Going to Chiang Mai was a lot like meeting my future best friend. I couldn’t quite place what it was, but I knew I was going to get along just fine with Chiang Mai. After the Beaches of Southern Thailand and the hustle of Bangkok; rolling into Chiang Mai after a 12 hour night bus was refreshing and calming.
Someone I know once said, “Life in Chiang Mai is just… easy.” With a laid back atmosphere, fun-loving people and all the benefits of a hippy culture; that proved to be very true.
Jess and I stayed at a hostel and rented scooters during our stay in Chiang Mai. Now, I don’t say “rented scooters” casually … A few years ago I managed to slam a scooter into the back of a horse trailer (in the middle of a parade … I might add). Ever since then I just haven’t been able to ride those 2-wheeled power-machines with the same confidence. And so, after years of being a scooter-phobe I crawled back on one in Chiang Mai and was determined to learn what 12 year old girls seemed to make look easy.
Like many things, it took “just getting back in the saddle.” After a few minutes of tentative experimenting I realized it wasn’t so bad. Jess and I zipped all over Chiang Mai and rode up to one of the coolest waterfalls I have ever seen. The waterfall is called the Montha Than Waterfall and If you’re ever in the area I highly recommend checking it out. (FYI: At the base of the waterfall you have to park and there is a small, but very steep 5 minute hike to get up to the main attraction.)
After you check out the waterfall, continue up the mountain to see the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (known as Doi Suthep Temple). Jess and I didn’t have time to go to the top, but it came highly recommended and the view is suppose to be incredible.
After the waterfall journey I had gained a newfound confidence in scooter driving and we pulled into our hostel like full blown Hell’s Angels … all 50cc’s purring in the parking lot. We started chatting to some fellow travelers and before long a trip to a Lady Boy show was in the works.
I didn’t know anything about Lady Boy shows until Thailand. I thought they were circus acts of sorts; aimed towards the seedier sides of society… that is far from the truth though! There are tons of Lady Boys across Thailand and that’s for a reason … they are accepted there. Don’t think of Lady Boys as novelties to be gawked at and laughed at in Thailand. They are regular people and they are in Thailand because people treat them well there.
That said, go to a Lady Boy show if you can! The one we saw was totally worth it! … it was even free at one of the local bars. The show was tastefully done and I couldn’t help but laugh, smile, and enjoy the show as much as everyone else! It wasn’t awkward and it didn’t feel like a freak show or anything. I highly recommend experiencing one on your next trip to Thailand.
Aside from the Lady Boy Show there was one other highlight in Chiang Mai … Elephants! Elephant are huge across all parts of Thailand, but it seems like the place to really get a good elephant experience is in Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai specifically, has a good reputation for treating their elephants with respect and civility and aims more at sustainability than profit margins.
PLEASE, do your homework and support a good elephant company! There are tons of them out there and the good ones are worth supporting. Elephants are amazing animals and they draw a sustainable tourism stream. With that kind of business potential though, there are lots of companies out there who get there hands on any elephant they can find and then run them for long hours, in hot weather, and with massive wooden harnesses on their backs.
I’m not trying to discourage riding elephants …. You should ride one if you get the chance! Baby elephants are ridiculously cute and the grown ups are shockingly sensitive, fun-loving and intelligent animals … it will be the highlight of your trip to Thailand!
Here are a couple tips on how to make sure your elephant excursion is a good one:
1. NO saddles! Elephants (and you) are perfectly capable of riding bareback. The big wooden saddles that they strap on the elephant’s backs aren’t breaking their backs or anything … but after 12 hours with it on, it definitely gets heavy, uncomfortable, and aggravating for the elephants. There’s no need for them … if you can’t ride on an elephant’s back, I don’t see how putting them through a long and miserable day with a saddle is a viable option.
2. There are TONS of companies who provide elephant rides. Get a handful of brochures and read through them. If it doesn’t say something about “humane treatment,” “no saddles,” “elephant sustainability,” etc. Don’t book with them! Everyone in Thailand who isn’t concerned about elephant health, sustainability, and treatment shouldn’t be in the business. YOU can make a difference by not giving the bad companies your money.
3. Do a quick Google search on the company you have picked. Read the reviews and try to get a feel for what people think. Many companies use a long sharp spear-kinda-thing to keep their elephants in line. ONLINE REVIEWS will mention things like that. Seeing an elephant get stabbed with a freakin harpoon is a quick way to ruin your day and the elephant’s.
Okay, without getting too sad about the treatment of elephants in Thailand, here is a video of what it looks like from the top of an elephant! Jess and I had a great time and our elephants were very well taken care of. The company we went with was Woody’s and they took great strides to ensure that the trek was about learning and caring for elephants, rather than just riding one and forgetting about it.
Cheers and Happy Travels!