Thailand is one of those destinations that clings to your soul and you’ll never forget. A few years ago, I spent 3 weeks in this “Land of Smiles,” experiencing the hospitality and warmness of the Thai locals. To this day, my adventures in Thailand remain at the top of my epic travels, especially these 2 amazing adventures in Chiang Mai.
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2 Amazing Adventures in Chiang Mai, Thailand
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Asia really is one of those destinations that you have to experience at least once in your lifetime — and Thailand (in my opinion) is the perfect first Asian country to experience. Thanks to my hosts at Tourism Authority of Thailand, I experienced this amazing country for nearly 3 weeks. My first stop was Chiang Mai, a bustling modern city, smaller than Thailand’s capital of Bangkok, and uniquely its own.
Tucked in the northern part of the country, Chiang Mai is primarily known for its abundance of cultural options from ancient temples to royal gardens. And while history and culture always wow me, give me a dollop of gardens, temples, and Buddha — and add in Thai cuisine. Liberally ladle in zip lining, bicycling, and elephants, and color me an adrenaline junkie, but my ultimate adventure of the two surprised even me.
1. Ziplining and Abseiling at Jungle Flight
In search of the extreme zip line, I discovered Jungle Flight Zipline an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai to the village of Baan Nam Kong in the Doe Lungka, one of the country’s fifth highest mountains. Fellow zippers can choose from two packages, from 22 platforms to all 34. Both are a full day adventure and include an authentic Thai lunch.
At the end of a peaceful village, we arrived at a “pure 5 hours soar experience through the air on cables.” Zipping high in the sacred Yang trees, 50 meters (164 feet!) above the ground on stations wrapped around the treetops and walking suspended canopies, whose heart wouldn’t race?
We certainly soared — on 300 meter-long lines, walked on their unique spiral stairway…sky-bridges too, and even experienced 570 meters suspended canopy and swing walk, a unique scaling spider-man-like-net. With the finale, abseiling down Jungle Flight Platform back down 164 feet. Yikes!
I zipped through the trees like a monkey — yet I didn’t spot any monkeys, likely as they are a lot smarter than me. At the time, this was my sixth zip line, and I still love that thrill, even though I’m terrified of heights. Seriously.
The Thrill of Abseiling at Jungle Flight
Repelling (controlled descent off a vertical drop, also known as abseiling), however, put me into overdrive, aka screaming like a baby. Yes, that might look like a smile above — but it is sheer fear. Seriously. After abseiling along the way, the last platform presented “Happy Ending,” a 130-foot adrenaline-pumping abseil finale.
I’ve never forgotten the thrills — and laughter shared during this Jungle Flight, in large part due to the crazy sense of humor of the Thai guides.
Yet the essence of my Thai adventures was unexpected and occurred just 30 minutes south of Chiang Mai in the Hang Dong Valley in the shadow of an elephant.
2. Elephant Owner for a Day at Patara Elephant Farm
Who knew that elephants are like oversized puppies, eager to please, bouncing back and forth on their heavy feet, ears and tail flopping? And that’s how it all began at the Patara Elephant Farm.
Local Pat Patara is passionate about the Thai culture. His mission is saving the elephants, whose numbers continue to decrease, by breeding and educating the public through his elephant breeding farm. Most of his elephants have been rescued from unsuitable working conditions. Sad stories really, when tame elephants that are deemed useless are let loose into the jungle, where most do not survive.
Duties of an Elephant Owner
That’s where I come in. As an “elephant owner” for a day, my job was to keep them healthy and have a little fun along the way.
First assignment: getting to know my elephant, but standing next to the big beast is intimidating. At the instruction of the elephant’s full-time trainer, a young boy of about 14 — if a kid could do it, why not me – I softly chanted the elephant’s name, Bodo, Bodo, Bodo. I gently rubbed his soft leathery cheeks and stuffed bunches of bananas onto his coarse tongue.
However, when I looked into the elephant’s long-lashed eyes, something there touched me. I can’t explain it, even knowing he was just an animal, but that connection was there.
When asked to dig into his sweet smelling dung and rub my fingertips into his toes, I only needed to be told it was a health check. I did my duty, wrinkled my nose and dutifully plunked my freshly painted nails where no woman has gone before. (And yes, we even sniffed the sweet dung which smelled like grass..)
He received a clean bill, so I grabbed onto a branch to brush the dirt and muck off his body. Bodo lowered himself to the ground. I stepped onto the crook of his legs to reach his back. His reaction was like a puppy getting his ears and tummy scratched.
Cool Down in Nearby Stream
Bodo’s eagerness may be contributed to his knowledge of the next step: a walk to the cool waters of the nearby stream. Pant legs cuffed and sandals discarded in the bank, I guided him there by grasping his floppy ear. We both sighed when our toes hit the refreshing water, but I labored beside my fellow trainers, scooping basket after basket of water onto the elephants. When we turned our back, they reciprocated by spraying us with trunk showers.
The Finale as an Elephant Owner
The finale was quite the feat as I scrambled up the elephant, stepping on the back of his foot, then his leg, scrambling up into his neck. I tucked my knees behind his ears and off we went to the waterfall. The elephants frolicked in the water, and we ate lunch on the rocks.
When we returned to the village, I bid farewell to my new friend and walked back to the van. Standing on the wooden bridge, twin baby elephants walked the same stream with their trainers. One became curious, extending his trunk onto my leg as if inviting me back.
Everyone told me that elephant trainer for a day would be a life-changing experience, and it was. The Thai have a healthy respect and love for these lumbering beasts with a big heart, and now I do too.
More Chiang Mai Adventures
During my stay, there were other sights and amazing Chiang Mai adventures. Bicycling along the countryside near Lisu. Smiling Thai moms carrying their babies on their backs. A Thai toddler wedged between driver dad and passenger mom atop a scooter made for one. The whirring motor harmonized with the chants of the monks within the ancient Wat U–Mong’s temple walls. Life-size posters of the royal family dot the roadsides. Shrines to Buddha claim top honors amidst carefully landscaped yards.
And then there was the relaxing end of my Thailand adventure in Koh Samui.
This merging of ancient-meets-modern-day I expected when I arrived in Chiang Mai. But when I think of this country, walking amidst dozens of crumbled temples, mingling with the locals or even zip lining isn’t at the top of my list.
Zip lining may have jumpstarted my Thai adventure, but Patara Elephant Farm brought me back to the real world. It’s a simple world in Thailand, the land of smiles, where this woman’s bond with an elephant becomes a love story. Love and appreciation for the world around me, which for one day, included an elephant named Bodo.
Ready to Visit Chiang Mai?
Getting there: Travelers from the U.S. will really get to know the cabins of their planes. The flight is a long, long trip, typically requiring several stops or flight connections along the way. I took Emirates Airlines and found the cabin service to be outstanding.
Staying there: After a long day with the elephants, I was happy to flake out back at the 45-room Tamarind Village, a quiet getaway in “Old” Chiang Mai and just a stroll away from the famous night bazaar. Read my hotel review of Tamarind Village at Hotel-Scoop.com
More info: Visit the Tourism Authority of Thailand.