Thailand's northern Hill Country offers a family trip you'll never forget.
I first met Katherine Connor six years ago at the King's Cup Elephant Polo Match in Thailand. She was accompanied by an elephant whose role was not to compete for an international trophy, but to make a pitch for contributions to an elephant sanctuary located in the vicinity of Chiang Mai. Katherine's chief project then was to rehabilitate an injured baby elephant she had rescued and dubbed Babar.
My introduction to the elephants of Thailand is my most enduring memory of Chiang Mai, and the elephant sanctuaries remain the best reason to venture beyond Bangkok into Thailand's northern Hill Country. Chiang Mai has other treasures, too - an abundance of them - and many of them are as kid-friendly as it gets. Northern Thailand's largest city is filled with ornate and vibrant temples, a children's zoo, even go-kart tracks, not to mention the exotic markets, cafés andc ooking schools. The surrounding hills resound with tribal villages that seem to date from the Stone Age, while wilderness trails and river runs slash through dense jungles, inviting the outdoor adventurer.
Chiang Mai is the modern capital of the ancient kingdom of Lanna Thai, The Land of a Million Rice Fields. While agriculture is still a major industry, cultural tourism predominates here. Among the city's 300 Buddhist temple complexes, towering Wat Phrathat Doi Suth'ep is Chiang Mai's most famous - but the oldest, Wat Chiang Man, is foremost in my mind. It contains a stone tablet detailing the founding of the city in 1292. The red roofs, gold-leaf embossing, mirrored glass tiles and a pagoda dedicated to elephants are dazzling, as are its ancient Buddha statues dating back 2,000 years. Even if younger members of your party rapidly become bored by these uncanny shrines, they will perk up once you hail a taxi pickup with two benches in the back (a songthaew), an old-fashioned bicycle-rickshaw (a samlor) or one of the hair-raising, golf cart-like tuk tuks to whisk you from wat to wat.
One sight not to miss, the Chiang Mai Zoo will entertain even the youngest visitor. A lush, spacious estate, it brings visitors far closer to the animals than most zoos dare. The maze of trails takes you from white tigers and giant pandas across open ranges to a Children's Zoo, where kids can enjoy their own playground.
Another keynote feature of the city proper is its markets. The most popular and colorful is the Night Bazaar in city center. Crowned by a three-story emporium, the Night Market is surrounded by stalls and tiny shops laden with all the arts and crafts you can stuff into that overflow bag, from wooden carvings and woven baskets to mammoth beetles and stunning butterflies mounted on bamboo shafts. Shoppers can also trip out on the Handicrafts Highway (San Kamphaeng Road) five miles east of the city, where the Umbrella Village at Bo Sang is dedicated to the art of papermaking. You can watch as umbrellas are assembled at factory outlets, then ship your favorites abroad, as I did cheaply enough to several friends in the United States.
My own favorite among Chiang Mai's many flavorful experiences is attending a Thai cooking school. Even if you're not handy in the kitchen, the chance to create a splendid dish from scratch is irresistible. Field work commences with a visit to a wet market to select fresh ingredients, followed by a hands-on workshop in the kitchen where you fashion curry pastes and prawns skewered with sugarcane. Then the ultimate test: lunch. Given the fresh ingredients and watchful eyes of local chefs, the results are usually superb - and what better way to introduce the kids to the joys not only of Northern Thai cuisine but of cooking for themselves?
I must admit that the exotic pleasures of woks and wats pale when it comes to the lure of the hills. Jungle trekking, highland hiking, ATV rambling, mountain biking, zip-lining and bungee jumping are easily arranged by hotel tour desks. The day-tripping adventures I most favor are the Hill Country tribal village tours and the elephant camps. Both are uniquely Northern Thai, and both are found along Chiang Mai's winding Mae Sa Loop.
This loop often begins with the Queen Sirkit Botanic Garden a collection of rather strange plants and blooms, followed by a stop the children will enjoy at the Mae Sa Snake Farm, a venom-collecting stronghold where cobras and giant pythons uncoil. Beyond the flowers and snakes, however, are the Hill Tribe Villages, just out of the loop onthe Myanmar (Burma) border. It's well worth taking the detour. Perhaps the mostunforgettable of tribal villages is that of the Long Neck Karen (Karen Padaung). Many of the Karen women have beautified themselves from childhood by ringin
their necks in metal bands, an irreversible process that stretches the neck ever longer and higher. The villagers encourage visitors to freely stroll their settlements, enter their huts and barter for handicrafts.
For me, the real jewels of the Mae Sa Loop are the elephant camps. The Mae Sa Elephant Camp offers the most in the way of family entertainment. Since 1976 its breeding program has been dedicated to preserving the Asian elephant, but much of its funding comes from the shows it stages. Here the pachyderms perform dances, move logs, play soccer, paint on canvases with brushes in their trunks and munch on bananas and sugarcane supplied by the audience. You can cap this circus with an elephant ride through surrounding forests.
Another option is the Elephant Nature Park, which provides a program focused on elephant conservation. There are no shows or ride here. Rather, the emphasis is on mahout (elephant handler) training. Visitors can feed the elephants by hand and escort them into the river for bathing.
As it turns out, elephant rescue and conservation are what still consumes Katherine Connor in her own sanctuary south of Chiang Mai near Sukhothai. Babar, alas, could not overcome his severe injuries, despite Connor's heroic efforts, which included the creation of the world's first elephant wheelchair; but undaunted, Connor went on to establish a refuge bearing Babar's Thai name. Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary, or BLES for short, provides a low-key safe haven for rescued elephants without resorting to the usual chains and hooks. While not open to tour groups or drop-in visitors, BLES does maintain three teak guesthouses for those who want to immerse themselves in the daily life of the sanctuary.
Since I first encountered Katherine Connor in 2003, she has not only created her own elephant sanctuary but also married a mahout, Anon, and welcomed her first child, Hope. She has also received the Commitment to Animal Welfare Award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare in a ceremony at the House of Lords in London - a fitting tribute to this protector of Thailand's regal symbol, which still thrives in the wilds of Chiang Mai.