Elephants playing soccer at the Maesa elephant camp in northern Thailand. // © 2010 Pride Travel/S. Nathan DePetris
Marc Kassouf is the owner and CEO of Pride Travel which specializes in catering to the needs of gay and lesbian clientele. Kassouf holds numerous industry certifications, most notably by Cruise Lines International Association, the Travel Institute and various destination visitors bureaus including Thailand, Japan, and Korea. He sits on two board committees of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association. Kassouf has traveled to nearly 48 countries and has sailed on more than 60 cruises.
Trekking in northern Thailand is ideal for peak, shoulder and off-season travel due to much cooler weather than in Bangkok or the south. Ecotourism options abound, with many options for your clients based in and around Chiang Mai.
Tiger Kingdom Chiang Mai
Few places offer your clients the opportunity to actually pet a fully grown tiger -- a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Tiger kingdom has three large cages encompassing its grounds, where serene, calm cats are trained from birth to interact with humans. The mission of the preserve and the park is to protect the tiger species while offering limited scale sustainable tourism.
Each of the larger cages encompasses a space the size of two tennis courts, housing only three tigers who have plenty of room to roam. For those wanting a hands-on experience, the park offers the opportunity to pet a tiger. Not once did I feel in danger and, after the initial apprehension had passed when I entered a cage with a large claw-toting animal three times my size, I felt calm, soothing feeling rather than the adrenaline rush I had anticipated. To tell the truth, I was more in danger of shocking myself on the electrified fence than being harmed by a tiger; in fact, one of the handlers had to tap me on the hip once or twice to remind me to move away from the fence.
Tiger Kingdom also offers a full-service restaurant. Highlights include a not-to-be-missed papaya salad and the fresh fruit juices. Consider suggesting the green guava juice that was both sweet and lightly bitter to your clients. Also available is a light pork meatball soup with vegetables and rice noodles as well as lightly fried catfish with sweet and hot sauce. Topping off the dining experience, two of the big cats were outside playing in a pool of cool water, jumping to paw at a green leafy fishing rod toy with which a handler was playing. This scene is easily comparable to a domestic housecat playing with feathers on a string.
This attraction is excellent for small groups under 20; for larger groups, you may need to divide the group so perhaps half can eat lunch while the other half visit the tigers, and vice-versa.
Maesa Elephant Camp
Less than a half-hour ride from Chiang Mai, the Maesa elephant camp is located in a rustic preserve by the river. This renowned camp has won acclaim for its sustainable programs that blend tourism and the caretaking of elephants seamlessly, becoming the first elephant camp to earn the ISO 9001 certification standard for quality management.
Three daily shows present many options for your itineraries. Elephant performances will amaze and delight your clients with parades, soccer game, dancing and musical instrument playing, dart throwing and others.
By far the most amazing part of the show, however, is the elephant painting. Each elephant and their mahout assistant (who only hands the elephants the brushes) will paint different styles ranging from realistic to impressionistic painting. In fact, one elephant was so engrossed in the details he took twice as long as the others to paint his impressionistic landscape painting. Paintings are sold in the store, and each piece is authentic.
Make sure to suggest your clients feed the elephants after the show. The price is miniscule, the experience, quite memorable. Lastly, a ride atop one of the elephants will make anyone feel like “Anna and the King.”
For a truly interactive and unique experience, consider booking active clients in the Mahout training courses. They will be taught the history, the biology and about the caring for elephants. The course culminates in elephant handling, feeding, bathing, riding and painting.
Umbrella and Silk Factory Tours
For additional sustainable tourism options and attractions that benefit the local communities around Chiang Mai consider incorporating a visit to the Handicrafts Village for your clients. There, they will have the opportunity to visit umbrella and silk factories. Umbrellas are made from the paper of the sa tree, and demonstrations include the making of the stems, paper and the intricate painting process. Artists in the co- op will decorate a design onto any surface. Your group members can add launder-proof designs to bags, shirts, pants and even the back of cell phones.
At the silk factory, visitors are educated about the process of making silk from the worm to the loom. After the demonstrations, there are ample shopping opportunities and large stores at both. Your clients can buy with confidence from local artisans and take home unique souvenirs while also supporting the community.