Many would say that a trip to Thailand without interacting with an elephant is one that’s been poorly planned. Thailand’s elephants are not only a source of wonder, but are an important part of the country’s culture. Unfortunately, the booming tourism industry worldwide has led to some cruel treatments of these gentle giants.
So how do you, an animal lover, avoid places that mistreat these animals, while at the same time, get up close and personal with them?
First, do lots of research. There are plenty of ‘sanctuaries’ in Thailand that claim to provide elephants with love and care, but do the opposite. Second, keep an open mind. Remember that for many issues – particularly this one – solutions aren’t always black and white.
However, there’s always a way you can help. So to narrow down your search, here are the top five ethical elephant sanctuaries to make your trip unforgettable:
1. Elephant Nature Park
One of the most popular sanctuaries in Thailand, Elephant Nature Park is located just 60km from the city of Chiang Mai. This makes it ideal if your main objective is to get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures. As they are a rescue and rehabilitation park, they also house other animals in need such as cats, dogs, and buffaloes. They’ve been doing this since the 1990’s, receiving various awards and recognitions since then.
This sanctuary offers all kinds of activities depending on your availability: from quick day tours that include feeding, to overnight stays where you can bathe with the elephants! Expect to pay 2,500 THB for a short visit, and 5,800 THB to stay the night.
If you really want to immerse yourself, you can also volunteer for a week. Do chores around the park, get to know how elephants are in their natural habitat, as well as learn more about the challenges facing elephant conservation in Thailand.
2. Happy Elephant Home
Located in Mae Tang, Chiang Mai, this is perhaps the most picturesque places you’ll hope to see elephants in, because they’re surrounded by fields, mountains, and locals. Happy Elephant Home ensures the best experience by accommodating only 15 people at a time. Guests also don traditional outfits to ensure these gentle creatures won’t be surprised by unfamiliar looks or smells.
A half day trip (1,800 THB) includes bathing and feeding the animals by hand. A whole day (2,400 THB) with them gives you the experience of finding food for the elephant yourself! Like many sanctuaries, they also offer volunteer opportunities of no less than five days.
3. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
For those who want the entire package of not only feeding or bathing elephants, but also want to know the ins and outs of sanctuary life, then this place comes highly recommended. It’s located at Sukhothai, about 5-6 hours north of Bangkok. Headed by founder Katherine Connor in memory of a baby elephant she used to take care of, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary is all about sustainable solutions.
There are NO day trips, so expect at least an overnight stay (6,000 THB per day). But most people enjoy it so much, they remain anywhere from three to four days!
Drops ins are not allowed, so make sure to make your bookings in advance. Guests are intentionally kept low to truly give each person unlimited time with the elephants. Aside from feeding, bathing, and playing with them, you’re also expected to participate in regular sanctuary duties such as herding, talking to locals, hiking, planting, etc.
4. Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
If you’re already in Phuket, then you won’t want to miss a visit at the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. Founded by partners Montri Todtane, Phuket elephant camp owner, and Lek Chailert, of Save Elephant Foundation, it’s a home for overworked elephants from the logging and tourism industry to ‘retire’ in.
Learn more about ethical tourism and elephant conservation with their half (3,000 THB) or whole day (6,000 THB) programs. For those looking for a unique, intimate experience with these enormous mammals, they have VVIP (have the entire sanctuary to yourself!) and CSR (for Thai government school students, corporate teams, and institutions) programs.
What makes this place different is that they don’t allow bathing of the elephants. This is because they believe that bathing is an important ritual for these gentle creatures, and having humans with them during such time may cause undue stress. Instead, visitors get to observe them from a safe Observation Sala. Don’t worry though, as each tour will still let you meet with friendly elephants for feeding time!
5. Wildlife Friends Foundation
Love animals and interested in their rehabilitation as a whole? Then come and visit Wildlife Friends Foundation at Phetchaburi, Thailand, about three hours away from Bangkok. This foundation is registered under Thai law, and aims to rescue and rehabilitate all kinds of animals from abuse. Thus, you’ll find not only elephants, but also birds, primates, and bears!
There are half (1,100THB) and whole day (1,600THB) tours, as well as volunteer opportunities. All programs let you tour the facility to meet the different wildlife present. Plus, you’ll get a chance to meet with an elephant for a once-in-a-lifetime moment! They promote cruelty-free tourism, so there are no rides or tricks here – just elephants behaving naturally.
If you want to help raise more funds for the facility, you can adopt or sponsor one of their animals. For just $50 for one year, you can pick from primates, nocturnals, bears, birds, and other available wildlife.
Unsure about whether or not an elephant sanctuary is the best way to care for these creatures? You can still show your support by giving a donation or buying local handicrafts.
Stores like the Elephant Parade for example, feature all kinds of uniquely painted souvenirs created by thousands of local artists. They then donate 20 percent of profits for the care and conservation of these gentle giants.
Times are changing as more and more people are slowly becoming aware of how to care for these majestic animals. Through the concerted efforts of wildlife groups, private committees, and animal lovers, Thailand’s elephants can hope to have a better future.
So go ahead and extend your help! Whether it’s through volunteer work or a simple donation, these elephants will always welcome a kind heart.