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Seeing Macaw parrots with children at zoo in northern Thailand
Macaw Parrots at the Chiang Mai Zoo

By the time we got to Chiang Mai, our fifth city stop in Thailand, we had seen just about all the temples we could see in one trip. We still saw some of Chiang Mai's temples too, but starting on our second day there, we began to cast about, looking for something else to do. Then, the zoo was recommended as an activity popular with children. If you're considering seeing the Chiang Mai Zoo with a big family, here's our take on whether that visit is worth it...

The mountainous, northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai is known for its temples (and low prices for visitors, even compared to other parts of Thailand), but we were getting a bit overloaded on temples by the time we got to that city. We had just made a side-trip to Hong Kong, where we saw several types of temples, quite different from the dozens we had seen in Thailand's Ayutthaya. And after Chiang Mai, we were bound for Cambodia's Angkor Wat, where the primary reason for the visit would be the visiting of yet more temples. So, in Chiang Mai, our children were definitely ready for something else. Here's what our family experienced at the Chiang Mai Zoo.

Dual Pricing
The zoo in Chiang Mai was one of those tourist attractions that has what is known as dual pricing. There is one price for Thais, and a separate, much higher price, for foreigners. This dual pricing is common at national parks and certain other tourist attractions. Only the foreigner price is written in English, which some visitors feel could be an attempt to keep foreigners from knowing about the dual pricing. On the other hand, I suppose we're all free to learn to read Thai if we choose.

Trying to get my head around dual pricing, I imagined going to a zoo in the U.S. and seeing a sign like this:

Tickets five bucks

Entradas $10

Billets $10

The price for locals would be spelled out in script, as "five" is much less universally understood than "$5." Then the same sign would have another section written in other languages, say, Spanish, French, and Chinese, but in those languages the sign would say the price is $10. Nothing else would be written in the foreign language except the higher price.

That's the dual pricing system in Thailand, in a nutshell. If you can read Thai, you can plainly see that there are two tiers of pricing. The prices for Thais are displayed only in the Thai language. For everyone else, the only words written in English are "Adult," "Child," and the Arabic numeral corresponding to the higher price. (Oh, and "baht" is spelled out, so we know they don't mean "dollars.")

Farang tax at Chiang Mai Zoo
Dual Pricing System at Chiang Mai Zoo.
Prices for Thais are on the left, in Thai script, but spelled out, rather than with Arabic numerals.

Why are foreigners charged more? That's a good question. One theory I've read is that when foreigners first started visiting Thailand, they were perceived as being rich...and if someone "can" pay more, then, it followed, that they "should."  That's one theory. Another is that Thais already support their national parks through payment of taxes - but that theory doesn't explain why some private enterprises also feature dual pricing. In any case, at some point in history it became somewhat common for certain attractions to charge separate, higher pricing for those who could (arguably) pay the extra fee without feeling it. 

The foreign price - or foreigner's tax - at some attractions is double the local price, while at others it is 4 or 5 times higher. I've also read that at certain other attractions in the southern part of the country it can be as much as ten times higher (for instance, a 6 dollar entrance fee for foreigners, while locals are paying 60 cents). Some visitors argue that the attractions need our foreign tourist dollar subsidization, and depend on us paying higher prices in order to stay open.

While some travelers won't give their money to any place that still has dual pricing, we really didn't encounter it very often because we stayed away from the tourist traps along the southern coast, and we generally tend to avoid the sorts of places that charge huge entrances fees. As far as getting into the Chiang Mai Zoo, it's "just a few dollars" for us, which is part of the reason dual pricing still exists, I suppose.

Even when paying more than the going rate to get into the Chiang Mai Zoo, the entrance fee was low enough that our family of six was in and out for under US$20.  The main question is whether it is worth your time to go all the way out there (20 minutes by car, each way, from the historic center of Chiang Mai) and devote an afternoon to the place.

Lots of Walking
The exhibits are spaced out with lots of nothing in between stops, so you end up walking long, long distances in the heat. Walking around this zoo involves a lot of uphill and downhill distances. You spend a lot more time walking here than doing anything else.

And as we explained in our post, 8 Tips on Using Tuk-Tuks with a Big Family (available here), if there's one tactical strategy for dealing with the oppressive heat in Thailand, it is that people generally try to avoid walking anywhere.

Each time we had to head from one exhibit to the next, we would be amazed at how far it was, with nothing to see in between places. The zoo is built into the side of a mountain, and you will climb that mountain, if you plan to see the zoo on foot.

Taking the Tram
To avoid all that walking, you can optionally stand around hoping to catch a ride on the little zoo tram (it resembles a chain of connected golf-carts) which ferries guests around the place. Tickets for the tram are sold near the entrance for an additional charge. Being frugal, it's irksome to find an unexpected additional charge for a basic, necessary service that is being hawked a few steps away from where you just paid a foreigner price for an entrance fee. But after the first few hikes in the zoo, waiting a long time for the tram starts to seem worth it. 

The tram circulates slowly around the park, with long stops at each exhibit. Well, to clarify, it only seems like it makes long stops when you're waiting for it to pick you up. When you are watching it off in the distance, making stops on its way to you, then it seems like it is hardly moving at all. When it finally gets close to you, it barely slows down and you almost miss it. Actually, we did miss it, twice. We were very near the little sign that shows where the tram stops, but he just drove right past us.

On its next trip around the park, after we had just waited a long time for it to come back, I practically threw myself in front of the tram to get the driver to stop. By this time we had wandered about 75 feet (23 meters) away from the tram stop, and our group was sort of spread out, just killing time sitting on benches and looking at bushes and trees (as I mentioned, there is nothing to see in between the exhibits). To get the driver's attention, I took off running towards the tram to ask the driver to make a stop and pick us up. It occurred to me at this moment that I had no clue how to say, "Stop, please!" so instead I spoke every Thai word I knew, greeting the driver with a gibberish mish-mash of my memorized Thai phrases while running towards the tram, waving my arms:

Good Afternoon Thank You Hello Please 
Good Afternoon Welcome Thank You!

Animals MIA
One disappointment here was that many of the best exhibits were empty. We saw "Coming Soon" signs all over the place. The zoo itself was fairly deserted when we visited in the off season, as were many of the animal enclosures.

The animals that the kids specifically asked to see simply weren't there. The only way to know what was there and what wasn't there was to trek all the way across the park to see what the kids wanted to see. Then, repeatedly, we'd hear a kid yell back at us (as we sweated and panted our way up the hill), 

"It's empty!"

Over and over, we'd excitedly head over to an exotic animal area - a long way away - only to find that none of those animals were actually in that area.

Sad Animals
The few times we did see something we were looking for, it would be a solitary animal, either hanging out doing nothing, or sleeping, or checking for the 10,000th time whether there was any way out of the pen. As with every other zoo we've ever visited in the U.S. and South America, the animals at the Chiang Mai Zoo seemed sad, depressed, and lonely. Many of them are just seated, staring into the distance, looking glum. Many of them look bored out of their minds. 

Visiting Chiang Mai Zoo with a Big Family
Pacing Tiger at Chiang Mai Zoo

At the Chiang Mai Zoo, there is a lot of rapid pacing back and forth. The animals, particularly the big cats, were stalking from one extreme of their pen to the other, looking like they would do anything, literally anything, to get out of that cage. 

I was reminded of prison movies that show men going insane in solitary confinement, bouncing off the walls, shaking the bars, talking to themselves, hallucinating. Who knows what these animals are thinking or experiencing, and whether they wouldn't gladly gnaw off a paw if it meant escaping the trap in which they are destined to spend the rest of their lives for our amusement. Yeah, clearly I'm a little conflicted when it comes to patronizing zoos. I don't know the solution. If people stop supporting the zoos, what would happen to the animals already inside them?

The Nature of Zoos
I find that I take very few pictures when I'm visiting a zoo. There's generally nothing in a zoo that I would want to see again later, in a photograph. What's the appeal of seeing a majestic wild animal behind bars? Why do we go? Many, many of the animals behave in such a way that when I'm viewing them, I feel bad for them, and just sad. I rarely see something that makes me want to document the visit in a photograph.

Every time I go to a zoo, I wonder what it would be like to be the star attraction of the "Human Exhibit" at a zoo located on another planet. I suppose the little blue men with two heads would make an effort at recreating their perception of my natural environment. There would be a likeness of a TV painted on the wall, showing the titles for Game of Thrones, but frozen in paint. There would be a big easy chair with a small table and remote control that didn't do anything. A bookshelf with a Dr. Seuss book and a textbook on theoretical astrophysics written in Dutch. A giant "M" - the golden arches - would be standing on a pole nearby, but just the sign. There would be a dented, rusty yellow taxi cab parked in the corner, with no engine.

They'd give me unlimited corn and peanuts, but no wife or friends. They'd leave a few things out for me to play with: a spatula, a 12" crescent wrench, a rubber chicken. There would be potted plants and a single church pew. There would be a computer desk with a PC on it, but with no power cables. Alien children would scream things at me all day in my language, like "How do you do!" and expect me to do human tricks like climbing a ladder or building a wooden house or analyzing a spreadsheet.

Honestly, thoughts of this kind occupy quite a lot of my time when I'm at a zoo. I just can't stop thinking about what this experience must be like for the animals, who can't go home at the end of the visit. I imagine that many of the animals have gone insane. I definitely don't love zoos.

Farang tax visiting Chiang Mai Zoo with a Big Family
Dual Pricing - Thai portion of the sign features
height restrictions in Arabic numerals (91-135), but the prices in Thai script

Aquarium is Extra
You can also go to the Chiang Mai Aquarium, which has a hefty extra charge. And, like the zoo, the Chiang Mai Aquarium has dual pricing for foreigners. The aquarium is much more expensive than the zoo. It would have been a pricey US$80 for our family of six (compared to under $20 for the zoo). After seeing the nature of the zoo, we easily decided against forking over the extra bucks for the aquarium. 

The Verdict
After devoting an afternoon to this place, when we could have been elsewhere, I'd have a pretty hard time recommending this attraction. If you're staying long-term in Chiang Mai, and just love zoos, well, maybe then. For those staying briefly, like us, there are other things to do in Chiang Mai, which we'll cover in a future post.

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  1. Chiang Mai sounds pretty awesome. Weird that there's a 2 tier price system. I guess that's why you should bring someone that speaks Thai with you. :)

    1. Totally - my wife had enough of the "She just might be Thai" look that it helped a lot with pricing in markets, but never at a ticket booth. Chiang Mai is a great destination - we'll have a post with more about that place soon. Thanks for reading!


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