Arguably Thailand's best
Published/Last edited or updated: 30th July, 2017
As zoos go, Chiang Mai’s effort is the largest, and arguably the best, in Thailand.
It’s located at the foot of Doi Suthep, just west of the sprawling university complex off Huay Kaew Road, and so is conveniently reached by public transport from town, and also fits in well with any planned trip up Doi Suthep itself. It is set up very much in the classic zoological park style, though the extensive, more than 200 acres of natural forest setting definitely raises it a notch or two above the average. Originally established back in 1977, it has seen regular improvements, upgrades and additions throughout the years.
Inhabitants, or inmates if you prefer, include local species such as Asian elephants, tigers, tapir and numerous members of the monkey family, as well as non-indigenous animals such as koalas, giraffes, lions and even penguins. Conditions are variable, with herds of deer free to roam large fenced-off tracts of woodland, yet Asian black bears confined to a rather pitiful concrete pit. Conditions are regularly upgraded and the zoo’s welfare reputation is relatively good; overall it isn’t worse than many large Western city zoos.
The vast site also includes a range of activities such as go-karting, a zip-line, water park and particularly popular with locals, a Snowdome. Perhaps of limited interest to many foreign visitors, climatically challenged Thais get very excited about seeing snow, tobogganing in plastic tubes or taking selfies in igloos. Next door to the Snowdome is the panda house, which as with the other additional attractions mentioned here, requires a separate entrance fee. We’ve seen them on several occasions—due to having small kids in tow—and they’ve been asleep each time, so it's up to you whether you think the 100 baht is worth it or not.
Requiring a rather steep 450 baht per person additional ticket purchase is the very good, and full of wide awake fish, Chiang Mai Aquarium. A better deal if you do want to include that particular attraction, is to buy the aquarium package at the main entrance for 520 baht, (390 baht for children), which includes zoo and aquarium entrance tickets plus return transport by zoo bus within the park. (The aquarium is a long walk from the main entrance.)
The state of the art aquarium, opened in 2008, is probably the best place in Thailand (apart from the actual sea) to get up close and personal with the region's marine, and indeed riverine, life. There’s an extensive array of fresh and sea water species plus a few reptiles and snakes. A highlight is the huge walk-through tank, which on one side recreates the underwater Mekong ecosystem and on the other displays coral reef flora and fauna. The underwater, walk-through glass tunnel, at 133 metres long, claims to be the longest in the world and is spectacular. You can even do scuba diving courses in the tank alongside reef sharks and giant Mekong catfish. We’d allow at least an hour to visit what is a pretty large aquarium.
The aviary is another of our favourite spots in the park. It is actually one of the older parts of the zoo but was completely renovated in 2004 and now incorporates 2.5 acres of a steep valley on the lower slopes of Doi Suthep. The entirety of the small valley has been enclosed with netting, including the cliffs to the side and a stream at its foot, which gives the 800 or so birds plenty of room to manoeuvre within.
The original vegetation—probably a mixture of dry dipterocarp forest on the slopes and mixed deciduous by the stream—has been replaced by lush, more “jungly” flora, so natural it isn’t, but a great tropical park it is.
The aviary makes for a pleasant spot for a stroll and you’ll usually have the place pretty much to yourself, too. Despite it being one of their best and oldest attractions and covering such a large area, it is surprisingly difficult to find. It’s badly signposted and not adjacent to either the overhead monorail or any bus stops. The aviary entrance, located at the lower end of the valley, is actually only a five to 10-minute walk from the main zoo gates. Head for the pandas and take the right fork opposite. There’s no extra entrance fee for the aviary, so once you’ve bought your zoo ticket you can head for the birds with empty pockets.
Aside from the great setting and sumptuous vegetation the aviary, of course, has a lot of birds. We weren’t quite sure what they all were since many seemed to be African and South American rather than native Thai species, but there were plenty of brightly coloured and rather squawky things that looked like variations on a parrot theme. If you are interested there are plenty of explanatory signs, in both Thai and English.
You’ll also see plenty of larger birds formatted for the stream environment: ibises, flamingos, storks and spot-billed pelicans. Most of these are to be found in Southeast Asia (well, apart from the flamingos).
The zoo does sprawl and is far from flat, so unless it’s a particularly cool day or you’re feeling especially energetic, it's too large to cover on foot alone. At the time of writing in mid-2017, the monorail was out of use so your only option within the park itself is the small, open-sided, buggy-type buses. These charge a flat fare of 30 baht per person and depart from near the main entrance performing a loop through the park, dropping off and picking up outside most of the main attractions.
The park gets very busy at weekends and school holidays. Also, note that the zoo is independent of, and not to be confused with, Chiang Mai Night Safari, which, with a rather dubious welfare record of late, we do not list.
Chiang Mai Zoo is easily accessible and you have several public transport choices available to get here. Firstly, you could take a red songthaew up Huay Kaew Road for 30 baht although this may require flagging a few down before you find one heading up that way. Cheaper at 15 baht, though if you’re unlucky entailing a longer wait, is one of the regular city buses which wind their way through Chiang Mai between Arcade bus station and the zoo terminus. A tuk tuk from downtown will cost 100 to 150 baht, depending upon your starting point.
Address: 100 Huay Kaew Rd, Suthep
T: (053) 210 374;
Coordinates (for GPS): 98º56'50.4" E, 18º48'37.01" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: Zoo entry, adult 150, child 100 (children under 135 cms), Zoo + panda, adult 250, child 120, Zoo + aquarium, adult 520, child 390
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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