Chiang Mai, Thailand – Elephant kingdom…

After the hectic pace of Bangkok we escaped to the relative tranquility of Chiang Mai, a short 1hr 15 min flight away – or 11 hrs by overnight luxury bus, complete with a hostess serving snacks and drinks, and a 01h00 stop for supper…We tried out both options and both agreed that flying was the way to go, even though it was about 30% more expensive. We were both looking forward to spending time with the famous elephants of Chiang Mai.

We arrived in Chiang Mai on the VIP32 bus at the ungodly hour of 06h15, and after dodging the few extortionately priced tuk tuk drivers waiting to pounce on naive travelers, we used Grab, and Uber competitor to take us to our first hotel in Chiang Mai, the Sira Boutique Hotel, which we’d found on for $18/night. Of course, while catching an overnight luxury coach sounds great, it is actually not very practical, as in Thailand check-in in usually at 14h00 or 15h00. As a ‘Genius’ user I was entitled to an early check-in of 12h00, which I requested twice – but no response was received from the hotel by the time we left Bangkok.

We dragged our bags into the lobby of the Sira Boutique Hotel at around 07h00, and a friendly male staff member welcomed us at reception. We explained that we would appreciate as early a check-in as possible after guests checked out at 10h00, and he said that check-in would probably be around 11h00 when the room had been cleaned. We stowed our bags in a corner and napped on the couches in the lobby for two hours, before heading out to find breakfast, as the hotel only offered breakfast to guests who had breakfast included in their room rate. Luckily right next door we found a cafe which offered a mediocre breakfast for around $4/person which we settled on. We were back in the lobby around 10h00. An unsmiling, disinterested reception girl had replaced the more animated night duty manager. She was deeply engrossed in watching a Thai soapy on her computer when we arrived, and pointedly ignored us the entire morning.

At around 11h00 I approached her to check that our booking was in order and enquire as to when we could expect to check-in. She didn’t contact housekeeping to find out, but rather repeated what I’d heard her tell the other six guests who had arrived during the morning: “Check-in 2pm”….I pointed out to her that we had requested an early check-in, which had been confirmed at 07h00 by the night manager, but she just stared at me. I returned to the couch and rested for another hour. At 12h00 I again approached her, and again she just repeated her 14h00 check-in line. This time I insisted on my early check-in, and she called house-keeping under duress…Of course the room had been ready for an hour!

Mobile barbershop at the weekend Night Market

Other than the miserable, unfriendly staff our stay at Sira was not too bad given the price and it’s great position within the walls of the old city, within walking distance to the weekend night market in Walking Street that very evening.After a rest of a few hours we enjoyed a visit to the night market where we snacked on local street food and fruit smoothies. Chiang Mai also hosts a massive night market every day in a different part of the old city which we visited twice during our stay…Great food was on offer there as well.

A walk in the jungle…

One of the reasons we came to Chiang Mai was to visit one of the elephant sanctuaries located about 30-40km from the city. We carefully chose The Elephant Rescue Sanctuary as they did not offer riding of elephants and do not use chains and hooks on their elephants. We drove for around an hour to get to the sanctuary, and spent most of the day feeding the four elephants in the camp, including a mischievous 2 yr old female calf. We were told that the elephants were extremely tame and enjoyed human contact, so we were encouraged to touch them and interact with them during the visit.

An elephant kiss…
Akhona gets up close to feed mama elephant…

After a home-cooked traditional Thai lunch we took the elephants for a mud bath followed by a wash in the nearby river. It was an almost surreal experience being so close and having so much contact with these beautiful animals. Elephants have been used in Thailand for centuries to drag heavy logs from the forests and even plough farmlands, as well as performing in circuses and tourist entertainment centers, and these sanctuaries aim to improve the conditions under which elephants work, and provide retirement facilities for them to live out their days.

Getting up close to photography the elephant calf

Chiang Mai was a great rest opportunity for us, especially after we moved over the the Riverside House hotel, which was run by a very friendly Thai lady surrounded by equally friendly staff. We were only 10 min walk from the daily Night Market, so we spent both evenings there enjoying the atmosphere and food. We also bought another daypack at a stall as we only had one daypack between the two of us. 

After six days in this laid-back city we caught an Air Asia flight back to Bangkok in preparation for a 7 hr trip by minibus and ferry to the island of Koh Kood, off the coast of Trat in the Gulf of Thailand.

Check out these cool video’s of our day with the elephants – the first one features the mischievous two year old female calf ‘playing’ with me as we take a walk in the jungle. After that we spent a few hours giving the elephants and ourselves a mud bath, followed by a wash in a nearby river…

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Derek Antonio Serra is a photographer and filmmaker who has run several successful businesses in the film, tourism and advertising industries. He has recently embraced the nomadic lifestyle after selling his businesses and home. His passions are photography, travel and writing.