there were a lot of mild scrambles and steep dirt tracks.
Wat Pha Lak is definitely worth seeing with its beautiful waterfall setting. We ended up staying for quite a while just enjoying the serene sound and quiet. It is significantly less busy than Doi Suthep as it can’t be reached directly by transport so tour groups don’t stop there. There are also good toilet facilities there.
Doi Suthep is also worth the 30 baht entry fee, with its ostentatious gold circle and also insane view of Chiang Mai. This is the point where you feel an amazing feeling of accomplishment when you see the radio antennae where you first started the hike and realised how far it actually is!
There are plenty of songthaews (red taxis that hold up to ~10 people) up here which offer rides back as far as Tha Phae Gate (the east gate of downtown) for 80 baht per person so that’s a good option if you’re not wanting to do the hike back down.