Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai, famous for its elephants and temples, had been on our ‘must visit at some point soon’ list for a while, but we’ve always been put off by the limited and anti-social flight times. However, I am pleased to say setting our alarms for 4am to make the 6.55am AirAsia flight from KLIA was well worth it.
Chiang Mai Elephant Friends – ethical elephant tours
Once we landed from the 3-hour flight we were picked up at the airport, by a reasonably priced taxi, arranged by the place we were staying at, for the 1-hour trip to Chiang Mai Elephant Friends. Check in was 2pm but they let us get into a room at 12 noon, which always makes me warm to a place more, especially when I have been awake since 4am.
After lunch in its onsite café, they arranged for us to take a bamboo raft down the river that runs by the chalets. Be prepared to get a bit wet and have some fun. Life jackets are provided for those that need them and if your children are young enough, they will let four of you fit on a raft. The day was rounded off nicely with dinner in the onsite restaurant with a great view of the valley and the family favourite of mango and sticky rice.
The highlight of the trip was the ‘Wake up with the elephants’ experience we had prebooked. We were given a huge bag of baby bananas to feed to a mother and baby elephant that came to our chalet first thing in the morning.
Despite there being four of us we struggled to keep up with the demand from the majestic mammals! The elephant guides will capture the experience for you on camera if you ask, although it is not something the big kids (that’s me and my husband) and our actual children will forget in a hurry. The cost for the early morning visit was nearly MYR 200, the charge is a flat rate per room, and is almost as much as the overnight stay. But I can’t think of a more memorable wake up call so we all agreed it was worth every ringgit.
The elephants at the resort have been rescued and to help with their upkeep you can chose to pay extra for special experiences with them, like the breakfast feeding or bathing them in the river. I am pleased to say that they don’t offer elephant rides. You can also just visit the resort for a day and not stay overnight, but we were glad we did.
In the heart of Chiang Mai
Next stop was a 1-night stay in the family suite, at well located and decorated, LANNA ORIENTAL HOTEL. Based at the heart of the action, we spent the afternoon exploring the streets on foot and walking past some impressive temples and tempting cafes, before hopping in one of the many traditional Thai tuk-tuks back to the hotel.
For our evening entertainment we discovered LINK Cuisine, a hidden gem, serving Thai and Western food in a lovely lantern lit courtyard. This was followed by a stroll to the Sunday night market on Walking Street, that runs from 4pm to midnight. When we went at around 7pm it was bustling with tourists and had the usual items that you find in Thai markets like bamboo bowls, elephant adorned trousers and street food to tempt the tastebuds. If I had my time there again, I may have left my husband and son back at the hotel playing our new favourite card game of Exploding Kittens. They walked through the market in record breaking time whilst me and my daughter were trying to walk at a less breakneck speed and look at the handmade crafts.
Pies and more
As we visited in October during the rainy season, the weather was slightly cooler and you have to be prepared to either wear a raincoat or find some indoor activities to while away the hours.
We used it as an excuse to taste the famous mango cream pie, and not so famous coconut and strawberry pies, at the charming Charin Pie. The icing on the cake for me at this café was the fact they can personalise your coffee for free with any photo you want, if you give it to them when ordering. I probably spent longer trying to choose which photo to have, than I did drinking my coffee.
The final stop on our trip was a visit to the Central Chiangmai Airport Mall, which is 5-minutes from the airport and has a luggage station that you can drop your cases off while you go and pick up some last-minute souvenirs or a bite to eat at its food court. It does offer a free shuttle bus to the airport, but the driver was having a leisurely lunch break when we needed it, so we just grabbed a tuk-tuk for our much more conveniently timed late afternoon flight home.
As I look back on our weekend, our time with the elephants was definitely the best part. As the saying goes, elephants never forget and I am not sure what scientific evidence this is based on, but I do know for a fact that our weekend in Chiang Mai was one to remember.
If you’re looking for another option for responsible elephant tourism in Chiang Mai, read our article here.
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