Where to Go: Elephants in Thailand
One of the biggest tourism-draws to the mountainous regions of Thailand is the enticing idea of encountering an elephant. Hanging out with a pachyderm is certainly on most travelers’ bucket lists, but you should be extremely careful about which company you choose to invest in. There are hundreds of different elephant-related organizations to choose from, but only a handful worth your time and money.
Although many people know understand that riding elephants is unethical (and if you don’t, you can read why here), some tourist companies will try to persuade you that riding on the elephants’ neck, rather than its’ back, won’t hurt the animal. Don’t believe their lies. Think about it like this: if your pet constantly had another animal climbing onto its neck, wouldn’t it put up a bit of a fight? I know my dog would.
The good new is, there are places that you can trust your money isn’t going towards abusing animals. There are plenty of sanctuaries in Chiang Mai, as well as other parts of Thailand, that are reputable, safe, and educational.
Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand
There are plenty of options to choose from, all over Thailand! While I went to one in Chiang Mai, where most are found, there are opportunities available all over, from populous Phuket and Bangkok to more rural areas in the mountain regions.
Elephant Nature Park is the most respected elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. You will have ample time to interact amicably with the rescue animals here. Most of the elephants are “golden girls”, elderly female elephants living out their remaining years in peace. After losing their value in the abusive industries, they were rescued by the founder, Lek Chailert, who makes sure they are hand-fed soft rice balls for their toothless mouths. There are a few baby elephants that have been “accidentally” born here at the sanctuary, despite the staff trying to keep breeding adults separate. Due to elephant herd culture, there aren’t many males, as they tend to live solo, nomadic lives separate from their mothers’ herd.
You will also have time to interact with the other rescue animals at this sanctuary, including cats, dogs, water buffalo, a giant hog, and a few horses.
The food here is completely vegan, (and delicious, by the way!) and you will learn a lot about the elephant-related tourism industry.
There is also a chance to volunteer at this park, but you must stay at least 1 week.
There’s a hard-to-find line between making enough money to provide a happy and safe home for elephants, and attract enough tourists to pay for this home. While this company allows tourists to get a little too close to elephant babies, in my opinion, they strive to provide an ethical place for tourists to interact with elephants. Although they do also have a location in Chiang Mai, if you do find yourself up that far north, you should head over to the O.G. Of elephant sanctuaries, ENP (Elephant Nature Park) if it’s not already filled up for the day.
At Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, you will have the chance to bathe, interact, and learn about the elephants in an environment that is meant to “work for the elephants”, not the other way around.
Due to their remote location, this sanctuary does not provide day-trips the way ENP or EJS does. But for a little more, you can spend a week in rural Thailand enjoying your time with rescued elephants on a small, family-run farm. You must email the owner, Katherine, in order to secure a spot on the farm. Expect to find no cell service, but a more intimate experience caring with the rescue animals here. Your stay will include repairing elephant pens, herding animals, and hiking with Mahouts.
Located very near to Bangkok, this sanctuary is the perfect distance from the city to make the perfect day trip. Its rather new, having been founded in 2008, but also has the same tagline that other sanctuaries quote: “Where we work for the elephants, and the elephants not for us. A full-day trip will entail feeding, bathing and walking with elephants, as well as assisting in planting crops for elephants to consume.
Hopefully this helps you fulfill your bucket list elephant encounter with an ethical, animal-friendly visit.
Have you visited any Elephant Sanctuaries? What was your experience?