There are many ways to spend one’s time in the lush forests and modest mountains that surround Chiang Mai.
The Elephant Nature Park, about an hour outside of town, houses a number of Asian elephants (much smaller than their African counterparts), many rescued from Thai streets or loggers.
Unlike other venues where you can ride the creatures or watch them paint or perform, this park is focused on educating visitors on the complexity of the Thai relationship with elephants, which are revered animals but also (once) heavily used (and imaginably mistreated) in the logging industry. We fed and helped bathe many of the reserve’s adopted animals, some of which are very old and heavily scarred, but many of them have cultivated their own familial relationships within the larger community, some protective and symbiotic, some fiercely independent, some in mourning. Since the countrywide ban on rainforest logging in 1990s, much of the domesticated elephant population is “without work,” with some displaced into cities by handlers to beg and others sold into Myanmar. There is a glacial slowness to the creatures, but also grace and beauty provided by such a rhythm of life and their renowned intelligence.
Tigers (Tiger Kingdom).
Tiger Kingdom felt a bit more exploitative, especially after the elephants, but it was still breathtaking to see these amazing animals up close: the vivacity of the cubs, who are learning to stalk and bite and sort out a social order among themselves, coupled with the daytime, drowsy slothfulness of the older (much larger) tigers.
Ziplining (Flight of the Gibbon).
Some of the trees were stuck with this ladder contraction; apparently, locals hammer steps into the trunks and climb sans safety equipment to get at honey in the treetops. If they look a bit rickety, they are only meant to be climbed a few times before the bamboo rungs become too weak.
After ziplining, we went for a hike up alongside a nearby waterfall.