So much catching up to do! My MacBook crashed, leaving me with a $600 repair bill so blogging has been a bit of a challenge…
It has been almost 2 months since I said goodbye to my family in the Bali airport. I spent the first month in Chiang Mai completing a TESOL course through XploreAsia. Afterwards, I moved to Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat for short), where I am currently a Kindergarten TESOL teacher. Korat is a large city 4 hours northeast of Bangkok and the 3rd largest city in Thailand. It’s no Chiang Mai (I loved CM), but it has everything you need and then some (the mall has a 4D movie theatre, ice rink, and water park out of all things).
I have nothing but great things to say about the month I spent in Chiang Mai. Nestled in northern Thailand and surrounded by jungle and mountains, Chiang Mai is a popular backpacker destination. The city is home to over 400,000 people and is always welcoming tourists. Streets are congested with motorbikes, tuks tuks, and songtaews which can make crossing the road daunting at times, however, unlike other large Thai cities, Chiang Mai has managed to retain a semi-authentic Thai feel. CM is no Bangkok.
Not to mention, the food is phenomenal and the options are endless: American, Indian, Burmese, Mexican, and of course Thai street food (try the Khao Soi- a northern soup/noodle dish or roti (fried bread) with banana and nutella). Cafes are also popular. They line the streets and many offer wifi making them a popular spot to relax and work.
My biggest piece of advice when visiting Chiang Mai? Get lost! Roam the tiny alleyways. You’ll likely stumble across hidden temples and tasty mom and pop cafes. Stop and take a moment to examine the colorful and quirky graffiti decorating the city walls. Some pieces are rather bizzare, making you wonder about the artist and the inspiration.
Apart from exploring, there are a number of different things to do in the city center. On top of the list is shopping. Stop at the Night Bazaar (every night market) and take a look at the charcoal drawings. I bought two beautiful pieces for ~$30/each from an artist named Tanakorn (his shop is hidden in the back of a warehouse). Eat some Thai ice cream. Watch a live band. Go to a ladyboy show (it’s an experience). Expand your culinary palate! (I fell in love with iced butterfly pea tea). Last but not least, on Sunday night, make sure to head to the Sunday Night Market. Get there early and bring with some patience because the streets are always packed!
Another popular spot in the city for tourists (especially on the weekends) is Yellow Bar or Zoe’s. On Friday and Saturday night the bar is flooded with farangs (foreigners) and expats blowing off steam. Imagine a college frat party and you’ve got Yellow Bar; fun for a night, but I wouldn’t make it an every weekend thing.
There are also a number of things to do outside the city. Explore Doi Inthanon (highest mountain in Thailand) or Doi Suthep (famous wat), learn about rice farming, meditate with a monk, visit the Bua Tong Sticky waterfalls (you can hike up them due to a rare mineral deposit that allows you to grip the rocks), hike through the jungle, visit a traditional Karin village, or my all-time favorite: hangout with elephants!
My favorite activity in Chiang Mai? Without a doubt the elephant tour I did with the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. I chose the sanctuary for a number of reasons. Not only are they an ethical no-riding company but they offer a unique jungle trek option. If you have the time (and money), I highly recommend the full day trekking tour. The day includes feeding, mud bathing, and washing the elephants in a nearby river as well as trekking (with them) through the jungle.
That being said, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to toss away your bucket list dream of riding an elephant and instead booking a tour with a no-riding company. The reasons for doing so are endless. Elephants are (literally) not made to be ridden. Their backs cannot sustain the weight for long periods of time and howdah chairs are even worse than riding bare back.
Even worse than riding the elephants is their treatment during the “pre-riding” or “training” phase. Elephants are highly intelligent creatures and can be very stubborn. As a result, trainers must break their spirit to force submission and make them “rideable”. They are often beaten with clubs, pierced with sharp bull-hooks, and simultaneously starved and sleep deprived. Many rescued elephants have battle scars as reminders of their tragic pasts.
My biggest piece of advice when looking for an elephant tour? Chose a company that does not offer riding even if you do not intend to ride them. Your money will still be funding a business that promotes elephant exploitation.
The most famous and respected company in Chiang Mai is the Elephant Nature Park which is home to dozens of rescued elephants. Many friends from my TESOL course chose the full day tour and absolutely loved it. Not only did they feed and bathe the elephants but they got to learn about each elephant’s rescue story.
The company I chose (Elephant Jungle Sanctuary) is another ethical elephant tourism company. It is newer, but it’s reputation is growing.
My time with the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was more than I could have ever imagined, however, there are two things I would like to mention as I’m not sure how to perceive them. During the trek, the guides used a stick to hit the elephants to keep them moving and to redirect them. The strikes weren’t hard (or often) but nonetheless, I didn’t want to force them to walk if they didn’t want to!
The other instance was at one of the camps where we met a two-week-old baby elephant and her mother. The mom was chained up and swaying back and forth (a clear sign of agitation or boredom) while the baby stuck to her side, hiding underneath her belly and in between her legs. When I asked the guide the reason for the chains his response was curt, “To protect the baby.” What I understood from our broken English conversation was that they feared for the baby’s health if mom were to roam freely. The chains ensure the baby will get fed and the plan was to keep her chained for 2 months. I am not an elephant expert but this reasoning didn’t make much sense to me (baby elephants in the wild do just fine – how is this any different?)
(That being said) Overall, I loved my experience at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and would highly recommend booking a tour with them. While I would have liked to learn each elephant’s story (bonus if you book with Elephant Nature Park), the experience was a fantastic ethical alternative to elephant riding.