As I planned my trip to North Thailand, scouring dozens of lists of Chiang Mai attractions, I was deeply saddened by a finding: several lists included elephant riding as a “top thing to do.”
If travelers only knew how these huge mammals are “broken” for “joyrides…”
Elephants have never gone through a formal domestication process, as dogs and horses have. Instead, they are wild animals that must go through a “breaking” process in order for them to accept a human master, so to speak.
Picture a baby elephant being beaten with a sharp, bull-hook-encrusted club. That’s shortly after being separated from its mother, put in a small cage, and left to starve.
If a puppy were put through similar misery, I’m sure its “master” would be criminally prosecuted. Why would you give your trip savings to a business that makes elephants suffer?
DISCLAIMER: this photo will probably give you nightmares, but will also give you a glimpse into their suffering.
Below, alternative Chiang Mai attractions
What if I told you there are many other fantastic cultural experiences and natural gems, waiting to be discovered in Chiang Mai, that don’t involve animal cruelty?
Opportunities to mingle with locals, while helping furthering their education.
Opportunities to mingle with some of those very elephants, which were rescued by a responsible organization that is now thriving to give them better lives?
Unique Chiang Mai Attractions
Visit the Right Elephant Sanctuary
Be cautious of parks or agencies that claim to be elephant sanctuaries. If they still allow you to ride elephants, they’re not doing their best to protect them.
Why? Their spines are actually frail, not built to withstand the weight of an average human being.
When doing your research, ensure elephants roam freely around the grounds. Bathing and playing with them side-by-side should be okay if they have been rescued or retired from riding (they’ve already been “broken”).
Remember, though: performance of any unnatural “tricks for treats” are red flags.
The most well-known non-profit organization in the area is Save the Elephant Foundation. Founded by Lek Chailert, any funds raised are used to buy elephants from the abusive tourist trade and give them a better home.
Better yet? Travelers are encouraged to visit their Elephant Nature Park. There, visitors are able to interact with these beautiful creatures in a natural, safe environment. Win-win for everyone!
Try Northern Thailand’s Cuisine
Whether you book a cooking class, join an Old Town foodie crawl or simply visit one of Chiang Mai’s night markets, you have to try Northern Thai cuisine. I was introduced to the region’s delicacies by Chiang Mai Food Tours and have to say, it is my favorite type of Thai food!
Also known as Lanna food, regional dishes on this part of Thailand are quite a contrast from those found in the South.
Not only are dishes around Chiang Mai typically the least spicy in the country, but also commonly rich in dried spices and/or bitterness.
Don’t be wary, though: Thais have an incredible ability to pair seemingly-off-putting flavors in order to create a delicious, aromatic concoction.
Some must-tries include:
- khao soi, a rich Burmese-influenced coconut curry soup, sprinkled with crunchy noodles
- fried laab, minced meat rubbed with local dried spices
- sticky rice with nam prik ong (spicy minced pork tomato dip)
- nam ngiao, a tangy tomato noodle soup with pork
Chat with Monks or Meditate at Wat Suan Dok
Wat Suan Dok is another one of my favorite Chiang Mai attractions. Not only is its 14th-century architecture beautifully unique, but members of the late Lanna Royal family are buried around the temple.
Better yet? The grounds serve as a monk university, holding daily monk chats and weekly meditation retreats–all open to the general public.
What could be more unique than hearing about North Thailand’s culture and religion firsthand from a young monk, all he gets to practice his English with you?!
Monk chats take place Monday through Friday, 5-7 PM; while meditation retreats start every Tuesday at 1 PM and conclude Wednesday by 3 PM.
Visit MonkChat.net for more details, up-to-date schedules, and other special events.
Extra tip: other popular Chiang Mai temples (i.e. Wat Chedi Luang, Doi Suthep, Wat Umong) also offer monk chats, so feel free to visit them all for different perspectives!
See Chiang Mai From Above
Before you leave this magical region of Thailand, rise with the sun one morning and see Chiang Mai, Mae Kueng Dam, and vicinity from a different perspective.
Sky Adventures offers two types of aerial experiences: micro flights and hot air balloon rides. I took part of the former and let me tell you: it was absolutely breathtaking and exhilarating!
It is so open, you almost feel like you’re flying yourself.
Pickup times and trip schedules vary by experience and season, but expect to be ready by 5:45-6:30 AM.
While micro flights can be booked all year long (always dependent on weather conditions), hot air balloon rides are only offered between November and March.
Overnight Trip to Chiang Rai
Whether you think you’ve gotten a good feel of Chiang Mai or can’t simply resist the idea of visiting a white temple, an overnight trip to Chiang Rai is another great option.
One of the highlights of North Thailand, the Wat Rong Khun we see today is actually the product of a late 20th-century renovation, which morphed the original temple into a privately-owned art exhibit.
It was fully rebuilt, decorated, and funded by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat in the late 20th century.
Other top attractions in the area include:
- Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
- Baan Si Dum, also known as Black House
- Tad Kwan Village Park & Waterfall
Extra tip: don’t plan to visit Chiang Rai unless you can spend a full night there. While many companies offer jam-packed, 12-hour “day tours,” you’ll feel too rushed. Worst yet, your experiences will be too diluted.
If your stay is short, I highly recommend you taste every delicious bite, smell every seducing aroma, visit every exotic site Chiang Mai itself has to offer.
Don’t be afraid of “missing out.”
If anything “slips through the cracks,” you’ll just have more reasons to come back.
Trust me: you will want to anyway.
Have you been to Chiang Mai? Which are your favorite spots?
Maria Alexandra Laborde is a twenty-something thrill junkie that has lived, studied and traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean, Middle East, and North Africa. Through tales and snapshots, she shares her knowledge and love for the Arab world on her niche blog Travel The Middle East. Additionally, Maria is the author of LatinAbroad: The Nomadic Translator, where she shares her struggles, inspiration, and advice after traveling solo to more than 20 countries across 4 continents. Follow her adventures on Twitter @latinAbroad, ‘Like’ her Facebook page & ‘Pin’ her on Pinterest.