When in Chiang Mai, a day at the Elephant Nature Park is an exciting and unforgettable eco-tour for animal lovers. Elephant Nature Park is a rescue and rehabilitation center for abused, elderly, and injured Asian Elephants. What began as a personal quest for Sangduen “Lek” Chailert in 1992 has blossomed into one the world’s most respected elephant sanctuaries. Lek and her team of caretakers, vets, groundskeepers, and volunteers are devoted to ensuring that each rescue elephant lives out the rest of its life in peace and health at the Elephant Nature Park. The herd, currently made up of 30 members, is free to wander the park, bathe and feed at their leisure, as well as interact with park guests.
Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai provides the rare opportunity to come eye-to-eye with some of nature’s most impressive predators, tigers! Tiger Kingdom is a short half-hour drive from Chiang Mai’s city center to the town of Mae Rim. The center allows guests to interact with tigers of all ages and sizes (from three months to adults). All the tigers that live here were born in captivity. They are fed twice daily and spend the day playing with their keepers and amongst themselves.
Bo Sang Umbrella Village
Just a 30-minute drive east of Chiang Mai town is Bo Sang, a viilage that specializes in handmade bamboo parasols, or umbrellas. The “Umbrella Village,” as it is nicknamed, gives visitors the opportunity to see the entire process and purchase whatever designs they like. It is free to watch while the local women cut, sand, arrange, and paint these colorful parasols.
Chiang Rai White Temple
Wat Rong Khun, or the “White Temple,” is a visually striking, ornate Buddhist temple located a 20-minute drive south of Chiang Rai. Conceptualized and built by Thai artist, Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, the White Temple has become a highlight on many Thailand itineraries. The White Temple’s design does not match the traditional styles of other Buddhist temples throughout Thailand, and that was the artist’s intention. Chalermchai has created a surreal representation of what he sees are obstacles to the path of enlightenment.
Long Neck Hill Tribe Villages
The hill tribe villages of Thailand are known for their colorful dress, handmade crafts, and unique customs. The hill tribes that live in the outskirts of Chiang Rai include the Akha, Lahu, Palong, Lu Mien Yao, and the Karen “Long Neck” people. You can see them all in one place a short drive away from Chiang Rai’s city center.
Visiting the hill tribes can be an awkward experience for many, including myself. You are essentially paying to walk around and take pictures of strangers. Each village will try to sell you their crafts, and although there is no obligation to buy, you will probably feel pressured. It was a strange, exotic, and unique experience but it may not be for everyone.
The Golden Triangle Park is an area about 45 minutes north of Chiang Rai where the Mekong River separates Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. For many years this was a major Opium production region, but the crop has since been eradicated from the area. Stop by the Golden Triangle monument (pictured), then head to the Hall of Opium Museum down the road. The museum was commissioned by the Thai royal family in their efforts to educate the public on the history of the opium industry and its effects on opium users.
Khao Yai National Park
At 300 square kilometers, Khao Yai National Park is the third largest national park in Thailand. It is also the country’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most visitors come for the day or long weekend to get a nice break from busy, noisy Bangkok. Khao Yai is home to several plant and animal species, but the three main attractions of the park are Asian elephants, white-handed gibbons (pictured), and the giant hornbill. Khao Yai is one of the few remaining places where Asian elephants still roam free, and where the gibbons are protected from poachers. Gibbons are unfortunately susceptible because throughout Thailand because baby gibbons are used to get money from tourists who wish to have their pictures taken with them. Oftentimes poachers will need to kill the babies’ entire families before they can get to them.
Koh Lanta Island
Koh Lanta is one of the most pristine islands in Thailand, and an especially attractive destination for beach lovers. Compared to the crowded beaches and mass tourism of Phuket and Samui, Koh Lanta offers rustic charm and a laid back atmosphere. Koh Lanta’s finest beaches can be found along its western and southern coasts. Bamboo Beach (pictured) is particularly serene. Located at the southern end of Koh Lanta, this 500-meter-long beach is ideal for swimming, snorkeling, and lounging. It has crystal-clear water and a beautiful lush forest backdrop. Bamboo Beach has three boutique-style resorts, so it’s never overcrowded.
Sukhothai Historical Park
Located about five hours north of Bangkok, Sukhothai was the first ancient capital of the Kingdom of Siam from 1238 to 1438. The Sukhothai Historical Park is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a magnificent place to explore by bicycle, car, or walking tour. Within the park there are several imposing structures. These include Wat Mahatat, the park’s largest temple (pictured), the unusual three-pillared Wat Si Sawai temple, and Pra Achana Buddha at Wat Si Chun.