There is much to do in Northern Thailand—national parks, temples, animal sanctuaries. It can be a little hard getting out of the city to some of the attractions, but it is well worth it.
One thing I knew I wanted to do when visiting Thailand was visit an elephant sanctuary. I knew many people who had, and I couldn’t wait for a chance to be so close to elephants. I did a lot of extensive research before choosing one to visit, as you should too: how do they treat the animals? How many people can go there? Is there riding? Are they caged? I found many lists of ethical places to visit and most of them contained the one I ended up choosing: Elephant Nature Park.
Elephant Nature Park houses maybe 70-something elephants who were rescued from either the logging industry or from circuses or street shows (as well as hundreds of rescued dogs and cats who are VERY friendly!) Here’s my PSA on elephants: You should NEVER as a tourist support animal exploitation, and this includes elephant rides, elephant paintings, being able to pet tigers, etc. Cruel practices are used to train them and they are abused for not complying with their training. Elephants are not meant to give rides and paint pictures. You also have to watch out for fake sanctuaries. Since eco-tourism has become popular, some people will hurt elephants for the sake of the “sanctuary” to make money.
If you choose the full day tour like we did, you get picked up around 8 am and drive to the park, on the way viewing a very upsetting video about elephant treatment. Upon arrival you wait your turn until an elephant is ready to be fed. Followed by their mahouts, elephants wander over to a visitor platform from which you can feed them fruits and vegetables. You place the item into the elephant’s trunk and they scoop it right up!
After that you leave the platform area and walk around the park, following elephants around. When they are in the middle of eating and thus standing still, you’re allowed to pet them or take a photo with them. Other than that, you watch and follow at a distance.
Following a buffet, vegetarian lunch, you get to wash the elephants in the river. As the elephants eat fruit out of basket, you can basically throw water on them to help cool them down before they slather themselves as protection from the sun and bugs.
I highly recommend going to Elephant Nature Park, not just for the experience of being around the animals, but for learning about their plight in Asia and what you can do to help. My only qualm about this place was the sheer number of visitors—there were maybe 100 people there when we were—and the fact that some of the guides let certain things like hugging the elephants’ trunks slide. We made sure to ask a lot of questions, especially about the facilities and what the mahouts were saying when they gave commands to the animals.
We didn’t have time to visit some of the national parks outside of Chiang Mai but we did get to go up the mountain to visit more temples (temples everywhere!) The owner of our guesthouse had one of his friends drive us up the mountain to probably the most popular temple, Doi Suthep.
Doi Suthep was apparently created when a Lanna king sent an elephant out with some relics for a future temple and the elephant died on the top of the mountain, thus marking the spot for the temple.
The best reason to climb all the way up there is really for the view. On the sides of the temple are viewing platforms where you can see out over the whole city and the surrounding mountains.
The best part of this mountain, is actually the temple in the middle of it.
Halfway down, our guide? driver? stopped at a lesser known temple, Wat Pha Lat.
I don’t know how old this temple is, but it looks like something out of Indiana Jones.
We loved the intricate rock carvings, grottos, and best of all, the waterfall.
Wade into the shallow pool and sit on some rocks to look over the falls at another gorgeous view of Chiang Mai.
Definitely the jungle’s best-kept secret!