Chiang Mai, Land of Elephants

Two of the retired ladies at Pamper a Pachyderm. “Look Ma, no chains!”

This is a post about elephants. Well, mainly elephants. You can’t come to Northern Thailand without paying respect to the true kings of the jungle.  First though, I’ll tell you a little bit about the Thai city that thrives in the North. Then you’ll learn what elephants, Buddha, Y2k and Boston have in common. Enjoy the journey, my friends.


Founded in 1296 (you read that right), Chiang Mai meaning “new city” succeeded Chiang Rai as the Capital of the Lanna Kingdom. In the mid 16th century, the city was occupied by the Burmese and only in 1775 became part of Siam, known today as Thailand. The metropolitan hub of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai proper is home to about 170,000 people, with a metro area surpassing 1 million residents. Surrounding Chiang Mai are foothills of the Himalayan mountains, which include several national parks within an hour and a half drive of the city.

The Old City is surrounded by remnants of the ancient wall and moat, adjacent to the more modern ring road, which separates the original city from the rest of town.

After a day walking the streets of Old Town, the word that came to mind to describe the city was “functional.” It’s not particularly beautiful, like Luang Prabang or Hoi An, but shops of all types are easy to find and it’s not too difficult to get around. More so than any other city we visited in SE Asia, arriving in Chiang Mai felt immediately comfortable and a little more familiar.

While traffic generally moves in accordance with painted lanes and signals and without the cacophony of beeping horns like in Vietnam, it’s still challenging for pedestrians to cross major streets without risking a Frogger-type incident.

Road signs and markings often seem to contradict themselves.

Sidewalks are used for car and motorbike parking than as pedestrian ways, leaving walkers to drift into the streets.

Another observation is that Chiang Mai is a city struggling with growth and with it an overburdened transportation system. The city is becoming increasingly popular with foreigners because of its affordability, accessibility, and relaxed lifestyle compared to other large Thai cities. Ex pats comprise about 25% of the population. We did see an impressive Sunday morning bike ride on our way out of town. That plus a bike share system sponsored by maxi-pads are perhaps good signs for the city’s future.

The outdoor markets of Chiang Mai are a highlight for the commercially-inclined (you know who you are). The Sunday Market (Walking Street) is a not-to-be-missed bustling mix of street food stalls, handicraft tables, silk merchants, clothing shops, and massage stations stretching the length of two main streets that meet in a cross.

You know it’s a good market when most of the patrons are locals. Just know if you go later in the evening, you may feel like a salmon swimming up a crowded stream of teenagers and 20 somethings.

Elephant Nature Park

In Buddhism, elephants are powerful symbols of physical and mental strength. Their images are revered in temples and architecture all across Asia. So it’s shocking then to get a glimpse behind the curtain and see how elephants are abused in service of the tourism trade (not only in Thailand, but also in neighboring Cambodia and Laos). While I once considered the prospect of riding an elephant to be an exciting adventure, learning about the process for breaking elephants for use by riding operations, logging companies, and circus performances has put me off the idea forever. Here’s a look behind the scenes for those who are brave enough to watch.

Well, if riding, heavy labor, and performances are off the list, then what? Mercifully, some Thai people have committed to a more humane experience for elephants and have figured out how to bring tourists in service to elephants, rather than the reverse (and doing so in a way that yields an economic benefit). After all, it’s expensive to feed elephants. Did you know they eat 10% of their body weight every day? Chew on that for a minute.

Other fun facts are that Asian elephants are the largest mammal in Asia (weighing between 2-3 tons on average) and their pregnancies last two years. They are highly intelligent and self-aware mammals that exhibit sophisticated behaviors such advanced tool use (their trunks are amazingly nimble) and express feelings such as happiness, grief, and fear. Asian elephants possess a highly developed neocortex, something they have in common biologically with humans, apes and dolphins.


Elephant Nature Park was established in the 1990s as a rescue park and sanctuary for elephants and their friends, like dogs, cats and water buffalos. Elephant Nature Park (ENP for short) is home to over 30 rescue elephants and just recently celebrated the rare birth of a baby elephant. The day we visited, baby Dok Rak was 12 days old and was quite content under the protection of his nanny (whom he unsuccessfully tried to suckle a few times).


ENP has established a new model for elephant tourism, one that enhances the experience for the elephants and people alike. Instead of riding an elephant for 30 minutes, you can spend the day feeding, bathing and walking with elephants. Over the course of the day, you get to know them a bit and they you. ENP has also created programs and partnerships with nearby elephant parks that have opted to change their business models in favor of more humane treatment.

We spent the day at a neighboring park on a program called “Pamper a Pachyderm.” There were four mature female elephants at the park, ranging from 55-70 years old. (An elephant can live to be 75, though their life expectancy at zoos is sometimes only 25-40.) The park was the equivalent of a small lady elephant retirement community, or the AARP (Asian Association for Retired Pachyderms).

Alisa and I chose to pamper a 70-year-old retiree named Happy. Happy roamed solo at the park, since the other herd of three females would not accept her. About a month before our visit, Happy’s best (and only) friend of two years, Shi-pie, passed away. We could still feel her grief, but I’d like to believe she experienced moments of happiness during melon and banana feedings (which was pretty much all day).

Bathing time was later in the day and we were downstream from the main elephant park, which was the equivalent of bathing in bathwater after an entire army platoon had used it as their latrine, but worse.

We must have really liked Happy, because I’m pretty sure her mahout purposefully missed her and directly hit me with a couple of buckets of well-seasoned river water. But it was our way of saying thank you to an elder who spent her life in service to others.

There really are few experiences more spectacular than spending time caring for an elephant. If you find yourself in Northern Thailand (or now there’s an Elephant Nature Park outpost in Cambodia), I recommend you spend a day at ENP. You won’t regret it.

Yum!  Bananas!

Day Hiking for the Adventurous

For those more inclined to spend time in nature rather than cities, Chiang Mai offers a multitude of guided hiking tours in the nearby mountains ranging from 1-3 days. Hikes typically include a visit to a village of a local hill tribe, bamboo rafting and elephant riding (you can tell them you know better).


We opted for a day hike that started about an hour and a half from the Chiang Mai and included a stop at a market out of town.

The stalls were all well organized and inviting. If only I could take home 10 lbs of thai red chilis. Alas.

Our guide, Song, grew up in a nearby village and much prefers leading tours to the idea of working in the big city. He was perhaps a bit more enthusiastic in his itinerary than we were led to believe by the owners of the tour, taking us twice the quoted distance straight up hill for 2 hours.

It was, by the way, about 104 degrees. We lived. Enough said.

The afternoon adventure started when we boarded a 25-foot bamboo raft hand crafted by the villagers. Each raft is meant to last about three runs. After taking that baby over a few dozen rapids in often less than 2 inches of water, I think we were fortunate our raft completed its second trip.

Again, less is probably more. Our parents read this blog.  Oh, and in case you were wondering, it was an absolute blast.

At the end of the river run, a local villager brought out several plates of pad thai. We didn’t realize how famished we were. Needless to say, we slept well that night.


Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

About 10 miles outside Chiang Mai, up the nearby mountain, is a temple that sits high above the city, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.  Founded in 1383, the temple has been expanded with many shrines and ornate architecture.

Getting up there requires an electric assist or Tour-type legs and a decent road bike. Most tourists will flag down a taxi or tuk tuk for the 40-minute ride to the temple.

Once you reach the entrance to temple, you’ll likely be mobbed by pushy vendors unless you arrive closer to sunrise before the village wakes up.

At the base of the stairs are some impressive dragon heads, followed by 309 stairs up to the temple.

Those who need some assistance or don’t feel like climbing can take a tram to the top for a small fee. Be sure to wear long pants and cover your shoulders or you will be required to rent cover up at the ticket office.

On a clear day, the temple offers panoramic views of Chiang Mai.  We visited so early that the fog wasn’t even awake yet, so sorry, no panoramas.  Instead, here are a couple of my favorite dragon heads, named Mom.  (Your caption here.)


Be Do Have

Gratuitous napping shot of Hilo, manager of the Green Tiger Vegetarian Guest House.

At the turn of the millennium, I was living and working in Boston.  At age 25, equipped with an MA, I had been out in the working world for a couple of years.  Within a year of arriving in Beantown, I was quickly promoted to a director-level position at a mid-size nonprofit focused on youth organizing.  Boston for me was real.  Growing up in a smallish Midwestern city, some combination of urban, rural and suburban, I had grown accustomed to comfortable living.  Moving to Boston in 1999 was a life leap.  It was my first up close exposure to urban life, broken schools, racial profiling and institutional racism.  It was an education onto itself.  More times than I can recall, I was the only white woman in the room.  At first it was uncomfortable, but then it just was.

As part of my job, another program coordinator and I were assigned to take two of the female youth from the organization to participate in planning a millennium women’s celebration organized by the Boston Women’s Foundation.  I volunteered to be on the performance art subcommittee and our first meeting was in the kitchen of another member in Jamaica Plain.  As an uppity young feminist organizer, I was ready to get to work.  But my co-organizer was in no hurry.  I remember she sensed my anxiousness to get moving and sat me down and offered me some tea.

She asked if I’d ever heard of the concept of Be, Do, Have.  (If it wasn’t political philosophy, feminist critical theory, Ms. Magazine or 18th century literature, the answer was probably no.)  She explained that most of us go through life doing things in order to have things to order to be someone or Do, Have, Be. I certainly appreciated the art of doing.  Young and ambitious, I was ready to do things so long as the propelled me forward quickly on an upward trajectory.  I was a woman on a mission to succeed.

She challenged me to flip the paradigm.  Instead of doing, she suggested that you should start by being.  Work out for yourself who you are and what it means to just be. Once you figure that out, that will guide you to doing what you need to and then you will find you have what you need.

On a sunny afternoon at An Bang Beach in Vietnam, I remembered that conversation in her kitchen back in 2000.  I’m still a Doer.  I can’t really help it.  I’m hard-wired that way.  I like to accomplish more before 10 am than most people do all day.

If there were an Olympic Sport for Getting Shit Done, I’d medal.

But now, almost 8 weeks into 100 days, I’m learning how to Be.  I’m learning what it means to have an identity in the world separate my job.  I’m learning to give myself permission to stop moving and still feel satisfied at the end of the day.  I’m learning to take more in than I’m expressing outwardly and be at peace.  At 41, I’m finally heeding her words. (Perhaps not surprisingly, one of two pieces I chose to perform at the millennium women’s celebration was Let it Be.)

The Be Do Have concept started picking up some mainstream traction in 2013. But somewhere in Boston, there’s a woman that shed some light on my life who got it long before the rest of us did.

That’s the challenge from here through the rest of 100 days. Take in the surroundings, pamper nature, and let it be.


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