Chiang Mai & Chai Lai Orchid Elephant Jungle Expedition

Famous for ancient temples and elephant rescue sanctuaries, the mountainous city of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand was next on our South East Asia itinerary.

Chiang Mai (meaning ‘New City‘ in Thai) is steeped in history with 75 temples within the city walls. This popular backpacking destination was only founded in 1296 when it succeeded Chiang Rai to become capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom.

If you’d like to read my most recent blog post on our week exploring Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos, click here.

The ‘Old City’

We’ve seen our fair share of temples in Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, but arguably none were more beautiful than the golden colours on the viharn houses and wats in Chiang Mai.

As soon as we arrived, we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed to the Si Phum district. Our first stop was to walk through the pigeon infested Tha Phae Gate – one of the five gates to enter the Old City.

Soon after, we looked around the grounds of Wat Chedi Luang – a Buddhist temple towering over the city at 282 ft high before picturing the neighbouring colourful mosaics of Wat Phan Tao and Three Kings Monument – a sculpture of the purported founding fathers of Chiang Mai.

Adding to our already high step count, we then admired the beauty of Wat Inthakhin Sadue Muang – a small Buddhist temple with traditional Lanna architecture.

Our final stop was at Wat Phra Singh Waramahavihan. This classic Lanna style temple which houses the famous Lion Buddha statue in the Gilded Hall.

Chai Lai Orchid Elephant Sanctuary

Two of our four days in Chiang Mai were spent at the amazing Chai Lai Orchid Elephant Sanctuary in Mae Wang National Park around a two hour drive away. Em was in her element for this and had been talking about it for weeks in the build up to us going. When travelling in Thailand, this really is a must-do experience.

We spent hours researching different elephant sanctuaries around the region making sure that the one we chose was ethical. Sadly, there are still businesses that use chains and hooks on the elephants as well as offering rides.

Some people may argue that coming into contact (in particular feeding and bathing elephants) is unethical, but we would say this isn’t doing anything they don’t do already by themselves.

Generally, elephants are used to human interaction because they have already been domesticated, by for example, being put to work in the logging industry, so unfortunately there isn’t any possibility of them being reintroduced into the wild.

We paid 7000 THB / £170 to go on a private 1-day Elephant Jungle Expedition and an additional 2000 THB / £50 to stay overnight in a Bamboo Bungalow Hideaway in the lush tropical forest of the Himalayan Mountain Range, homeland of the Pga k’ nyau indigenous people.

To start what was an unforgettable day, a local guide from the Lahu hill tribe community took us down the lazy Mae Wang River on a traditional bamboo raft using a bamboo paddle.

Next, our Chai Lai Orchid guide chopped down bamboo for us to use as a walking stick as we hiked through jungle terrain to the Mae Wang Waterfall.

Here, we spent the next couple of hours preparing a Thai jungle village lunch using bamboo as a cooking aid. I had BBQ chicken whilst Em enjoyed vegetable soup, fried rice and mango sticky rice for pudding.

Later in the afternoon, we headed back to Chai Lai Orchid for our one-on-one encounter with the elephants.

Dozens of freshly cut bananas in a bucket had already been prepared for us to hand feed Haroon and Meena – two of the elephants out of the 11 in total at the paddock. This was a magical experience.

They took the pieces out of the palm of our hands at such an astonishingly fast rate, almost like a hoover. Hardly surprising given nearly 80% of an elephants day is spent feeding. The bananas barely touched the 150kg of food they need to eat everyday!

To finish, we walked with them down to the river. We then stripped off and joined Haroon in the freezing cold water where we helped her to bathe.

After snapping so many pictures, we hiked back up to Chai Lai Orchid and enjoyed happy hour cocktails with the most amazing views before checking into our hideaway which also had stunning panoramic valley views.

In the evening, we got talking to Elizabeth and Imogen – two sisters from London who had just started travelling in South East Asia. They picked our brains over the next few hours on our travelling highlights, the best areas to stay and top places to see.

Elephant wake-up call & Muay Thai Boxing

This morning, we woke to the sound of elephants trumpeting from the jungle. No need for an alarm! (Can’t forget the village roosters clucking too).

After falling back to sleep for a while, we were then woken again, this time by a mahout knocking at our door with another bucket of chopped bananas to feed Seaway, his elephant.

We had arranged with reception yesterday for us to have what they described as an ‘elephant wake-up call’. Hand feeding an elephant from a bed in a bungalow made from bamboo is a pretty cool way to start a day! Emily’s bear, Henry helped us out.

Reluctantly, we left Chai Lai Orchid Elephant Sanctuary at 13:00 PM and were back in Chiang Mai for around 15:00 PM. In the evening we met back up with Elizabeth and Imogen to go and watch Muay Thai at the Kalare Night Bazaar Boxing Stadium.

Unlike normal boxing, fighters can use their fists, elbows, knees and shins – almost a bit like our version of UFC. Collectively, we made the decision to pay 1050 THB / £26 for ringside seats. It’s not often you can do that for such little money!

In one bout, a young Thai boxer was KO’d after being caught with a nasty left hook to the temple, whilst in another, the referee had to step in to stop the fight. The sisters weren’t too keen on what they were witnessing, but it was a form of the sport at its brutal best.

Wat Prathat Doi Suthep & Wat Phra That Doi Kham

On our last day in Chiang Mai, we ventured out of the city to see two beautiful temples in the mountains.

More commonly referred to as ‘Doi Suthep’ because of the hill in which it’s located, Wat Prathat Doi Suthep was an hour drive away. The temple is marked by seven-headed serpent statues that line the stairs and is one the most important in Chiang Mai. The view overlooking the city was equally as impressive.

Built towards the end of the 7th century, Wat Phra That Doi Kham or ‘Temple of the Golden Mountain‘ is perched on Doi Kham hill, which was a further 45 minutes drive away. Here, the most noticeable feature was another huge buddha standing at 17m tall.

I would have liked to have hiked up to Doi Inthanon – the highest peak in Thailand but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time.

Next, we begin our island hopping adventure in Thailand by exploring Phuket, James Bond Island, Koh Phi Phi and Ao Nang.

As always, if you’d like to keep up-to-date with our adventure, you can either enter your email at the bottom of this article to receive instant notifications every time I post a new blog; click the Follow ‘Al’ Around The World link, or drop me a follow on Twitter at @AlecW95 or on Instagram at @AlecW95 or @alatw95.

Alternatively, you can follow Emily on her travelling TikTok account at @emstraveladventure.

Thanks for reading, until the next time…


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