Story and Photos Helen Feliciano-Bailey
Web Feature sponsor New England Vegfest
Originally published in Driftwood Issue Three
EXPLORING THE CITY
Just over 400 miles north of the bustling city of Bangkok sits the mountainousChiang Mai. The “New City” has a cultural identity unlike anything you'll find in otherareas of Thailand. Its historic character, warm people, and serene yet adventurousatmosphere are sure to leave a lasting impression on any visitor. While it’s truethat in recent years Chiang Mai has become a magnet for young crowds, youcan still find authenticity within the city limits, and it’s perfect for single travelersand families alike.
Getting around Thailand is a breeze. Quite literally, since the two most popular vehicles for navigating the city are the tuk-tuk and the motorcycle. Tuk-tuks are three-wheeled vehicles with a seating area behind the driver’s seat and a roof but no doors. They're more convenient for tourists than the local buses. You’ll see the variety of decked-out, flashy tuktuks in the city center mingling with the traditional, more conservative tuk-tuks. Motorcycles and bicycles are easy and cheap to rent, which makes them great for extended stays.
Hiking opportunities in Chiang Mai offer the perfect getaway from the city rush. Huay Tung Tao trail is a great option for beginners. The entire hike is approximately 5 miles long, with two stopping points along the way. Halfway through the hike, you can rest and cool off at Dtaat Mook waterfall. Standing under the spray is refreshing and especially welcoming in the summer months. Continue trekking to the helipad located at the highest point of the trail; this spot offers panoramic views of the city and reservoir below. If you took a few hits from the bamboo leaves and tree branches on the way up, this breathtaking view will make every blow worth the trouble.
While you could visit Doi Inthanon by car or bus, hiking on foot is a popular option. Doi Inthanon will take you 2,565 meters above sea level; it's the highest peak of Chiang Mai. For 200 baht (around $5.50 USD), villagers will guide you through the nature trail. Because of its popularity and importance, Doi Inthanon brings in visitors year-round. This trail is filled with incredible, tall trees and wooden pathways, so make sure you pack your camera!
Perhaps the best-known hike is the Doi Suthep trail. You start in the city and make your way into the nature trail following the posted signs. There are a few small wats (temples) on the way. The hike leads you to Wat Phra That. For more waterfalls, check out Bua Tong and Mae Pang falls.
Want to really marvel at impressive architecture? Visit the other Chiang Mai wats. The city is full of them, and each one has its own unique characteristics. With more than 200 wats, it is easy to see why Chiang Mai is endearingly called the Jewel of the North. You can spend a full day wandering the city center streets, visiting dozens of wats and learning about the importance of Buddhism in Thai culture.
When hunger strikes, you are in luck. With such a large population of Buddhists, Thailand is home to a vast number of vegetarian restaurants—most restaurants labeled vegetarian are actually vegan! You can easily identify vegetarian (jay) restaurants, food trucks, and pop-up tents by a yellow sign or flag displayed at the entrance of the establishment.
So whether you are in the mood for something fancy or something on the go, look for the trusty yellow flag (or sign) and eat away. Whatever you choose, don't go home until you've tried the mango sticky rice. I vote for the street vendor option, nothing too fancy but packed full of flavor.
Also, there is a surprisingly vivid nightlife, and areas like the Night Bazaar definitely cater to tourists. If this isn’t your scene, stick to the basics. For the most tranquil travel opportunities, try your best to avoid tourist peak season, December to April. April gets especially hectic as tourists flock to partake in the Songkran—Thai New Year—Festivals. A tip of caution for my fellow vegans braving the April peak season: Live animals, particularly elephants, are used for entertainment in most Songkran events.
It’s true that Northern Thailand is slowly catching up to more Westernized areas like Bangkok. Common American franchises have crept in recently, but there is still a flair of originality and ancestry that you won’t find anywhere else in the country. Chiang Mai maintains its traditional charm and beauty even as the city becomes more modern. No time like the present—pack your bags and Tîeow-hâisànùk! (Have a nice trip!)
SUPPORTING ETHICAL TRAVEL: AN INSIDE LOOK AT ELEPHANT NATURE PARK
Thailand’s undeniable beauty, luscious beaches, and incredible architecture place the country at the top of most travel destination lists. For many tourists, visiting Thailand is also an opportunity to experience once-in-a-lifetime encounters with wild and exotic animals. For me, that is exactly what this trip was, a lifelong dream becoming reality.
Elephant tourism makes up a large percentage of the country’s tourist revenue. As vegans, we already know the horrors behind animal entertainment and therefore do our best to avoid funding practices that leave animals orphaned, beaten, overworked, and often dead. Thankfully, there are safe havens for elephants and other animals that offer tourists the opportunity to visit and interact.
Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai founded in 2003 by Lek Chailert, who has been advocating for and reforming the welfare of Asian elephants for decades. She was named one of Time magazine’s Heroes of Asia in 2005 and continues to do conservation work throughout Thailand. In addition to ENP, Chailert works with nearby tourist elephant camps to help reform and improve the welfare of working elephants in their care.
After extensive research, I chose this as the place to visit. True to my worrisome nature, I was still anxious and unsure of what to expect of my full-day visit. As it turns out, I got much more than I bargained for, in the best way possible.
The pickup service came right to the hotel. During the drive to the sanctuary, we watched a brief video about the history of the park and a quick run-through of the dos and don'ts for visitors. The video also featured a short story about one of the beloved elephants at the sanctuary—don’t worry, no spoilers—which was heartwrenching yet hopeful. Once the video ended and I got my sobbing under control, I pulled out my camera and enjoyed the drive through the outskirts of Chiang Mai. To my surprise, we passed several working elephant trekking camps, the heartbreaking reality of tourist demand just feet in front of me. That in itself was an eye-opening experience, and I was so taken aback by what I was seeing that I was caught off guard when we finally pulled into the sanctuary.
ENP is home to more than 30 Asian elephants. Each elephant has a painful history but a peaceful future. Most suffered years of abuse and exploitation for tourism and logging purposes. Here they are free to build their own herds without demands or expectations. With 250 acres of striking green vegetation, elephants roam the premises at their leisure, fully cared for and protected. The mountainous landscape is also home to a large population of homeless dogs, cats, and rescued cattle.
After spending days in the hot city, the fresh mountain air was magnificent. Morning dew covered the grass below me as we walked to a large pavilion, where we were united with our tour guide and had an opportunity to mingle with other visitors. Honestly, I was surprised to see so many people there at once and felt grateful for the dogs freely wandering the area. No elephants had made their way to the front of the park yet, and petting dogs and cats was an unbeatable alternative to making small talk with a bunch of strangers. (Excuse my social anxiety.)
Visitors have the option of visiting for one full day or partaking in the longer volunteer program. Single-day visits give volunteers the opportunity for one-on-one encounters with the elephants that include feeding and bathing them. Tour groups get a first-hand look at food production and learn about each elephant’s individual traits, history, and life at ENP.
For those wanting a more intimate experience, there is also an option for an overnight stay at the park. Falling asleep in a beautiful cabin to brisk country air and the sounds of elephants in the distance? Yes, please! I didn’t have the opportunity this time around, but on my next visit I will have it no other way. Volunteering would be the best option for persons taking an extended stay in Thailand. Not only would you be aiding in maintaining and supporting the sanctuary, but you will have the opportunity to bond daily with the elephants and other animals on site.
The first half of our day was spent feeding watermelon to the elephants who approached the pavilion. Our group then toured the park and its facilities and got up close and personal with one of the oldest elephants in the park. Fully expecting their size to be the most impressionable attribute, I was mostly surprised by how tough their skin is. I had read about it, but feeling it did not compare to what I’d imagined; it was fascinating. Continuing our tour of the grounds, we came across a baby elephant with a severely injured foot. Despite the obvious discomfort, he was the happiest and most playful member of the bunch; I have never seen anyone enjoy their bananas so much (and in a vegan world, that’s saying something).
Halfway through the day, the groups headed back to the pavilion to rest, and guests were treated to a buffet-style vegan meal. The spread included a variety of noodles, rice, mock-meat dishes, and fritters. After a round (okay, two rounds...who am I kidding?) at the buffet line, and finally breaking out of my shell enough to meet a few people, it was time to go into the media room and watch a longer documentary about the plight of Asian elephants.
I walked out of the movie mildly traumatized, angry, yet motivated to change the world. With deeper empathy than before, I was ready to head back out for the second part of our itinerary. Luckily, my anger dissipated enough to bring back smiles as we made our way down to the river. It was time to bathe elephants in need of cooling off! It was amazing seeing these animals so happy and carefree. After what they’ve been through, their welcoming nature was incredibly gratifying. As bathing time came to an end, the groups made their way back to the pavilion for dry clothes and sturdy shoes. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking across the fields, watching the elephants interact with one another, and learning about their behaviors and individual backgrounds.
Of all the beautiful things I witnessed in Thailand, seeing orphaned and formerly abused elephants thrive, love, and build new families was the most incredible. Not only was there unlimited beauty in the strength of these survivors but also in the dedication and hard work of ENP staff members and Lek Chailert.
Change for animals is slow in the entertainment industry but evident. The demand for humane interactions with elephants is more noticeable than ever. So much so, in fact, that many elephant camps around the country are using lazy and misleading tactics of luring compassionate but misguided tourists into their trap. It is not uncommon to see elephant camps advertised as sanctuaries. The easiest way to avoid falling into these traps is to research the company thoroughly before arriving. If the company offers riding opportunities or any other activities that would be unnatural for an elephant to perform (e.g., shows, painting, or dancing), you can be sure that these animals are not in a legitimate rescue facility. Choose a place where the animals are free to roam, free to build social bonds with other elephants, and free to choose whether they want to approach humans at all. Seeing wild or exotic animals up close is a wonder and a breathtaking opportunity. Aid against the plight of the Asian elephant by supporting ENP and other genuine sanctuaries determined to end animal slavery and abuse.
For a list of Helen's favorite wats, check out the full version of Driftwood Issue Three in print or digital.