As you may have seen from my IG stories, it has been my bucket list dream to visit an elephant sanctuary in Thailand for at least the last, oh, 20 years or so. There’s so much negativity and misinformation around elephants, and animal abuse in general, so I did tons of research to ensure we visited and stayed somewhere highly ethical.
We found the perfect place to stay in Chiang Mai that had an elephant sanctuary on-property. It often seem that when I’ve built up an experience too much in my head, it ends up being disappointing or underwhelming but this experience blew me away. Everyone should add an elephant sanctuary experience in Chiang Mai to their bucket list and experience it at some point in their life. I can’t say enough good things about it.
Getting to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is 800 km north of Bangkok near where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Mynamar meet (also known as the Golden Triangle). You could find ground transportation to get to Chiang Mai but we chose to fly as the local airlines in Southeast Asia are very affordable and we were in Phuket at the time.
We had just wrapped up a week of sailing around Phuket and booked a flight on Air Asia. The flight time between Phuket and Chiang is 1 hour 45 minutes on a direct flight; the distance between the two is about 1,500 km so driving wasn’t an option for us given our time constraints.
We only had two nights in Chiang Mai but if I were to go back, I’ll probably extend for one or two more and stay right in Chiang Mai to experience the markets and such. Instead, we decided to save that part of the experience for Bangkok.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
This was by far the most important part of our trip to Chiang Mai because I wanted to stay at a highly ethical eco-resort and have a really intimate elephant sanctuary experience. After extensive research, we chose Chai Lai Orchid Resort and I am SO glad we did. They offer private bungalows along the river where it’s incredibly lush and quiet, and the elephants live right on the premises. You’ll often see them wandering around looking for a snack, which was pretty exciting and super fun to feed them at breakfast. We had a family bungalow which has three queen beds and a large deck overlooking the river so lots of space. It was the perfect Thailand hotel option for families.
But first a bit about Chai Lai Orchid. What I didn’t fully understand until I arrived is that Chai Lai Orchid is a vocational training centre where Karen and refugee women can learn to work in hospitality. (Karen, pronounced Kah-Ren, is an ethnic group indigenous to the Thailand-Burma region.)
Profits form Chai Lai Orchid fund Daughters Rising, an NGO started by Chai Lai’s founder, which works to overcome abuse and trafficking of indigenous and refugee women. At Chai Lai Orchid at-risk women get paid to learn about job training skills, English and Thai language (we were encouraged to help them practice their English), women’s health, and human rights. Some of the women we met had never had the opportunity to eat in a restaurant, use electricity, or attend school so they are truly learning about hospitality for the first time. As someone who has always worked in hotels and has spent a great deal of time volunteering in third world countries, this really struck a chord with me.
Getting to Chai Lai
The Chai Lai Orchid hotel is about a 60-90 minute drive outside of Chiang Mai, depending on traffic. The hotel arranged our transportation for a fee. We paid 800 Thai Baht, which was about $40 Canadian, for our family of four to travel one way. We were driven in the back of a small pick-up truck, which is a general mode of transportation in Asia. There are no seatbelts and depending on who you travel with, comfort levels range significantly. (Our truck had padded benches so it wasn’t too bad.)
Things to Do in Chiang Mai
Chai Lai Orchid offers loads of different activities from ziplining to jungle treks to Thai cooking classes but we were there for the elephants.
We decided to do a half day excursion with the elephants. We walked with three adult elephants and a mischievous baby elephant, as well as their mahouts (guides), to an area away from the resort where we could feed them bananas and corn. This was so fun and absolutely hilarious!
After feeding them, we had an opportunity to walk with the elephants through the jungle. Elephants eat between 200-600 pounds of food every day so they snacked on the bamboo and sugar cane along the way. It was so beautiful to see them rumbling around in their natural habitat. Also, fun fact, elephants don’t like small creatures. They rallied in a circle and started bellowing at a chicken that had upset one of the elephants – so funny! We continued down to the river with them and had a chance to go swimming (splashing, really) before heading out on the river rafting portion of the excursion.
We were driven a few miles up the road in the back of a small pickup truck. Here we met our guide and climbed aboard one of the narrow bamboo rafts. The rafts are about two feet wide and carry four guests. The guide navigated our raft the shallow and sometimes tricky waters – there’s often rocks, roots, trees and narrow sections – as we floated down the river back toward Chai Lai Orchid. I was at the back of the raft and get a few extra bumps and jostles along the way so consider yourself warned if that’s where you end up.
And my very favourite part of the day – bathing a baby elephant! It was really more like a spa day for her. We massaged sand all over her then washed her down. She gave us each a kiss for our efforts and the feeling was like a wet sloppy vacuum sucking on my face. I think the photos say it all! She gave us a hug and a trunk shake before being led away for lunch. All in all, an incredible experience that I’ll cherish forever.
Where to Eat in Chiang Mai
The food at Chai Lai Orchid is excellent and they have a great variety. Breakfast is included every day and is served Afternoon Tea-style on a multi-tier tray with fruit, muffins, croissants and cereal. Then lunch and dinner has a variety of western and Asian food like Tom Yum and Pad Thai. There’s also a café at the resort that’s operated independently. They have excellent coffees and smoothies, as well as casual fare and Thai food. Honestly, we never felt like we needed to leave because the menus had lots of variety and it was all excellent.
I was lucky enough to get an in-room Thai massage at Chai Lai Resort. It’s a traditional style Thai massage so be sure to wear loose, comfortable clothing as the massage is quite active – and firm! If you want a gentle massage, be sure to tell your masseuse at the start otherwise you’ll end up battered and bruised. My massage in Chiang Mai only cost 500 Thai Baht (about $25). It’s more than you’d pay in the city but it’s important to remember that the money is going to support these incredible women.
Where to Shop
We didn’t have an opportunity to do any shopping in Chiang Mai city however there’s a cooperative shop at Chai Lai that supports local women artisans. So whether you want purses and bags, jewelry, or clothing, you can purchase it from the ladies there. I bought a cloth satchel, a bracelet, and a tank top that I love so much. They were pretty affordable too, and I love knowing that funds are going directly to support women in the community.
Our family vacation to Chiang Mai was the bucket list trip of a lifetime. We loved the culture, food, and adventure, and we also felt Chiang Mai was a very safe destination for families. I feel so fortunate to have experienced this trip of a lifetime and I highly recommend you add this to your list whether it’s a solo travel trip, a girlfriend’s getaway, or a romantic vacation with your loved one.
Is Chiang Mai already on your bucket list?