I like to consider myself a traveller. I like to think I’ve seen the world. With over 20 countries under my belt I feel like I have been able to explore the unknown, check things off my ever-growing bucket list, and live a somewhat adventurous lifestyle. However there’s one popular part of the world I’d completely missed out on, South East Asia, Thailand in particular. It seems almost everyone you meet has either been to, or is heading off to this country, so when my travel buddy suggested Thailand, I figured why not go and see what all the hype is about. A few months later here I was, about to travel across the world, not to my normal comfort zone of savanna’s and wild animals, but instead to face the unknown and brave the world of backpackers, gap year travellers, and everything else that Thailand has to offer.
First off, why we decided to plan a trip to Thailand during the rainy season still baffles me. We were under the impression it would rain briefly in the afternoons, and that it would be nice and refreshing. What we weren’t prepared for was that when it wasn’t raining it was 40 degrees Celsius, and extremely humid. Unfortunately, the rain didn’t offer as much of a reprieve in the temperatures as we had hoped. We weren’t prepared for the constantly hot and sweaty feeling you get after simply sitting outside in that heat. Gone were our hopes for Instagram model worthy photos of us after a leisurely hike up to a viewpoint, instead we got photos of us looking red faced, sweaty, and exhausted after hikes we were sure were going to kill us. We knew to expect this during adventurous hikes through the jungles of Northern Thailand, what we didn’t anticipate was that even a simple walk in search of lunch would feel like an extreme event. But, we were finally on the trip we’d been looking forward to for months, so better make the most of it - even if we constantly looked like someone had just pushed us in the dirty river while we’re at it!
We started our journey in the busy city of Bangkok. As someone who’s spent the majority of their travels in the back of a safari vehicle, or hiking in search of wildlife, I truly felt like a fish out of water in the busy concrete jungle! After a few days of adjusting to our new surroundings, and coming to grips with the extreme temperatures we'd be facing for the next month, it was time to head up to Northern Thailand. Northern Thailand is well known for its wildlife tourism activities, both the good and the awful. I was both extremely excited and very apprehensive about visiting these areas. We had heard the horror stories of tiger temples displaying drugged cats for tourists photo ops, of elephants living chained up on the side of the road or spending their entire day providing uneducated tourists with rides. While I would never support these activities, I knew these were things I would witness during my travels, a scary thought for an animal lover like myself.
Our first stop in Northern Thailand was the beautiful city of Chiang Rai, the town most notably known on the backpacker trail for the beautiful white temple. We loved exploring the temples,the sights the city had to offer, and felt like the only tourists in the area, a very rare feeling in Thailand. Our main reason for visiting Chiang Rai was an overnight visit at the Elephant Valley Sanctuary. Most elephant sanctuaries in Thailand are very hands on, some of them are doing great things, others not so much. Elephant Valley takes a very different approach to how they help their rescued elephants, a very hands off approach. We spent our day learning about elephants, and why these elephants were in their care. We followed them around the reserve keeping a safe distance between us and them, giving us the opportunity to observe them in a more natural environment. Later on in the tour, we had the chance to get up close and feed them some portions of their diet all the while having a safety fence between us and these powerful creatures. It was wonderful to see each of the elephants make the choice of whether they wanted to hang out with the tourists, that choice is an extremely important component for their welfare, thankfully, so many of them came over to enjoy our company. The rest of the tourists left after lunch, leaving us with the sanctuary to ourselves. We spent the afternoon helping collect bamboo and other food for the elephants, assisting the caretakers in cleaning the area where the elephants are kept at night. While our evening was spent simply enjoying the tranquility of staying at a private sanctuary in the Thai jungle. It was the perfect place for our first taste of elephant tourism in Thailand.
The rest of our time in Northern Thailand was spent in the amazing town of Pai, a town which very quickly stole my heart, and the vibrant city of Chiang Mai. While our visit to Pai lacked any sort of wildlife tourism, it did provided us with the chance to visit beautiful temples, explore the Pai canyon, and provided amazing views of mountains, waterfalls, and the countryside, offering some of the most beautiful scenery while in the company of amazing local culture. Most of our time in Chiang Mai was spent exploring the city and it's numerous temples, however we did decide to visit another elephant sanctuary in the area. It’s here where we were provided with the more typical elephant excursion that tourists are hoping to experience. While I was pretty confident in the place we chose to spend our day, I did have very mixed feelings about it by the of our time there. These places offer volunteers the opportunity to get up close and personal with the elephants while feeding and swimming with them. I never once saw anything that made me believe these animals were being abused, however I did feel as though the very structured schedule promoted tourist satisfaction over elephant welfare, and we were unable to see these elephants living a more natural lifestyle. This may not seem like a red flag to many tourists, but coming from an animal background I greatly appreciate how variety and choice help to maintain the physical and psychological well-being of animals in captivity.
Our elephant adventures in Northern Thailand stopped here, giving us the opportunity to explore some local villages, experience the vibrant nightlife, and lots of time to sample many of the delicious local dishes, we probably spent a bit too much time doing that last activity!!
Our time spent in northern Thailand was an unforgettable experience, but as two prairie-dwelling Canadians we were looking forward to heading down to Southern Thailand - the islands and ocean were calling us! We had high hopes for the second half of the trip, looking forward to the amazing adventures ahead of us. What we didn’t expect was that we would witness some of the worst wildlife tourism either of us had seen… check back next month to hear about our time in Southern Thailand and learn more about the issues with the growing demand of wildlife tourism in these areas.