Our little man turned two on June 14, and it seems like yesterday we were celebrating Jack’s first birthday back home in Melbourne with family and friends. For that big event we organised a party, spending many hours in planning mode to make sure his special day was a memorable one.
And it seems like just the day before yesterday that Jack was born. How time flies!
Now we’re on the road, living in Chiang Mai for the duration of our two month visa, there was no chance of having a birthday similar to last year’s. So we decided to head to Chiang Mai Zoo to celebrate the special day. We got up early, which was nothing strange given Jack wakes up with monotonous regularity at 6.00am every day regardless of when he goes to bed, and got ready. We got Jack dressed, packed everything we’d need (nappies, wipes, sunscreen, food, hats, etc.), jumped on our pushbikes and rode out to the zoo at the foot of the mountains that butt against the city.
Check out our video of the day below…
MUSIC: “Desperately Happy” by The Prefab Messiahs
We decided to celebrate his birthday on Friday instead of his actual birthday on Saturday because, after doing some online research, the zoo was meant to be incredibly popular with locals and tourists alike so would be very busy. We figured on the evidence presented that Friday would be better than Saturday, with large crowds but smaller than the Saturday crush. We arrived at the zoo with it’s rather grand entrance at around 9.45am, paid 150THB ($AU5.00) each for Sarah and I, and Jack was free because he was under 135cm tall. We also had to pay 1THB ($AU0.03) for the privilege of parking our bikes out the front, which seemed strange to us, but c’est la vie.
Chiang Mai Zoo to ourselves
How wrong we were about crowd expectations. There was no-one there! We were the first to arrive by the looks of things, and for the majority of our visit we hardly saw another person all day. There’s a bus that can transport you between various points around the zoo for 70THB ($AU2.30), where you can get off when you want and catch the next one 15 minutes later, but in the spirt of our budget travel experience, and because we had set said the whole day anyway, we decided to walk around the zoo. It’s a long way to circumnavigate the zoo grounds, we probably walked abut 10km all up, and people can actually drive there car around the grounds it’s that big. Despite being knackered at the end, it was worth it because we’d got a good workout, experienced everything the zoo had to offer, and earned our birthday treat we were to have on the way home. There’s also a monorail that does the same job as the buses, transporting visitors around the zoo stopping at stations along the way.
The bar was set high from the start
The first animals we saw were the flamingoes, and while they were pretty cool, it was the next animal that blew our minds. We made our way to the hippopotamus enclosure and couldn’t believe our eyes. There were three adults and one baby, standing at the side of the enclosure, neck deep in water with their mouths wide open hungry, hungry hippo style waiting to be fed. There was no-one in sight, no zoo employees and certainly no visitors, and a table full of sweet potato sitting on a table within sniffing distance of the impressive animals. So we decided to give them their breakfast, leaning over and dropping chopped up pieces into their huge gaping mouths. We’d never experienced anything like it in our lives. But it wasn’t just the feeding that was a great experience, we were so close we could reach over and give them a pat on the snout. It wasn’t as though we had to exert ourselves to reach over and give them a pat, their heads virtually rested on the edge of the enclosure inviting us to do so. So we gave their slimy noses and chins a good rub and fed them some more sweet potato before making our way to the next enclosure. Can you imagine that happening at Melbourne Zoo, or anywhere else in the world for that matter? There wasn’t a zookeeper in sight, and here we were patting and feeding these massive hippopotami. It was incredible, and it set the bar very high for the rest of the animals we’d come across that day.
Mixed feelings about our visit to Chiang Mai Zoo
Unfortunately the rest of the zoo didn’t measure up to this initial experience. As we made our way around the zoo grounds for the next four hours, we were at times excited and other times depressed at what we saw. Some of the enclosures looked amazing and the animals seemed to be more than happy to be there. The various species of monkeys were having a blast, and there was plenty of room in the African Animal Zone for the animals to run and around and enjoy themselves. But then we’d come across enclosures like that of the Black Bear who was just pacing back and forth on the edge of a ledge, not looking very happy about his lot at all, and the panda bear who was just doing lap after lap of his enclosure. In fact a lot of the enclosures had just one of a particular species, and it was these animals who looked particularly depressed. The enclosures themselves also varied greatly in their appearance. Some looked like a lot of work went into ensuring the animals were as comfortable as possible, while others looked like they needed a lot of work done to bring them up to scratch. The crocodiles in particular weren’t too happy in their crappy enclosure, and I’ve never been a fan of birds locked in cages, regardless of the size of the cage. The elephants were magnificent, and we fed them some bananas and pineapple which was a great experience, but we fed him at 10.00am and we saw the same elephant (he had distinctive markings) five hours later in the same tiny space doing exactly the same thing. I’m no zoologist, and perhaps all of these animals are perfectly fine and are being treated well, but we just got the feeling all was not well amongst many of the animals there. On the flip side I understand by having these animals in captivity it gives us an opportunity to learn more about them and simply enjoy being in their company.
Overall we had a really good time at the zoo, and Jack certainly had his eyes opened to the big wide world of animals. He didn’t want to feed too many of the animals (there’s food at almost all of the enclosures that can be purchased for 10-20THB), but he enjoyed imitating them and watching them in action. Your enjoyment of the zoo will depend on your moral standing of zoos and what they’re all about. We had fun, but we were conflicted at times by what we saw.
There’s plenty of construction going on throughout the zoo grounds and when they’re complete it’s going to be a very impressive place to visit. But there’s a few things that need work:
- There’s not enough English signage around the zoo for foreign visitors. A lot of the information boards at the enclosures are in Thai only, and the directional signage at times in non-existent.
- The fencing around the enclosures is not child friendly. The gaps between the posts is easily wide enough for kids to get through and fall into the enclosures. You need to keep an eye on your kids all the time.
- There’s not enough decent food to purchase around the zoo. You can get a good meal at the first food outlet as you enter the grounds, but from that moment on it’s all rubbish. The new construction will help fix this problem.
- Most importantly, some of the animals look depressed and their welfare needs to be addressed. Again, I’m no expert, but to us it looked bad.
Also, for those planning on visiting the zoo, be prepared for the incredible amount of opportunities for you to ‘spend’ more money. The entry fee is cheap, but they try and make up for it inside. Almost every enclosure has food to purchase for the animals; you pay extra to enter the panda bear zone and aquatic centre; food, drink and souvenirs are available; you can get your photo taken ‘with’ the pandas (the magic of photoshop at work); buses and monorail tickets; horse and elephant rides; interactive exhibits; etc. But you don’t have to buy these things and you’ll still enjoy your day.
Cakes in the Old Town
After we left the zoo, we rode into the old town and found a lovely cafe to buy a few cakes and sing happy birthday to Jack. We picked out a couple of delicious looking cakes and asked the staff to light a couple of candles we’d brought with us and bring out a tray to our table. The staff were great, as all Thais are with young children, and Jack blew out his candles as we sang happy birthday. In fact, he liked the candles so much he kept pushing them back into the cakes as we were eating.
We made our way home and given the huge day Jack had, he fell asleep early than usual which was great for us. Nothing better than your toddler going to bed early!
Click the photo gallery below to see some of the images from Jack’s big day…