The highlights of Northern Thailand like it's neighbor Laos include trekking, village home stays, and elephant riding. We entered Thailand in the north at Huay Xai and immediately got a taste of the delicious cuisine when my wife spotted a vendor selling huge spring rolls and Coconut filled pastries at the bus station to Chiang Rai. We stayed a few days in Chiang Rai but didn't find it to be too special, a quiet place ideal for trekking, which we weren't interested in.
We moved on after a few days to Chiang Mai, about a 3 hour bus ride, which was bigger, more restaurants but also more crowds. The frustration in getting around for us were that we don't really ride motorbikes and with the heavy traffic wouldn't have been a good option anyway. The other way to get around is by swangthaw, which are efficient but expensive. Our time was thus spent inside the city visiting art galleries, eating, visiting the night market, and walking around the walled city. We looked into a few treks that included elephant riding or training as a mahout which interested both of us but again the price was a factor so we opted to instead visit the Elephant Research Center and took a local bus out there after asking around. The Center is a large area and has a large number of elephants that are taken in as either being injured by poachers for their ivory or as out of work animals from the logging industry. Many of the elephants bare scars from their abuse and the Center has a hospital to treat them, which aren't released back into the wild but are instead used to give rides to tourists and put on shows, a far better life then the one they endured. We arrived from our bus journey just in time for such a show, which was amazing with the animals showing their skills and strength in moving logs with their feet and lifting them with their trunks. The elephants played instruments and even participated in pachyderm art when the mahouts brought out easels, brush, and colors and the animals began drawing with their trunks other elephants and flowers in amazing details.
We stuck around afterwards to feed the elephants by hand and they greedily would extend their wet trunk ends to grab the goods. We took a short walk to a nursery, which held a mother and her tiny baby. I had a packet of peanuts, which they ate but the mother seemed to be getting restless so we moved on to give them their space and peace. The mahouts tell you to never fully trust an elephant as many of them have killed humans.
As the Center closed and walking back to the road, we hailed down the local bus from the side of the highway and arrived back into town. One can't walk a few meters without seeing signs for Thai massages, so had to get one, which I describe as gloriously painful but effective in loosening one up. We laid ourselves down on straw mats with posters of idyllic nature scenery and she got to working. My messes used her elbows and knees on my back, which while painful were good for working out soreness and a good way to close off the day.