When traveling to Thailand, one of the most popular bucket list activities is visiting an elephant sanctuary or elephant camp. While interacting with elephants is an incredible experience to have, unfortunately, unethical animal exploitation across Southeast Asia is rampant, and there are many places that pose as ethical elephant sanctuaries or rehabilitation facilities without actually being ethical toward the elephants. Not all elephant sanctuaries in Thailand are created equal, and when looking for the best sanctuary, Chiang Mai, while home to many elephant facilities, requires a little bit of research to find the most ethical one. Luckily, I have done that part for you.
There are many elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai and all over Thailand that exploit elephants for profit, and these elephants are severely mistreated and tortured into domestication so they are “safe” for tourists to interact with and ride. If a facility offers ANY type of elephant riding (including without a saddle) then it is not a true elephant sanctuary, Thailand or elsewhere, and should be avoided at all costs. Throughout Thailand you may encounter other types of elephant exploitation including baby elephants begging for money on the streets, elephant shows where circus tricks are performed, or elephants painting pictures for tourists. While some of these may seem entirely harmless, elephants are wild animals and to “train” them to perform requires a lot of abuse.
Visiting Elephant Sanctuaries Chiang Mai – 5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Chiang Mai (Or Anywhere Else!)
- In order to domesticate an elephant for riding or performing, they begin early on in the elephant is a baby in a process called “phajaan” in Thai which literally means “to crush” as in to crush the baby elephant’s spirits and independence enough to obey its owner. When engaging in phajaan, trainers will stab, whip, beat, and chain the elephants into submission.
- Elephants are highly intelligent and emotional creatures, and will mourn and grieve their emotions just as humans do.
- They suffer from boredom and loneliness when taken from their herd, and can die an early death as a result.
- They have the best memory of all mammals and never forget anything that happens to them. Because of this abuse, many elephants suffer PTSD and other psychological damage in addition to the physical damage caused by abusive handlers.
- Certain species such as the Asian Elephant (also known as the Indian elephant) are now facing extinction due to loss of habitat from the elephant tourism industry.
Elephant Nature Park: The Most Ethical and Best Elephant Sanctuary Chiang Mai
Tucked within the jungle just outside of the northern Thai city Chiang Mai, Elephant Nature Park (ENP) serves as a true and ethical elephant sanctuary where riding is strictly prohibited. It is known as the best elephant sanctuary in Thailand. The elephants at ENP have been rescued from unethical establishments to be rehabilitated back to their natural state. At Elephant Nature Park, you can feed, bathe, and interact with these gentle giants in a humane way.
Elephant Nature Park offers several different types of opportunities to volunteer with the elephants, including day and half-day trips, or overnight stays up to a week. ENP is a registered nonprofit, so all proceeds go to caring for the elephants, to the sanctuary itself, to ENP’s other regional projects, as well as purchasing more elephants from abusive owners. Elephant Nature Park also provides rainforest restoration and cultural preservation initiatives in addition to various special projects for rehabilitating animals. ENP has two other locations in Thailand including Kanchanaburi and Surin, as well as a sanctuary outside of Thailand in Cambodia.
Trips to Elephant Nature Park begin with shuttle transportation from your hotel or accommodation. An hour drive through the rural countryside of Chiang Mai will bring you to ENP where you will begin by watching an educational video presentation with stories about the orphaned elephants and the mistreatment that took place on them. Depending on the length of your tour, you will then care for the elephants by bathing them, feeding them, creating medicine for them, walking them, and simply observing them be and play. Before leaving ENP, a meal is provided along with a cultural show provided by a local school.
RELATED: OFF THE BEATEN PATH CHIANG MAI GUIDE
Tips for Visiting Elephant Nature Park
- Book in advance! These trips book up fast so in order to reserve your preferred trip it is best to book as far in advance as possible.
- If the trips are all reserved for your date, pop into the Elephant Nature Park’s office in Chiang Mai and see if they can help you find a trip there. Sometimes there are cancellations or flexibility within the schedule.
- Bring water shoes as you will most likely be walking into the river to bathe the elephants.
- Bring a change of clothes, towel, and maybe even a bathing suit if you really want to get wet. A big bucket list item is to swim with elephants in Thailand so this is your chance! You will be given a uniform to wear so that your clothes underneath don’t get dirty if you don’t want to fully get wet, but it is also advisable to bring an extra change of clothes for the ride home.
- ENP isn’t only for elephants! They rehabilitate several different types of animals including buffalo, cats, birds, and offer programs for visitors to volunteer with dogs.
- You might want to pack snacks and water for the bus ride, but a vegetarian buffet meal is provided with your visit.
- Prices for a half-day visit start at 2,500 Baht per adult (around $77.00USD) and go up from there. Sometimes the price for a half-day and full-day visit is the same, so that might be something to consider. (Prices are subject to change.)
- Many tours are great for all ages from children to seniors, while others require a bit more walking and physical exercise. None of the trips are particularly extraneous.
- Bring sunscreen and a hat to protect from the sun, and a small bag or backpack to put your camera and other personal items in.
Ethical Thailand Elephant Sanctuary Experiences With TakeMeTour
TakeMeTour is an amazing tour organization in Thailand that sets you up with a local Thai tour guide so you can experience private tours of all kinds through the eyes of a local. If you aren’t sure that the elephant facility you want to visit is ethical, you can book any of these tours through TakeMeTour as they only offer ethical experiences. They also provide many other types of tours such as cooking classes, temple tours, nature tours, and more. Browse all the different tours in Chiang Mai here, or visit their homepage to look for tours in any other part of Thailand.
The truth is, many people who ride elephants in Thailand or the rest of Asia are often unaware that what they are partaking in is wrong. Once I personally became educated about the cruel practices of the elephant tourism industry the choice was easy for me to make: I will not ride elephants. Hopefully, through education and awareness, we can make a difference and help end elephant and other unethical animal tourism practices. As travelers of the world, we must be responsible tourists and make sure we are doing our part in not partaking in unethical or harmful activities. The choice is yours!