On the mountain above Chiang Mai is the royal family's winter palace, Phuping, and a well-known Buddhist temple, Suthep. Nearby are villages that specialize in lacquer-ware, silver-smithing, silk and cotton weaving, wood carving, and umbrella making. A Lodge on the Maekok River in northern Thailand has an "orphanage" for illegally hunted animals such as gibbons, macaques and Asiatic black bears. The mountainous area where Chiang Mai has transportation lines primarily running from north to south along the wide river valleys. Agricultural products include rice, corn, tobacco, sugarcane and strawberries. Opium and jade used to be major illicit products. Now methamphetamines is No. 1 Lumber, mining, textiles, cottage industry, and tourism are all important elements in the region's economy.

Lamphun (26 kilometers from Chiang Mai) was the capital of a1,300-year-old kingdom and is reportedly home of the most beautiful women in Thailand. Situated Chiang Mai and Lampang, Lamphun was founded as the city of Haripunjaya, a Mon kingdom-city, Thought to be part of the Dvaravati civilization, it was established in the 9th (perhaps 7th) century by former Buddhist monks from Lopburi. Haripunjaya was first ruled by Queen Camadevi, daughter of the king of Lopburi, who established a legacy for the province’s reputation for beautiful women. The kingdom she ruled over thrived for several centuries, exerting wide influence across the region, before King Meng Rai conquered it in late 12th century and integrated it into the Lan Na Kingdom.

Remnants of the city’s fortifications are visible. In the lush countryside are various hill tribe communities. Natural attractions including as Doi Khun Than National Park. Worth checking out are: 1) thousand-year-old Wat Phra That Haripunchai, which contains a 150-foot-high copper-covered Lanna-style chedi, a late Dvaravati-style stepped-pyramid-style chedi and the world's largest bronze gong; 2) some ancient archeological sites; 2) and the Lamphun National Museum, which has a collection of northern Thai artifacts and objects, including terra-cotta and stucco pieces with Dvaravati influences.

Wat Phra That Si Chom Tong (in Chom Thong on Chiang Mai-Hot Road between Chiang Mai and Doi Inthanon) is gilded Burmese-style chedi that some say is one of the most beautiful temples in northern Thailand. The viharn has a cross-shaped floor plan and adorned with gilded wood carvings on the side gables, cornices and portals. The ornamentation on the teak columns and beams inside is of outstanding artistic quality. The viharn also contains a richly- decorated Burmese-style altar with ornate tusks and various statues of Buddha. The seated bronze Buddha is highly revered. The altar is said to contain a piece of the right side of the Buddha’s skull. Behind the altar is a glass case Thai weapons.

Elephant Camps near Chiang Mai

Elephant Centers in the Chiang Mai Area: The Chiang Mai area is filled with elephant amusement areas, partly because many of the elephants lost their job when a logging ban was imposed in 1989. Many elephant camps do not engage in Elephant-friendly practices. Avoid patronizing camps that exploit Thailand’s elephants.

Mae Sae Elephant Camp (10 kilometers north of Chiang Mai) features shows in which elephants move logs, get bathed and make paintings. Elephant rides are available. The camp has a health care and received Guiness Bool of World Records recognition for a painting made by eight elephants. The Elephant Camp (Pong Yaeng) features elephants bathing, moving logs, giving rides and dancing to Thai disco music.

This camp much closer than the one in Lampang. One posting on read: We went to the elephant camp north of Chiang Mai last year....It's touristy (a bit of a circus feel). That being said, we enjoyed ourselves more than we thought we would. The elephants are well treated, and their "show" was really fun to watch. If the camp in Lampang is too far out of the way, at least go to this one. On person posted on Trip Advisor: Don't go. These people abuse the elephants. The elephants are beaten and their spirits are broke. There is nothing cute about this. Location: Tapae Road, 119/9 1096, Mae Rim District, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand Contact: +66 5320 6247, +66 5320 6248 Hours Open: 7:30 am-4:00pm Admission: 750 baht for adults; 350 baht for children Website: Official website

Chiang Dao Elephant Training Center (1½ hours north of Chiang Mai) is home to 32 elephants. Their show features elephant drill teams moving logs and performing various maneuvers in perfect unison, and spraying each other with water. Visitors can also go on three-hour elephant treks to hill tribe villages and take bamboo raft rides on the Ping River. Most visitors arrive by tour bus or minivan as part of outings arranged in Chiang Mai.

Elephants at Work (60 kilometers from Chiang Mai on the road to Fang), with a small arena, where visitors sit on bleachers and watch elephants move teak logs as they used to do in the forest before Northern Thailand teak forests were logged out.

Elephant Nature Park (60 kilometres from Chiang Mai) is a 800-hectare (2,000-acre) sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants in the Northern Thailand. Founded in the 1990s, the project's aim is to provide sanctuary for distressed elephants from all over Thailand. Set in a natural valley, bordered by a river, and surrounded by forested mountains the sanctuary and surrounding area offers a glimpse of rural life. It offers short elephant treks through a picturesque valley. Location: 1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand Contact: Tel: +66 (0) 53 272855, +66 (0) 53 818932 Hours: Office Hours: 07:00-17:00 Mon-Sun. (GMT+7) Website: Official website

Thai Elephant Conversation Center

Thai Elephant Conversation Center (over an hour from Chiang Mai by car, 18 miles from Lampang on the road to Chiang Mai) is home to 49 elephants that paint pictures, make music with harmonicas and xylophones, conduct logging training sessions for young elephants and perform in two daily shows. The facility is funded by the government and located in an attractive jungle setting. The center is well known for treating the elephants humanely.

The Thai Elephant Conservation Center was set up to treat poorly treated and unhealthy elephants. Among those brought in were an elephant with an amphetamine addiction and one that had been reduced to a skeleton through overwork and lack of food. Costs at the hospital are high and most of the money comes from private donations.Many of the patients have been maltreated by illegal loggers, who pierced them with spears, gashed them with swords and fed them amphetamine-spiked bananas to keep them working in Cambodia and Myanmar. Some have also been poorly treated by fly-by-night trekking operations and elephant shows.

The Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) was opened in 1992 by the state-run Forest Industry Organization (FIO). Its goal is to help preserve knowledge about elephants accumulated over many lifetimes and make sure it's passed on to the new generation of mahouts. For a modest fee, the center offers abbreviated courses in elephant training for the public. Beyond being an exciting tourist experience, the TECC is also known for its pioneering work in conservation and science. The TECC also proudly houses six of HM King Bhumibol's ten white elephants in the Royal Elephant Stables.

km. 28-29 Lampang-Chiang Mai Highway Hang Chat, Lampang 52190, Thailand, Tel. +66 5424 7871, +66 5424 7979, +66 5422 8108, Hours Open: Open everyday from 8:30am -4:30pm.
Accommodation Between 500 Baht and 1,500 Baht. Admission: for non-Thai visitors 200 Baht ifor adults. . Entrance fees go towards the upkeep of the elephants and the ongoing welfare and development programs. Getting There: is quite easy from Lampang town or Chiang Mai as it is located along Highway No.11 between the two cities. For detailed information from either location visit the FAQ page at the TECC: Website: Official website

Ethical Elephant Tourism

Donald Frazier wrote in the New York Times: “More than half of Thailand’s 7,000 elephants live in captivity. It’s been that way ever since 1989, when the country suspended almost all of the commercial logging that had employed them for generations. Jobless elephants, often with their keepers, ended up on the streets, wandering across farmlands or taking shelter in dangerous spots like highway underpasses. [Source: Donald Frazier, New York Times, June 19, 2019]

“Today almost all of the captive animals work to entertain tourists, often in remote clearings, for small-scale operations with no more than 15 elephants, similar to roadside farms in the U.S. that have emerged as tourist destinations. Sometimes visitors simply wander among and feed the elephants. But many of the so-called elephant camps let visitors bathe with them and ride them. And larger, more touristy sites present displays that range from a few circus-style tricks to Vegas-like pageants with costumes, scripted narratives and light shows.

“Travelers who want to see, encounter and maybe play with the region’s elephants face an agonizing question: How can they know if they are supporting the abuse of these emblematic animals? Several global organizations say that elephant tourism is inherently wrong, and should be phased out. “Animals do not exist for our entertainment,” said Delcianna Winders, a lawyer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which was instrumental in the long-lasting, high-profile campaign that removed elephant acts from U.S. circuses in 2016.

“Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, senior wildlife and veterinary adviser for World Animal Protection, said that any elephant tourism, no matter how well-intentioned, drives a market where abuse is inevitable. The group insists all elephants need to be on protected reservations, with minimal contact, often limited to observation, sometimes from afar. But Dr. Janine Brown, chief elephant scientist for the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Species Survival and a member of the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group, a consortium of the region’s scientists, veterinarians, conservationists and other experts, said that creating reserves for all the country’s elephants is not possible. “It’s impossible to give a specific number of square acres per elephant,” she said. “But whatever it is, it’s more than today’s Thailand can offer.”

“Besides, it’s expensive to keep an elephant. Food can cost up to $38 per day, said John Roberts, head of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and a key mover of Thailand’s elephant-friendly tourism initiatives. Other expenses push the total to around $56 in a country where a family of four can eat for as little as $18 per day. Nobody has proposed another way to fund the upkeep of so many unemployed elephants and support thousands of keepers.

How Can You Tell Elephants Are Being Treated Humanely?

Donald Frazier wrote in the New York Times: “New understanding about how to handle Asian elephants, a global craving for ethical and sustainable travel, pressure from the rest of the world travel industry and the glare of negative publicity have driven improvement in the lives of Thailand’s elephants. But tourists never really know what happens once the last bus heads back down the dusty road to Chiang Mai, the center of this trade. In a chaotic, competitive business with little regulation and lots of unreliable information, elephant-seekers have had few ways to find out whether a camp operator is abusing the animals once the tours depart. [Source: Donald Frazier, New York Times, June 19, 2019]

“In fact, some camps have found a clever workaround to the ban on riding imposed by some Western travel agencies. They will host one group in the morning that allows no riding, and another group in the afternoon that wants riding. After the first bus leaves and before the next one arrives, the camp will simply change its name. Travel agencies do not provide much guidance. An aggressive publicity campaign, especially in Europe, has convinced many of them to boycott elephant camps that offer experiences like riding and bathing. Even top U.S. agencies don’t have the scientific expertise and the ability to operate in Thailand’s countryside it takes to tell a kindly camp from an abusive one.

“An ambitious new audit program, a first for Southeast Asia’s commercial elephant tourist sites, may have an answer. To gain certification through the new Captive Elephant Welfare Initiative, camp operators must submit to detailed, regular inspections on everything from the elephants’ diet and medical care to the training and salaries for mahouts, the local caretakers who often bond with an elephant for much of its life. It bars rough handling, and circuslike attractions such as shows where elephants ride giant tricycles or handle fireworks. The new initiative was created by scientists belonging to the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group. A well-managed camp, the working group members say, is far less likely to run short of cash and overwork its elephants.

Evaluating Ethical Elephant Tourism

Donald Frazier wrote in the New York Times: “A group known as Travelife for Tour Operators, an Amsterdam-based ratings provider to travel agents in Europe, Australia and many other countries, is responsible for evaluating the camps, and certifying in-country tour operators, creating financial incentives for camps that treat elephants well. Travelife has carved out a special niche in global travel for tourists who want to limit their impact on the environment and the places they visit, including the people and wildlife. According to Dr. David Fennell, a professor at Brock University, in Ontario, Canada, credible ratings companies like Travelife have become an “absolutely critical resource” to the fast-emerging “green” segment of the travel industry. “There’s a great deal of disinformation and ‘greenwashing’ on the internet. And Travelife has plenty of endorsements from solid, reputable players,” Dr. Fennell said. [Source: Donald Frazier, New York Times, June 19, 2019]

“Travelife dispatches expert field inspectors to check the sustainability practices of companies in green tourism, from hotels to tour buses. It’s especially sensitive to matters eco-minded tourists started noticing recently, like recycling, food waste and the treatment of workers, cultural sites and animals. In Thailand, it has audited 20 elephant camps for compliance so far. It has also trained and certified 10 tour operators, the in-country ‘destination managers’ who assemble the packages that travel agencies sell to tourists. These companies are the centerpiece of the program: They make sure the camps treat elephants well and train workers, from business managers to stable hands, on best practices from the Captive Elephant Initiative. In return, they promise to send business only to these camps. Right now these camps include some of the largest and best known, such as Patara Elephant Farm and Maesa Elephant Camp. Travelife’s program currently applies only to Thailand, the most popular destination for elephant tourism.

According to Niels Steeman, group marketing manager for Asian Trails, a leading tour operator and a supporter of the initiative, “this project will channel business through the supply chain to the camps that measure up to the new standards, and this will induce other camps to improve as well. “This set of relationships gives it to them, and financially rewards the camps that take part,” he said. Buffalo Tours, one of the 10 operators working with Travelife in Thailand, has sent more than 4,000 tourists to complying elephant camps so far this year, according to its marketing manager, Ewan Cluckie, and others report similar results. That number could grow as bigger companies like Royal Caribbean Cruise Line add Travelife-approved elephant tours as shore excursions.

“Much of the 109-page checklist is devoted to basic health, based on scientists’ long study of working elephants’ proper diet, exercise and activity. For example, they need strenuous work such as rugged jungle treks in order to properly digest. Few of the people who run elephant camps have been professionally trained in how to care for them and have begun to rely on experts, often from the national university’s elephant center.

“The guidelines include specific rules for riding elephants, restraining them with leg chains for limited periods of time, and for using the traditional bullhook that’s used to guide them and, in the wrong hands, to torment them. When it comes to riding the animals, for instance, under the Travelife standard the elephant is allowed to carry only 10 percent of its body weight with one or two riders, no saddle or a light one mounted over its shoulders, and in a natural setting that’s easy on an elephant’s feet, where it can forage along the way. All of this stands in sharp contrast to the gruesome rides common in Thailand until a few years ago. Unscrupulous operators would overload elephants and march them in a circle over broken pavement for as long as 12 hours for busloads of tourists, arousing global outcry.

Approved Elephant Camps

Donald Frazier wrote in the New York Times: “Finding the approved camps could take some effort and patience for U.S. travelers. (Travelife doesn’t yet do business with U.S. travel agencies.) The camps generally don’t market themselves overseas, so Americans have to find them through Thailand’s 10 Travelife-certified tour operators. Few of them are set up for direct sales, leery of doing anything that travel agents might perceive as stealing their business.

“But these companies can be valuable sources of information. Their names — the larger ones are Khiri Travel, Buffalo Tours and Exo Travel — appear on the Travelife site and that of program co-sponsor, the Pacific Asia Travel Association. Americans can contact them directly and simply ask how to find one of the Travelife elephant camps. Phone calls asking for the “ethical elephant visit” person work far better than emails — someone almost always speaks English. Most will connect a caller to the sustainability officer, often in the Bangkok office, who can make the right connections. A few operators such as Buffalo Tours will even directly book customers.

“Is it possible to simply observe elephants with little direct contact? Private operators all over Thailand offer this experience, many of them extensively reviewed online in crowdsourced platforms such as TripAdvisor. Many run what they call a ‘refuge’ or ‘sanctuary’ for elephants, and promote themselves as charitable organizations instead of for-profit businesses.

“Standards of care differ wildly. With little or no transparency or state regulation it’s impossible to learn about the camp’s practices or the elephants’ welfare. (Under Thai law, elephants are considered farm animals.) The ubiquitous brochures in tourist hotels are famously unreliable. Few of the camps have been audited for animal welfare by Travelife or any other science-based organization. Some such as the well-known, popular Elephant Nature Park in Mae Taeng refuse even to be audited.

“World Animal Protection has surveyed a number of these camps and recommends several well-known sites in Thailand, including Mahouts Elephant Foundation near Chiang Mai, Wildlife Friends Foundation near Cham Am, Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary in Mae Chaem and the Travelife-approved Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Chiang Saen. (Oddly, some of these have offered the riding that WAP says it will not tolerate.)

“One of the more appealing camps on the WAP list, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in Sukhothai, has become a model of sustainable practice for its 600 square acres of forested range and its rigorous objection to buying elephants, but especially for its reluctance to guide them with the bullhook. But elephants have killed mahouts over the last few years at camps where it is not in use, and experts say that many elephant-handlers feel the tool, though fearsome looking to Western tourists, has a calming effect on elephants who need to know who is boss, and it could have saved their lives.

Certified Elephant-Friendly Tour Companies: Travelife has certified these destination management companies for offering humane elephant tourist sites, and for enforcing its standards for treatment and care. 1) ASIA DMC (84-24-373-3333;; 2) Asian Trails (66-2-626-2000, Ext. 0;; 3) Buffalo Tours (66-2-245-6392, Ext. 0; U.S.: (844) 310-9883;; 4) Destination Asia (66-2-127-5888;; 5) Destination Services 66-2-245-1551, Ext. 0;; 6) Diethelm Travel (66-2-782-7000, Ext. 0;; 7) Easia Travel (84-243-933-1362;; 8) EXO Travel (66-2-633-9060, Ext. 0;; 9) Go Vacation (66-2-267-1202;; 10) Khiri Travel (66-2-968-6828;

Certified Elephant-Friendly Attractions: These elephant attractions in Thailand offer limited contact and high standards of care, according to World Animal Protection. 1) Mahouts Elephant Foundation;; 2) Wildlife Friends Foundation;; 3) Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary;; 4) Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation;

Doi Suthep-Pui National Park

Doi Suthep-Pui National Park (five kilometers from Chiang Mai) covers an area of 262 square kilometers and embraces verdant forests and mountain ranges. Major mountains include Doi Suthep, Doi Buak Ha, and Doi Pui. These mountains are the main sources of tributaries and streams in Chiang Mai. Sacred places, religious attractions and historical sites are located in the park complex. Attractions in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park include 10-meter-high Huai Kaeo Waterfall, six kilometers from Chiang Mai town. Khru Ba Siwichai Monument is situated at the foot of Doi Suthep Mountain. The monument honours the devoted Buddhist monk whose followers built the first 10 kilometer road to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in 1935. Hours Open: Open everyday from 8:00am to 6:00pm. Contact: Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park, Tambon Suthep, Amphoe Mueang, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Tel. +66 5329 5117-8, +66 5321 0244 Getting There: To get to the park office, drive from Chiang Mai town for 5 kilometers on the Huai Kaeo-Chiang Mai University-Chiang Mai Zoo route to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep en route. At a turn off on the right, the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park road sign will be seen. Website: Official Thailand National Park website, Use Google translate /

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Doi Suthep-Pui Park, highly rich in biodiversity, is located 16km.northwest of old city of Chiang Mai, and has been designated and protected as the Suthep-Pui National Park since 1973. It covers an area of 261 square km of mountain evergreen pine mixed with deciduous forests, and lower- leveled dry dipterocarps. At the highest peak, it is about 1,658m above the sea level. This mountain, which is a multi- peaks complex system forming an important part of the western mountainous ranges in northern Thailand, is worshipped by the indigenous Lawa people as the abode of their ancestors' spirits, long before the arrival of Mangrai. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

The Suthep- Pui national park is home to a great biodiversity, with over 300 birds species, many of them rare and endemic, including Banded Kingfisher, Green Longtailed Broadbill, Silver Pheasant, Giant Nuthatch, Mrs. Hume's Pheasant, Spot- Breasted Parrotbill, and Red- faced Riocichla. There are 5 waterfalls in the forest area, more than 300 bird species and nearly 2000 species of ferns and flowering plants, and in the rainy season, butterflies bloom as abundantly as the flowers.

In 1997, a large scale deforestation was reported in the upper Mae Sa valley resulted in the loss of about 17% of the Suthep -Pui National Park area (Thailand Development Research Foundation 1997), causing drying up of the major streams that supplied water for drinking and agriculture purposes. Such a situation left the villagers with a strong sense of the link between deforestation and loss of livelihoods sources. Faced with acute water shortage, the villagers moved down from 1300 m to its present location at 1000 m elevation about 40 years back.

In order to reverse the negative impacts of forest destruction; the villagers also initiated community efforts to restore the degraded areas which were later supported by the technical inputs from the Forest Restoration Research Unit of Chiang Mai University Currently there are many scientific studies done and published on the biodiversity in the Park area, especially bird diversity, and reforestation of Suthep -Pui.

There are also are many living local traditions, such as the annual offerings presented to the “Pu Sae-Ya-Sae”, the ancestors spirits, and the Annual Tradition of walking up on foot to pay homage to the Buddha's Relic by the students of Chiang Mai University.

Doi Khun Than National Park

Doi Khun Than National Park(accessible from the train to Chiang Mai) embraces the Khun Than mountain range. The park forms a natural boundary between Lamphun and Lampang provinces. The northern rail line to Chiang Mai runs through the longest rail tunnel in the country, which is 1,352 meters long and takes five minutes to traverse. The mountain has both virgin jungle and pine forests. Many tourists choose to walk from the Khun Than Station up the mountain, a distance of about 7 kilometers. There are four rest areas on the way. Visitors may also camp overnight but must provide for their own food. The best time to take the trip is between November and February when the weather is fine and cool.

Hours Open: Open everyday from 6.00am - 6:00pm
Contact and Accommodation: To reserve the accommodation can contact Tel. 0 2562 0760, 0 5351 8901, 0 5351 8762, 08 1032 6341 . Getting There: By Car: Follow Highway 11 and take a turn between kilometers 46 and 47 to follow an asphalt road toward the Khun Tan National Park for about 10 km. then, 8 km. on an unpaved road. Since some parts of the road are very steep, a vehicle in good condition is suggested, not a bus. By Train: This is the most convenient mode of transport. Take the northbound train to get off at the Khun Tan Railway Station, and walk further to the Doi Khun Tan National Park for 1.3 km. Website: Official Thailand National Park website, Use Google translate /

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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