Elephant camps, Chiang Mai
When you embark on an elephant ride in Mae Taeng Elephant Park, you will actually stop at this fake "Lisu Village" where you will then change to an ox-cart ride.
This "Lisu Village" is actually just a series of gift shop and is certainly not the real Lisu Village in Mae Hong Son. So if anyone try to make it a selling point of the Elephant Park trip, just know that it is nothing much.
Elephant camps in Chiang Mai
Unique Suggestions: Not sure how to regard the elephant camps in general - but this one was excellent - definitely the best I have seen. There was a sense of cleanliness, happiness, closeness with the mahoots, and a lot of sanuk - they love to drench you on mahoot demand! The show was a demonstration of animal "tricks", but it really was quite tasteful here, in my opinion. The forest environment was also a far cry from the dusty lean-tos we had seen in other camps.
We were dead keen to see the elephant painting - dreadful tourists I know! - and led to my worst experience in Thailand by far - was first to place my "order" for the picture my husband and kids had closely photographed the progress of - a German man spirited it away when I went to get money - no doubt confident that he would not be challenged. I was firm and insistent - he was rude and abusive - he called me ugly - clearly a man without a mirror! I was not deterred, and had some moral support from other tourists! Anyway, I go the picture, but bitter-sweet victory in the end. Next time I went there, they had a more secure system - as a man had apparently spat on a painting when he missed out. Not behaviour which bring respect from Thais.
The elephants are wonderful gentle creatures, and are at such risk in Asia, so, if they have a good life and actually get to do some form of physical work, and survive, I don't feel bad about helping. At a completely selfish level, it was wonderful to feed them and watch them play, and appreciate the close relationship with the mahoots. See for yourself.
I must also include elephant riding under "tourist traps". I myself am guilty of riding elephants in Thailand (twice, sorry). The riding itself isn't so bad or anything (it is hyped up for nothing though, it isn't anything special), but the whole system of elephant riding is bad. The elephants are chained, beaten, and cut to act as tourist machines. Going on an elephant ride in northern Thailand is memorable, but do you want to support people who beat and harm these gentile creatures??
Unique Suggestions: If you have some burning desire to ride elephants, than you should try and help the amimals, find out if you can donate to help the elephants. In many places you can feed them, go for it. Tell the people to treat the elephants better (maybe with a small cash reward??).
Fun Alternatives: Go trekking by foot, ot rubber rafting! A lot more fun!
Near Chiang Mai there are several elephant camps where you can watch elephants held in captivity and their pathetic shows... like the elephand who plays the harmonica, the one who dances, and so on and so forth. Pityful!
Unique Suggestions: Normally before or after the show you are taken on a elephant ride through the forest: so decline and annoy the people at the elephant camp.
Fun Alternatives: Buy a ticket to Kenya and see free elephants in the wilderness. It's so much better.
There are tens or maybe hundreds elephant camps all over Thailand. Most of them are in northern part of Kingdom. They all have the same kind of program and maybe those shows are good entertainmet for those who are first time in Thailand.
Unique Suggestions: But rember that they collect money to feed those elephants. So after all maybe these shows are not a tourist traps.
We went on a tour to the temple and the driver very quietly offered his services to us as 'you only pay for the gasoline' He charged us 300 baht to go to visit the craft village. But we went to a Gem factory, Umbrella factory, Wooden furniture factory by then we had had enough but he wanted us to see one more, only 5 minutes he said. It was a carpet factory which took 20 minutes, we were exhausted. From 8.30am until 2.00pm. No food was available though we had a biscuit snack and water with us. We gave him an extra 200 baht because we felt sorry for him, but it was us that had been taken for a ride because he was getting a commission from all these people we called on. No handicraft village did we visit. Far better and cheaper to go in a group. Visiti all the tourist guides in the area and then choose, they are all the same but different prices. ALSO be careful of MSG in food, even in 5 star hotels.