I was recently in Chiang Mai for a friend's wedding and we, as a private group, organised a day tour and elephant ride. We decided not to visit the normal elephant camps but a more remote camp that is south of Chiang Mai. It was just the wedding party along for a day of fun. We experienced an elephant ride through the real jungle trails - not the fixed circuit like at other places I have heard of while in Chiang Mai.
Then we arrived at the river where we had a blast poling down the river on pieces of bamboo strapped together. Some of the party ended up in the river while having water fights but the water is warm.
We then did the mandatory tourist thing and visited the hill tribes that were a fair hike to get to and the local people seemed happy to see us - not just the small vendors selling their handicrafts! We wondered around the village and surrounding rice paddies and saw the real tribal life. I am sure they seem hundreds of westerners a week but somehow they where still friendly and seemed to enjoy watching and trying to communicate with us as much as we did them.
I am so glad I did it - to think I thought it was too touristy to do, and almost didn't!
All I know is the area was called "Jomtong" and is about 50km from Chiang mai
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