Several people told us we couldn’t miss Chiang Mai in the north of the country, supposedly very different to Bangkok, with far less tourists and close to wildlife sanctuaries. So, eager to see elephants we decided to include the city in our 2014 trip to Asia. Maybe disappointed is a bit of an exaggeration. Don’t get me wrong, I still think the place is nice, but you should pay special attention on how and with whom you organize any wildlife tour.
Let’s start from the beginning. Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Nowadays the most important city in Northern Thailand, it is a great starting point to explore some of the highest mountains in the country. The Old City inside the city walls is home to some astonishing Buddhist temples. It has a very special, relaxed atmosphere, only interrupted by colorful markets. The night markets are pretty famous and totally tourist oriented. You will enjoy a more authentic experience hanging out with the locals at the Sunday market.
Other than checking out several important temples there isn’t much to do within the walls. So be sure to get out of the Old Town and head up to the periphery. Don’t forget to check out the famous Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep on the hill overlooking the city. Somehow pale when compared to the other temples, but in a privileged spot. The best thing to do in Chiang Mai is to hire a bicycle and ride along the Ping River to intake laidback rural Thailand.
Now with the bad news, the most unpleasant part of our trip was an excursion to see elephants. We checked several agencies and insisted on not seeing any circus or mistreated animals. We were told that no, we would go to a sanctuary, and consequently were charged extra. It was all a lie! We were dragged amongst hordes of tourists to watch elephants play football, dance and do several ridiculous acts, some of them even chained and occasionally beaten with a metal stick. The poor stressed creatures were obviously not comfortable but the audience didn’t seem to care. They laughed, took pictures and practically supporting animal abuse.
We were in shock, thinking if this kind of torture happens all over Thailand. The whole thing basically exists thanks to us ignorant tourists whose only goal is to have fun no matter what. Is it really necessary to make animals look and act as humans? Did we come to the point of not knowing how to have fun on our own? Perhaps we disconnected with nature so bad that we don’t really care about animals and plants.
I did not participate in the circus show; neither did I encourage elephants to impress the audience. I did, though, ride one around the river and I sincerely regret it. At the time, I did not understand that indirectly I was supporting the whole thing. It was enough just to put myself into the elephant’s position and I felt awful. They, just like us, are living creatures with emotions and feelings. I am sure I won’t do it again. (E wants to mention that he did not take the ride on the elephant nor laughed or applauded anything, he told me the whole thing was disgusting but I didn’t listen and now I apologize).
Supposedly there are real elephant sanctuaries in Northern Thailand, with no performances included, where you can feed or bathe them if you want. Get informed well before paying a visit. In the meantime Chiang Mai is a nice destination on itself and the surrounding mountains are gorgeous. The locals are very friendly, the food delicious and it’s reasonably cheap.
Happy Frog Travels recommends staying at Lanna Dusita Boutique Resort