Taking travel to heart: Experiencing more in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Conscious travel. It is a term I’ve heard referenced but one I didn’t completely understand, until my most recent trip to Thailand. Thailand is friendly, tropical, and rich in history and culture, creating a lively and interesting place to visit – from Bangkok's palaces and savory street food, Chiang Mai's night markets and sparkling temples to Phuket and its famous beaches. But sometimes, when traveling, your looking for more along the way. Conscious travel is about deepening your experience during your travels. But, how does one do that? Here is what I discovered in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Seek out local stories.

A Thai foot massage can be found on almost every block in Chiang Mai. These small local businesses seem to be a staple of the culture and tourist economy. Everyone enjoys getting one, from locals to tourists. A Thai foot massage costs about 200 baht. That is about $6.00 for an hour massage. As a traveler, why would you not enjoy one, two or three of them?

But, not all Thai foot massages are created equal. One business in Chiang Mai makes a difference in its’ community.

A friend directed me to Lila Thai Massage in Chiang Mai. I soon learned the owner was the former director of Chiang Mai Women's Prison. She started the business to support the lives of newly released inmates into society. Once released, due to discrimination and limited employment opportunities, some go back to a life of crime. Lila Thai Massage was established to help eliminate the pattern of crime and lack of opportunity. All the women become fully trained as a professional massage therapist, through a 180 hour massage training course.

Learning the story of this small business deepened my connection to the women that work there. With their ever-comforting smile and heartfelt skill, I know my small contribution to pamper myself was doing a lot more. 


Travel mindfully.

When in Chiang Mai, you will find most tourist offices advertising adventure tours that include trekking with elephants. It is a popular activity. The Asian elephant is a sacred and national symbol in Thailand and it's enticing to want to ride one.

But, the Asian elephant is quickly becoming an endangered species. It is being pushed away from the wild and exploited by commercial trades - including from tourism. 

There is one place you can go to learn about these gentle giants, learn why riding an elephant is not so good, and leave you with more than just another adventure story.

The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is the only sanctuary of its kind that rescues elephants which have been harmed through logging, tourist street begging and elephant treks. Elephant treks over time can injure an elephants spine.

Lek Chailert established the Elephant Nature Park in the 1990’s, after working in the tourist industry where she learned about the abuse and neglect domestic Asian elephants experienced. In an industry steeped in tradition, she advocates for the rights and welfare of Asian elephants and the way they are treated. Her mission is to protect the elephants, educate the tourism industry and one day see them back in their natural habitat. 

After my own visit to the Elephant Nature Park and spending an afternoon walking, bathing, hugging and hearing the stories of these sacred social animals, I left with a greater understanding of what conscious travel was and gained more than just a herd of new friends.

See things as they are. 

Over ninety percent of Thailand is Buddhist. In Chiang Mai, Thailand there are over two hundred temples with one found almost every half mile. These temples are an important part of the Thai people’s daily life. For a tourist, it could be easy to not really see what's inside.

Have you ever experienced a temple like a local? Do you know what to do when you meet a Buddha face to face?

There are several opportunities to learn about Buddhism through a Vipassana Meditation retreat in Chiang Mai. Myself being curious, participated in a two day, overnight retreat joining almost a hundred students from all over the world to gain something deeper and be silent for 24 hours.

Vipassana means "to see things as they really are.” Our teachers were monks and novices (monks in training). They taught us how to sit, breath, walk and be mindful. After twenty-four hours of meditation practice, as a group, we were able to investigate further with our wise teachers, the Buddhist perspective on topics ranging from karma, killing and abortion, past lives and ladyboys, to simply one’s individual path to happiness. 

When traveling, some say "Do as the Roman's do." So now in Thailand, when I see the gold statues glistening through the doorways of a temple in Thailand, I smile, walk forward with gratitude and intention, bow, and sit.



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