We love to receive emails from visitors to our blog, especially when the people getting in touch believe in aiming to be as responsible as we try to be whilst travelling or on a holiday. So when we were asked last week if we knew of any responsible alternatives to the Tiger Temple in Chiang Mai, we were more than happy to help out.
Thousands of tourists around the world dream of replicating one of South East Asia’s biggest exports – a holiday snap with your arms around a tiger; but unknown to many who dream of cuddling what is admittedly one of natures most beautiful specimens is the terrible truth about animal attractions such as Tiger Temple and the questionable treatment and quality of life for the animals that are marketed as nothing more than a photo opportunity.
Thanks in part to the study of caring organisations such as Care for the Wild, more people are thinking twice about the animal attractions they visit whilst travelling full-time or on vacation – and we’re both incredibly pleased to see that people are looking for more responsible alternatives.
How To Choose A Responsible Alternative
There’s no perfect method for finding activities and things to do that are as responsible as they may paint themselves to be, but by following your heart and doing plenty of research, there’s no reason why you can’t find something where animals and humans aren’t being objectified for the financial gain of others.
Some recommended methods for finding responsible attractions are:
- Do Your Research
- Spend time before your trip researching which alternatives are available in the area you’re visiting. Though there’s no easy and immediate road to finding the perfect attraction, the price you may pay in time is worth the positive impact you’ll be making by avoiding questionable attractions like Chiang Mai’s Tiger Temple.
- Hire A Local Guide
- For both trekking and wildlife tours it’s important to find a guide who’s interests are in both the local indigenous people and animals well being. Connect with a local and private guide by talking with the staff at your accommodation, explaining that you’d prefer someone who isn’t connected with the larger tour agencies. They are more likely to show you their own smaller and less exploited village where you can respectfully learn about their lives.
- Cross Check Online Reviews
- As part of your ongoing research before your vacation in Chiang Mai be sure to check popular tourism review sites such as TripAdvisor, making sure to read through both the good and the bad reviews to assess the full spectrum of other peoples thoughts on how responsible the attraction is.
- Review Photos Of The Attraction
- Whilst on TripAdvisor take a few minutes to scroll through the uploaded photos of previous visitors and reviewers of the attraction to analyse if you can see any questionable actions or treatment to the animals or people involved. For example, for elephant treks make sure to keep an eye out for photos of riding and also of people using bull-hooks or other harmful instruments on them.
- For Animal Attractions – Double Check Their ‘Conservation’ Program
- Part of the marketing for Tiger Temple implies that conservation is a part of their program and that their helping to encourage the re-population of tigers to the region. This is far from the truth. Tiger Temple in recent years has been in the practice of breeding for international sale (especially to China) and the popularity of their attraction only adds to their success illegally selling tigers and tiger cubs.
- If in doubt, ask to see the full program details from your chosen attraction to see what their plans are for reintroduction to the wild.
- Avoid Attractions Where Animals Perform Unnatural Acts
- If animals are doing anything more than eating, drinking, sleeping, and playing with each other then it’s safe to say that they’re doing something unnatural to their instincts or habits in the wild.
- Performing tricks or doing human activities like painting, dancing, playing football, gymnastics or any other unnatural activities should be avoided at all times.
- Ignore “100% Guarantees”
- Think twice before signing up for activities that offer 100% guarantees that you’ll see something spectacular such as an animal in the wild. Nine times out of ten the animals and where they’re found are staged events or locations so that you get the dream travel highlight you’ve signed up for. Wild animals don’t keep appointments. If you’re told the animals usually arrive at a certain time, it may be because they’ve been trained to expect food at that time, thereby disrupting their natural eating habits.
- Before Booking Through A Tour Operator, Ask All The Right Questions
- Prior to purchasing a trip through any tour operator, be sure to ask to see their licences and accreditation – especially if they’re marketing themselves as either eco, green, or responsible.
- With the growing interest in responsible tourism the market is prone to ‘green-washing‘ (calling something eco, just to attract interest) so be mindful of who you’re booking through.
- Make Note Of Cultural Differences & Traditions
- Prior to departing from home spend a few moments searching online about the cultural differences and laws of the country your travelling to.
- Paired with learning a few local words and phrases you can very quickly build unique relationships that may help you to delve deeper into the realities of local life, especially if visiting local villages and hill tribes is high on your agenda.
Our Responsible Alternatives To The Tiger Temple
We haven’t spent nearly as much time in Thailand and the area around Chiang Mai as we’d have liked, but during our short time we came to learn about a few places that we now love and always urge others to visit, but there are many other responsible alternatives that we look forward to visiting on the next occasion we’re in Northern Thailand.
Below are just a few attractions that we’ve selected for you and our emailing friend to try out whilst in Chiang Mai and the surrounding region that should be open to both solo and group travellers.
Note – Finding responsible animal attractions is becoming easier but there’s still a long way to go. The below is a collection that includes some, but not as many animal alternatives as we’d like, but we’ll continue to add them as we find them.
1. Walk With The Elephants
After spending a month volunteering at the dog shelter within Elephant Nature Park, there’s no way we could exclude the sanctuary from our list of responsible alternatives, especially considering their efforts over the past few years to encourage an end to elephants being used for trekking, shows, and street performing.
Watching them as you walk through the park is much like a safari. You are there to watch and learn about these fantastic animals, each with a unique (and most likely tragic) story of their own of a past spent logging or performing for others after tortuous negative reinforcement methods and training based entirely on fear and breaking them down mentally. The bullying is relentless until they’re nothing but passive so as to avoid further pain.
As more trekking camps and parks have seen that Elephant Nature Park is seeing incredible numbers of people signing up for their day trips and week long volunteer stays, changes are slowly being made so that they to can get in on the action – something we’re really happy to see.
If you’re planning on attending another elephant attraction that we’ve not named be sure to reference the tips above about the treatment of the elephants, making sure to note if riding is forbidden, and that no bull-hooks or other pain-inducing methods of handling are used.
You make like to read about the day we saw an elephant born at Elephant Nature Park.
2. Visit the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand
Finding a sanctuary that is perfect isn’t always easy, but the team at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand are at least heading in the right direction and with their hearts in the right place.
Their work with elephants is better than some, but not yet on the same level as those mentioned above; however their animal conservation work is something to be both admired and encouraged.
They have a number of animals within their
3. Support Local Children at the Healing Heart Foundation
This particular responsible alternative was often mentioned when we reached out to other visitors to Chiang Mai and we both wish we’d know about it during our time in Thailand in 2013.
The Healing Heart Foundation is an art project formulated in the hope of creating a place of learning and enabling for children with learning difficulties.
Started by the father of one of the children at the project, Healing Heart Foundation guides and teaches attending children and young adults how to create art of their own to sell so that they can generate an income, where as typically they might have no job prospects at all.
Past visitors to the foundation all comment on the happy atmosphere amongst the children who attend the art project and we’re both incredibly keen to see their bright smiles, art, and textiles creations for ourselves one day.
4. Volunteer With The Stray Street Dogs of Chiang Mai
One of the most biggest impacts on our travels and the people we’ve become today was our time spent volunteering with dogs in Thailand.
Caring for dogs waiting for their turn to be adopted at Care For Dogs taught us an incredible lot as a first experience in volunteering and their half-week volunteer program would be a great introduction for any person or group looking to make both a difference to so many dogs who deserve the love so many of our own pets receive at home.
There are also many other great dog shelters to visit throughout elsewhere in Thailand, but the one we’re possibly most attached to is the dog shelter within Elephant Nature Park that we mentioned above.
The month spent amongst the 450 dogs in the grounds there were as life changing as our week at Care For Dogs and we’ve always recommended that our friends visiting Chiang Mai spend at least the minimum one week stay there to help them out. Those that did so have always had an incredible time too, so we encourage you to do the same too.
You may like to read our list of 11 Great Volunteer-Ready Dog Shelters In Thailand
5. Make A Responsible Trip To See The Hill Tribes
Visiting the internationally famous hill tribes of Northern Thailand has over the past few years been a controversial issue as people question how responsible it is to visit some of the hill tribes due to the obligations they come under to always appear in traditional dress, perform often documented dances, plus increasingly sell more souvenirs.
The other side of the discussion raises several issues around the subject of how these small villages and hill tribes depend on the small income they make from manufacturing their own goods to sell to camera-toting tourists, and there’s a part of us that feels for their situation. Both of us want to help and enable them to make a living in whichever way they please, but not to the extent where their traditions are industrialised rather than lovingly adored.
Having briefly spoken with the magnificent Ian Ord of Where Sidewalks End and read his great piece on the ongoing Thai hill tribes debate, we both value the important of taking responsible actions to make a positive effect on these small communities.
Together with Ian and Alex of Off The Path Travel’s advice, we encourage you to visit these hill tribes not through a conventional tour agency, but instead with a private and local guide (as mentioned above) by talking with the staff of your chosen accommodation, making sure to be clear about your intentions and your requirements to be responsible without effecting the lives of the locals; plus leaving no permanent and disruptive trace of your visit.
6. Explore The Nature of Mon Cham
The countryside of Northern Thailand is amongst some of the nicest in the country, though not always explored by short-term visitors to the region of which Chiang Mai belongs – but should you feel that time is on your side and you feel like renting a motorcycle or tuktuk for the day then the strawberry fields and views of Mon Cham should be your first port of call.
We owe this great landscape treat thanks to the advice of the Paper Planes blogger, Alana who put together a nice piece on day trips from Chiang Mai (thanks also to Ivana of Nomad is Beautiful for linking us to that).
Amongst the strawberry fields that surround the view you can meet with and interact with other local Thai’s visiting the area before visiting the local farms or eating at some of the scenic view restaurants that crest the hill.
Venturing out into predetermined paths on your own is possible, but if you’re able to hire a local guide from the area then your responsible alternative to some of the more typical – and less responsible – forest treks will leave a better mark on Thailand’s beautiful flora and fauna.
7. Explore Yourself – Through Ten Days of Meditation
Throughout the year tens of thousands of international tourists and travellers descend on cities like Pai and Chiang Mai to escape the rat race and learn the mantras of meditation. Though we’ve never taken part in meditation ourselves, several people we’ve met with during our travels have had nothing but fond thoughts and memories from their time learning the values of Buddhism.
Joining one of the ten day meditation courses must make for one of the most interesting experiences in anyone’s life as they’ll have so much time for self-examination and reflection at a time where we’re all so switched on or plugged in to the world via a mobile device.
Though typically for solo travellers there’s no reason why you can’t attend a day meditation course either with a partner or as part of a group at one of the many temples in Chiang Mai (though one of the most popular is the Vipassana Meditation Course at Wat Phradhat Doi Suthep)
8. Learn To Cook The Thai Way
Thai cooking courses are incredibly popular for all travellers to Chiang Mai, but finding one that you can trust to have responsible practices for how and where it acquires its ingredients isn’t always so blindingly obvious on the surface or from a TripAdvisor review – plus, we’ve also been informed that it’s not always guaranteed that your teacher will be Thai, which in our eyes makes a big difference on the methods used to make delicious Thai food.
Your best option is again to speak with someone at your accommodation about visiting a cooking school that’s not located above a hostel in the city center, but actually out amongst the very fields in which they’ll be gathering the ingredients for you to use.
One such Thai cookery class that we’ve heard great things about due to its location and responsible permaculture organisation is that of the Thai Farm Cooking School – recommended by the married nomadic couple of Nomadic Samuel & Audrey – and it looks fantastic.
You can go alone, with a partner, or as a family group for either the day or up to three days. There’ll be plenty of opportunity to ask questions as you learn the entire process of gathering your ingredients, preparing them, and making your own curry paste before finishing your learning process with either a bananas in coconut milk sauce dessert, or a plate of mango sticky rice (Mine and Franca’s favourite!).
Aiming For Perfection
Don’t be disappointed if you’re not the perfect traveler or tourist. It’s incredibly hard to find an attraction that is responsible at every step of its operation, but we’d both rather support people and attractions that are trying to do something right and be more responsible rather than the opposite that’s happening at locations like Tiger Temple and Tiger Kingdom.
Obviously this isn’t a completely perfect list either, but we’re open to discussion and suggestions of other places that you feel should be on the list. If you know of somewhere else in the Chiang Mai area that is also a responsible alternative to the Tiger Temple, please let us know in the comments below, or get in touch via our contact page.
Have you visited any of the above alternatives in Chiang Mai?