The Ultimate Chiang Mai Guide: Elephants, Monks and Pad Thai
Be prepared to fall in love with one the worlds most incredible creatures and immerse yourself in Buddhism while visiting Chiang Mai. And if you’re lucky, you might get the feeling that you never want to leave.
After an eventful week of island hopping, it was time to get back to the mainland of Thailand, but a little more north this time around. We flew into Chiang Mai from Krabi after a long drive from Koh Lanta, a neighbouring island. Arriving in the dark, we didn’t quite know what to expect.
We took our very first tuk tuk ride to our accommodation and quickly realized that although this form of transportation is a must do once or twice while in Thailand, it’s definitely not the most comfortable or cost efficient. Tuk tuk cars are open air and the drivers will end up ripping you off more than a meter taxi. But again, it’s a must do bucket list item while you’re in Thailand.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
After a restless night in our homestay, we woke up bright and early to be picked up for our journey to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary—one of few ethical elephant sanctuaries located near Chiang Mai where tourists can have interactions with elephants without actually riding them.
If you’re an animal activist or well versed in the issue, you’ll know that Thailand has had a long and conflicting relationship with elephant tourism for many years now. In the past, elephants have been treated very poorly just for the sake of making money off tourists. And of course, an elephant won’t behave the way you want it to unless it is “taught” how to take stern commands through training from what they call a “mahout”, or elephant trainer.
A new leaf has started to turn, however, and many companies and organizations involved in this industry have began to take a stand for the immortal way these amazing animals have and are still being treated by tourism companies. Sanctuaries like Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Jungle Sanctuary are the most well known sanctuaries in Chiang Mai.—both companies do not let visitors ride their elephants. Instead, they are now rescuing elephants who have fallen victims to the atrocities of the industry and are teaching tourists the importance of ethical elephant tourism.
Our day at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary started with a 2.5 hour drive outside of Chiang Mai and involved a massive ascend up dirt roads in a 4×4 open air truck. Not going to lie, we were surprised by the open air truck that picked us up. We were expecting more of a minibus style vehicle with air conditioning and doors. Instead, we were greeted with a flat bed truck that had built in bench seating and overhead canopy. In other words, don’t expect the journey there to be exceptionally comfortable. But hey, it’s Asia. Anything goes!
Once we arrived at the sanctuary, we were given a safety and information briefing before we ventured into the forest to visit with and feed two of their elephants. Afterward, we were given the opportunity to swim in a waterfall near the sanctuary before heading back for lunch. Lunch was simple and for vegetarians it was even simpler. The only option was stir fried mixed vegetables, rice, and watermelon on the side. Tasty, but I was expecting a bit more for the $95 CAD price tag.
In the afternoon we spent time in the river with the elephants, bathing them and giving them a mud bath to cool off.
The day ended with some complementary tea and coffee before we commenced the long, dusty drive back to the city.
Side note: If you can, I would choose Elephant Nature Park over Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, simply because it is hands down the most ethical sanctuary in Chaing Mai (one of the owners is Canadian. Both sanctuaries are expensive, yes, but the cost of the visit will be well worth it and if you don’t want to pay this price, then you should not be visiting elephants at all while in Chaing Mai. Ignorance is one thing, but once you know truth about this industry, it is quite sad to choose to buy into it and support it anyway.
Travel tip: Book your elephant sanctuary visit well in advance because spots book up quickly!
Chiang Mai is quite a neat city. The old town is actually shaped like a large square and is surrounded by a moat on every side. Everything within the old town square is very walkable, so there’s no need to take a tuk tuk unless your feet get restless at the end of the day.
Chiang Mai is a haven for vegetarian and vegan food, as well as every other kind of ethnic food you could ever imagine or crave—all within walking distance. What’s even better is that there are restaurants to fit all budget types. In other words, we had a huge choice of affordable, yet delicious vegetarian restaurants and we had a hard time choosing where to go! With a little bit of research on Trip Advisor we were able to find exactly what we wanted.
Morning Glory Cafe:
We stumbled upon this cafe on our last day and only wish we could have gone back a few more times at least. All of their dishes are vegan and everything we ate was packed with flavour. All dishes are 60 baht. I cannot recommend this place enough. If you’re looking for a cooking class while in Chiang Mai, Morning Glory is a great choice, especially if you’re vegan. Approximately 1,000 baht will get you a full day of cooking and tasting numerous Thai dishes and the experience will be much more personal than other cooking classes in the city.
Taste From Heaven:
This is another vegetarian/vegan restaurant that offers both western food (burgers and falafel) and authentic Thai food. Prices range from 75-110 baht, but the quality is sure to impress.
If you want cheap, this place is exactly that. It’s decent Thai food for 40 baht a plate. That being said, the portions are small. Order a meal and shake combo for 65 baht.
Khun Kae’s Juice Bar:
This smoothie and juice bar one ups every other “shake” or smoothie we had on our trip. Skip the ice filled shakes and head here for a more authentic smoothie loaded with fresh fruit (mixing fruit costs the same!), spirulina, avocado, coconut milk and banana. A basic smoothie will cost you 40 baht (with a few different fruits) and a smoothie with special ingredients like spirulina will cost 50 baht. They have free wifi and the tables and decor are beyond cute.
Night Bazaar Food Court:
The organized chaos of this market food court will blow you away. There are a variety of ethnic cuisines to choose from (Indian, Thai, western, etc.), all at a reasonable to cheap price. We found a massive vegetarian pad Thai for only 50 baht (you have to ask for it cheaper if you don’t want egg/meat/fish sauce). They also sell Chang by the bottle (large: 95 baht, draught: 60 baht, can: 60 baht) if you’re craving a beer, and fresh fruit smoothies at select stands.
Chiang Mai Gate Market:
This is THE spot for street food if you want to experience the real Chiang Mai (on a budget). Do yourself a favour and visit Pa’s Smoothies across from the 7-eleven. Open nightly.
This laid back cafe is perfect if you have a craving for cheap and delicious falafel wraps (I know we did).
Coconut Shell is a vegetarian restaurant that offers inexpensive curries, rice dishes and other classic Thai meals for around 50 baht. Add rice for 10 baht.
Culture and Buddhism:
Other than eating your heart out, cooking and spending time with elephants, Chiang Mai is a fabulous spot for soaking in culture and learning more about Buddhism, which is heavily prevalent in the city.
There are too many temples in the city square to count on two hands and beyond the city you can venture to even grander temples such as Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (located on a mountain top), Wat Suan Dorg, Wat Chedi Liam, and Wat Ched Yot. Always remember to dress appropriately for temples (covered knees, shoulders, and torso) and be respectful once inside as well.
The last two things I can recommend doing while in Chiang Mai is to either visit a temple that offers a “Monk Chat” or attend a single day meditation course.
During Monk Chat, you have the opportunity to sit one on one with a monk to learn about Buddhism while you share knowledge about your own culture as well. The advantage of this program is that it allow tourists to learn about the life of a monk while also allowing the monk to practice their English. This is truly an enriching experience and will give you a newfound appreciation for Buddhism.