When visiting Chiang Mai, check out these 10 ecotourism activities that offer all the best parts of Northern Thailand’s crown jewel.
Thailand’s rugged north is a land of sweeping jungle wilderness, hidden ancient cultures, panoramic mountain ranges, and rare wildlife. As these areas become more open to tourism, however, travelers must consider their impact on local communities and the environment.
Headquartered in the outskirts of Chiang Mai — with new branches operating in both Phuket and Koh Samui — this wildlife sanctuary is home to a number of happy, playful elephants that have all been rescued from their previous lives of captivity in the logging or tourism industries. The center’s expert staff educate visitors on the lesser-known controversies surrounding the use and treatment of the kingdom’s most revered animal, while offering opportunities to engage with the resident elephants in their natural day-to-day environment, including bathing, playing, and of course, lots of eating!
This small village of about 300 people is Thailand’s first “model homestay” community, with many residents offering tourists accommodation in their homes to learn about their lifestyle and culture. The town first sustained itself on its production of mieng, a local delicacy made from fermented tea leaves. As demand for the product waned over time, the local community recognized the value of its stunning nature and unique culture. Locals began managing an ecotourism community that ensures sustainability of the area as well as the integrity of their culture, benefitting villagers and visitors alike.
This national park is home to Thailand’s highest peak, Doi Inthanon, countless waterfalls, and expansive wilderness. In 1969, the park caught the late king’s eye, when the region was experiencing increasing deforestation, poverty, and opium production. To empower local communities, King Bhumibol Adulyadej instituted his Royal Project Doi Inthanon which enabled hill tribes to develop economies of cash crops as alternatives to opium, providing them with the modern agricultural techniques and equipment necessary to ensure their sustainability. Today, the area is a productive region full of fisheries, plant breeding and multiplication labs, rice terraces, and fruit orchards, all of which can be visited by tourists between treks to hidden waterfalls and of course, summiting the iconic peak.
This coffee plantation is led by young members of the local Akha hill tribe producing Akha Ama Coffee, an operation that has improved standards of living in the local area since its inception. Visitors can participate in the centre’s signature offering, “A Coffee Journey,” a three-day excursion into the Akha region, culture, and traditions.
Combining nature and culture with a dash of mystery and intrigue, Jim Thompson Farm is a great family-friendly eco-attraction in Nakhon Ratchasima. Many people may have heard of Jim Thompson, the American Thai silk expert who famously disappeared without a trace when walking in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. The farm tells the story of Mr. Thompson and provides insight into the production of delicate Thai silk. Silk worms and weaving looms aren’t all you’ll see here, though; the large farm has an organic vegetable and herb garden (where you can pick your own fresh produce), an impressive field of giant pumpkins, a maze, and more.
There are many treks to hilltribe villages offered around Chiang Mai’s city limits; however, many now suffer from over-tourism and the erosion of local culture. They also don’t often see financial gains from tourism, as the profits tend to float towards third-party retailers. The Sopmoi-Mae Sariang area enables visitors to experience this beautiful area in a more sustainable way. Smaller group sizes limit the impact on both the environment and integrity of the local way-of-life, generating a far more authentic experience for the traveler; any money you spend in the villages will remain there.
One of the best zipline courses in Asia — and the only that flies with wild gibbons — Flight of the Gibbon has been a crowd-pleaser for years but has recently upped its attitude toward sustainability. The company, based just outside Mae Kampong, already held a respected presence for its management programs that reintroduce captive gibbons to the jungle, but has expanded its scope to recognize its impact on the local community. Throughout areas like Mae Kampong, large adventure or tour operators often erode local cultures by replacing or undermining local economies, and locals may need to leave to find employment or abandon traditional practices. Flight of the Gibbon, instead, employs much of its staff directly from the local community, even creating positions for those like traditional musicians, chefs, and masseuses. To engrain the integrity of the local culture, the company also sets up projects with local artisans and craftsmen to help them continue their trade, which would otherwise be lost in many cases.
True ecotourism doesn’t just involve a responsible attitude towards the environment, but towards the local culture and traditions as well. Sankampang is a handicraft village, housing the local factories that produce silk, jewelry, teakwood carvings, and other items that have been significant to the local culture and economy for generations.
Further on is Borsang, a sleepy rural town that’s famous for its handmade, meticulously-painted paper umbrellas — an item that was once reserved for the upper classes of Thailand to protect fair skin from the sun. Borsang hosts an incredible Umbrella Festival each January, showcasing the artisan village’s prized skill.
This international community outside of Chiang Mai focuses on permaculture and entirely sustainable living. Visitors can learn about their processes through permaculture introduction and design courses, the construction of earthen buildings, and demonstrations of its medium scale water harvesting system. The area is situated in low-lying hills that are framed by rice paddies and national forests, and tends to a diverse “forest of food” with more than 40 varieties of fruit trees alone.
The global movement against single-use waste is firmly established in Thailand, largely thanks to the prevalence of grassroots, community-run chapters of groups like Trash Hero. Trash Hero Chiang Mai — comprised of locals and tourists alike — meets regularly to preserve the natural beauty of Chiang Mai and its surrounding areas. The group schedules clean-up 5Ks for joggers, walkers, and bikers to join, and visits local schools to educate students on the values of sustainability. Check their Facebook page for details about what’s going on and how you can get involved during your time in Chiang Mai.
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These recommendations were updated on August 20, 2018 to keep your travel plans fresh.