Do: On my final full day in Chiang Mai, I had planned to go to an elephant sanctuary. This ended up being reversed because I wanted to do the elephant tour before my sak yant (I’ll explain why later.) I did my research and chose a company that was ethical and had good reviews: Elephant Sanctuary Chiang Mai. The elephants here are rescued from former lives where they were mistreated (such as logging where they were forced to carry logs, work in circuses, or provide rides for people all day long.) I opted to do the half day tour, but they offer full days, and you can even volunteer overnight or for weeks at a time. The cost of the half day tour was 1700 baht, and it was honestly the best $55 I ever spent. The company will pick you up if you’re staying in Chiang Mai’s old city, and from there it’s about an hour and a half’s ride to the sanctuary, with a stop for a bathroom break and to buy snacks along the way. It’s highway driving at first, but as you get closer to the sanctuary, you drive up winding mountain roads. I highly recommend taking non-drowsy Dramamine if you’re prone to car sickness. The location of the sanctuary is also home to a Karen tribe village, which was a great experience to interact with the people.I thought we’d be picked up in a mini van, but it was a truck with a flat bed. There really are no rules to driving in Thailand. Ride in a flat bed, sure. Make a u-turn in the middle of a busy road, drive down a one way, why not? I had a taxi driver say “never mind” when I went to reach for the non-existent seatbelt.Fortunately, my guide, a Karen himself, let me sit up front in the air conditioned cab (with a seat belt!) I enjoyed talking to him because he told me a lot about his people. He said his parents don’t speak Thai, they have their own language. The Thais I’ve interacted with (outside the airport that is), are such kind, generous people. He offered me sticky rice cakes and fresh fruit and water.The rest stop where I bought coconut water for 40 baht ($1.28.)
The drive up the mountains was beautiful. I loved being able to see the Karen village and people in traditional clothing.What was even more stunning was my first glimpse of the elephants! When we first arrived, we all changed into traditional Karen shirts and listened to another guide explain the itinerary and rules. We then went around giving our names and where we were from. There were about 30 of us (don’t worry, there were only about 8-10 people per truck) from all over the world. A few other Americans, a lot of Koreans, some Canadians, and the rest Western Europeans (from the UK, France, Italy, and Germany.)We started by feeding the elephants bananas. You can pet them too, their skin was very rough!I always liked elephants and knew they were smart, but when you interact with them you really become aware of it. They have very expressive eyes, and seem to really understand. Elephants are known to be altruistic and even bury their dead, like us. On a side note, pigs are also very intelligent, which is why I don’t eat pork. You wouldn’t eat your dog or want him to carry logs or give rides all day, would you?The land the sanctuary is on was beautiful and lush.Next up, the elephants were given mud baths which they really seemed to enjoy. They were rolling around in the mud squealing with delight, it almost looked like they were smiling! I unfortunately couldn’t participate in this because I just got my sak yant tattoo the day before, and didn’t want to risk infection. It was still a sight to behold!Finally, at the end the day, we had a meal in the Karen village, which I actually enjoyed because it was vegetarian (no gross bug shrimp!) I bought souvenirs here because I’d rather support the sanctuary and the Karen people, and they brought out a cute baby elephant with its mother who loved playing and chasing people around.
By the time it was all over I was exhausted, but this was the experience of a life time. Yes, people are brought here on tours day after day, but the elephants’ needs (feeding and cleaning) are being met, and they seemed to be truly happy. If you come to Thailand and aren’t into the idea of getting a traditional tattoo with a metal rod, the elephant sanctuary is a “must do” to see how amazing and gentle these creatures are up close.
Stay: I usually don’t like posting where I’m staying until I check out, but I definitely recommend Lee Chiang Chiang Mai (3 stars, $146 for 3 nights!) 3 and 4 star hotels are really cheap in Thailand. The staff is extremely nice and helpful, and the male owner and female receptionists go out of their way to make you feel at home and assist you, they’re very personable. There is no elevator in this hotel, but 2 women carried my bag up 3 flights of stairs when I checked in. They offer free breakfast, and I even got my laundry done for the week for 75 baht ($2.40.) It was washed, dried, folded, and when I picked it up it was still warm. Maid service every day was good, and the room was very clean. It was by far the best service I received at any of the hotels I stayed at in Thailand, and they were all good stays. WiFi was also probably the best here out of the 3, it was fast and didn’t cut out at all.The hotel is located in Chiang Mai’s old town. It felt safe because there was cameras in the hallways and a safe in the room. It’s down a residential street which was also nice because it was quiet, and you get a look into the daily lives of the locals. It’s walking distance to all the major businesses and Sunday market (about 5-10 minutes), and a 10-15 minute drive to the airport.Thai and Western breakfast options at Lee Chiang.
By the time I got back to my hotel after the elephant tour I just passed out. I had an early flight back to Bangkok the next morning, and was sad to leave Chiang Mai. I would definitely come back, the people are all nice and it’s not as overwhelming as Bangkok. Definitely put it on your bucket list and don’t forget to tip the hotel staff and guides when they go out of their way, it was never expected but all were very grateful.Sunset view from my hotel room.