Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern city, is nestled between some of the highest mountains in the country and only a few hundred miles from the border of Burma. It’s approximately 500 miles north of Bangkok and nearly 1000 years old. The name ‘Chiang Mai’ translates to ‘New City’ as it was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom of Siam (Thailand’s former moniker). Parts of the old city still survive: the crumbling wall surrounding it, the moat built to protect. It is perfect for people looking to still stay within city limits, but for who Bangkok is too much.
If you like food, the old city is of full of little cafes ranging from the niche to run down shacks; 5 star restaurants to some of the best street food you’ll have; open and swish to tucked away behind trees.
There’s something for everyone: Italian, Indian, Indonesian, Sea Food, Thai Food, Noodle shacks, not to mention the enormous Maya Shopping Centre with an entire floor dedicated purely to food. No two are alike. My two favourite spots were Fern Forest Cafe and Tikky Cafe. Complete polar opposites in design but some of the best food I’ve ever had, that includes western food.
Fern Forest, unsurprisingly, is surrounded by trees and ferns. So much so that you can walk past it without realising. Entering through the gates you leave the busy streets behind and step into a little oasis. Outside has a tropical hippy feel whilst inside is like an upmarket tea room complete with piano and jazz music. The food ranges from western (pasta, burgers, pancakes) to Thai, complete with fresh drinks and homemade desserts. It’s pricier than most cafes around (average meal is around 200 Baht) but the food and service was so good I didn’t mind paying.
My other favourite was a little cafe called Tikky Cafe. Quite literally a shack in someone’s front garden that has been extended overtime with business needs, it serves some of the best food I’ve had since being here. The shakes are also incredible; each one is 100% fruit and made fresh there and then. Average meal here can cost around 100 Baht and I’ve revisited multiple times during my stay in Chiang Mai.
But enough about food!
Stay in Chiang Mai and you will not be short of things to do. Muesuems, art galleries, markets, shopping, spas, zoos and mountains are just tastes of what the city holds. But the two things in my opinion not to miss are the Elephant Sanctuaries and Doi Suthep.
Doi Suthep (pron. Doy Sue-Tep) is a mountain 15km from Chiang Mai city on top of which sits the sacred Wat Phra That. Legend says that a piece of the Buddha’s bone was attached to a white elephant who wandered the mountains. The elephant later climbed the mountain, trumpeted three times and died. The place of it’s death is now the site of the temple and resting place of the bone.
Getting to Doi Suthep is easy enough. A red taxi/ Tuk-tuk will take you there for 60BHT each way but will often wait for 9/10 people before departing. If you’re feeling brave you can hire a scooter and drive yourself, but I would caution against this. Thailand’s roads are notoriously dangerous; many people die each year. The mountain roads have sharp bends and turns and drivers have no discretion about speed or correct lane.
Once you’ve arrived at the temple, there are 309 steps to climb and yes, you will feel it. Bring water! Arriving at the top sweaty and out of breath, a sign directs ‘foreigners’ to the office where you pay a 30 Baht entrance fee and a man tears your ticket. Inside you are free to explore and admire. In the centre sits the Wat: beautiful, gold and glimmering. Monks and Thais actively pray so photos are prohibited and silence is enforced.
In the centre is a beautiful open space courtyard adorned with bright pink flowers, which leads onto a balcony offering some of the best views of Chiang Mai you’ll ever see. Take a moment and absorb. If you go at the right time, the monks will ring the bells to prayer and your view will be played to a soundtrack of Buddhist chanting.
From there, you can visit the Wat. Bear in mind respectful dress code is enforced: clothing below the knees, no bare shoulders and shoes off. Other rules are:
- No sitting with your feet facing the Buddha; it’s considered extremely disrespectful. They must be tucked under you or out to the side.
- No photography.
- No talking.
- No standing in the Wat – sitting only.
- Women are not usually permitted to speak to Monks.
Allow yourself to truly observe and appreciate what’s happening around you. I remember walking around feeling completely taken in with the culture, but so many people were preoccupied with taking selfies they were missing it.
Once your eyes have been feasted, head back down the 309 steps to the buzzing market stalls. There is all manner of things on sale so take some time and have a good look around. I caution you against the food however; I saw food sitting out in the sun, uncovered and attracting flies. A recipe for food poisoning.
When you’re ready, head back to your prearranged meeting spot with your driver and thank about what you’re going to order for lunch from the Tikky Cafe.
You cannot enter Chiang Mai without walking with elephants. How many times in your life will you get that opportunity? I knew before I even came to Thailand that it was something I was going to do. I also knew that I would only go to an ethical sanctuary, so researched the best places. About a year ago, I found a company on Instagram who run one of these places. The founder, Lei, was drawn to the suffering of these animals forced into logging and tourism. Unfortunately in Thailand, it is legal to own an elephant. Owners must pay tax to the government but that’s as far as legal rights go. Lek started off rescuing one elephant from street tourism, and now has at least 65 in her care if not more. Not to mention the dogs, cats and birds who call her sanctuaries home. For more information about Lek and what she does, I have posted the link at the end of this post.
After deciding on Lek’s organisation and reading the reviews , I took a trip to their office in Chiang Mai to discuss the options available. The advisor was really great and talked me through all the details of the various trips and I eventually settled on the Karen Experience in the mountains, 1.5 hours drive south of the city.
I was picked up from my hostel at 8.15am where a minibus took us to a mountain village. From there we loaded in the back of a 4×4 and drove the remaining 10 minutes to the village. Outside, untethered were 3 big beauties ranging from 6 years old to 60. Now these elephants are actually owned by the village, not an organisation. They each receive one-on-one care from dedicated carers of the Karen Tribe who have been trained.
The day comprised of breakfast (them not us): an entire basket of bananas each! Then, a walk into the forest so they get some exercise and forage for their own food. After that, we were lead back to the hut where a delicious vegetarian buffet was laid out for us – fresh fruit, egg fried rice, spring rolls, noodles, even french fries, and we all ate overlooking the hillside.
Have you ever bathed in a waterfall with elephants and have a large elephant turd sneakily float past? Me neither until recently. Turns out they don’t sink either. Just stay compact on the surface, bobbing along. After lunch we had taken them to a mud ‘spa’ where you cover them in the natural clay to protect their skin. Everyone gets involved with this and it gets extremely messy. Mud fights ensued, the elephants joined in, it was pure joyful madness. Not one part escapes without being smothered in mud. If the guides don’t do it the elephants will. The elephants loved this. They literally ran towards the spa then 2/3 flopped down with such force a mini tidal wave was generated.
Mud treatment done, it was time for a bath.
On the walk back, the oldest, seeing her chance, grabbed a HUGE pile of Corn Cane from the forest and refused to share with the others. She merrily walked ahead and tucked into her supper back at the village. When I turned around to see her behind us carrying it, there was almost a smile of her face.
It’s funny how an animal can be so huge yet so gentle. They walked their way through the forest without trampling anything so you would hardly know they’d been there. Docile, but still wild – don’t ever forget that. If they want to go somewhere they’ll go, whether you’re in their way or not. They’re like BMW drivers: they don’t stop for anyone. There was one elephant in particular,60 years old, who I swear knew when her picture was being taken because the only pose I could liken it to was John Travolta’s famous Saturday Night Fever. The guides said she was just tired, but I saw that glint in her eye…
The semi-muddy humans, despite bathing in a turd river, were offered showers to clean themselves. For a rural village (and I mean rural – no electricity) their amenities were not bad. The ethical tourism would support them there. Towels were provided and on the way out one of the elders shook all our hands. We climbed back into the 4×4 exhausted, but amazed. We made it home by 5pm.
This is an experience I would encourage EVERYONE to try. But please bear in mind a few things:
- Research carefully. Please make an ethical choice. Who you choose should NOT offer riding, the use of hooks, or multiple trips into rivers each day – it’s not natural for the elephants to be in water that any times in one day. Read reviews and recommendations. Trip advisor is your friend.
- Choose a company that supports local projects and conservation efforts. The Elephant Nature Park does a fantastic job at this and has received accolades from all over the world in recognition of their work. Where they can’t rescue, they educate. With your help, we can move into ethical elephant tourism where both the animals and villages are looked after. I’ll leave more information below.
- Tied into number 1, don’t limit yourself to just what the hostel is offering. Usually they are cheaper than other places because they know travellers are on a budget, but that does not reflect the level of care the elephants receive. Shop around. Make an informed choice. It is ok to pay more if it’s going to a better quality of life for everyone involved.
- When booking, ask them questions such as what’s group limit? (12 is more than enough) Do the elephants have one-on-one care? How many times a day/week do these trips occur? Do the elephants get time off? The answer to these questions should be ethical. If it isn’t, walk away.
In total, I paid 2500 Baht for this day trip. It should have been 6500 but because it was low season there was a sale on. I’d strongly recommend this organisation for the work they do and I had a fantastic time, and if I was to do it again, I’d 100% book through them.
For people interested in the Karen Group: who they are and what they do, click here for more info.
Our Facebook photos of the day can be found here. Scroll down to the ones dated 24/09/2018.
Information about Lek and The Elephant Nature Parks are here.
Tripadvisor reviews can be found here.