Elephants are synonymous with Thailand, and for many the dream of spending time with these amazing animals is one of their main reasons for visiting the Land of Smiles.
Sadly though, the shocking truth behind the smiling selfies riding on the back of an elephant is that animals used in tourism are nearly always abused — ripped away from their mothers and their natural habitat, starved, beaten, and forced to carry people on their backs all day every day.
But there is a way that tourists can experience the magic of meeting magnificent elephants up close without them being at risk.
At a Thailand elephant sanctuary.
Let’s find out more…
- 1 Elephant Sanctuary Ethics
- 2 Best Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand
Elephant Sanctuary Ethics
There are hundreds of elephant parks, street beggars, and trekking companies across Thailand offering elephant rides, shows with elephants performing tricks, and photo opportunities with these majestic beasts.
Unfortunately, many of the mahouts that run such establishments train the elephants for profit, for which they use a bull hook — a sharp metal hook attached to a long pole used to poke into the animal’s flesh and cause pain.
The mahouts stab these bull hooks into the delicate ear tissue to force the elephants to comply to their will and perform unnatural, painful feats.
Forced to spend hours on end under the blistering Thailand sun without the possibility to bathe and cover themselves in a protective coating of mud, many elephants in service at tourist attractions will also suffer from painful sunburn.
In addition to this, many elephants are kept chained up and isolated from their fellow elephants, which for a social animal means a life of pain, fear, and solitude.
Elephant sanctuaries claim to rescue abused elephants from their places of torture and provide them with a safe environment to rehabilitate themselves and live out their lives in peace.
However, some of these so called ‘sanctuaries’ are in fact perpetrators of the same kind of elephant abuse that they have apparently rescued the elephants from.
It is vitally important to research elephant sanctuaries before you visit to make sure that they’re ethical and don’t abuse the elephants.
Sanctuaries that forbid elephant riding or keep it to a minimum, and certainly those that forbid elephant shows and anything exploitative are what you should be looking out for.
Best Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand
The best elephant sanctuary in Thailand can be difficult to find.
Here are 8 of the best with well founded, good reputations.
Originally formed in 2014 as a joint initiative between members of the Karen hill tribes and Chiang Mai locals who were concerned about the welfare of elephants in Thailand, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project located approximately 60km from the beautiful city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.
They also have locations in Pattaya and Phuket.
Over 30 rescued elephants now have the freedom to enjoy their lives at the sanctuary, and the money raised by visits and donations enables the initiative to rescue more elephants, feed them, and provide them with veterinary care as well as land and infrastructure for them to live on.
There are a range of visiting options available.
A half day visit gives the opportunity to feed the elephants, then walk with a guide through the Sanctuary to find free roaming elephants and learn about their individual stories.
Next comes a trip to the mud spa, where you can apply a healthy cosmetic mud treatment to the elephants’ skin, followed by a walk with the elephants to a nearby river where you can join them in the water for a refreshing bath.
A full day visit consists of the same activities, but over a longer period of time and with a delicious lunch of traditional Thai food and fresh fruit thrown in.
Take a look at this couple’s experience:
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary also offers a unique full day trekking package where visitors join the elephants as they walk through their natural jungle habitat followed by a half day of activities with the elephants.
An overnight visit includes a one night homestay in a local family home and a jungle trek to a nearby waterfall to discover local animal and plant life, visit village houses and organic farms, and become deeply immersed in the jungle environment.
Prices for visits range from 1700 THB to 4900 THB per person.
Elephant Nature Park is a unique project set in Chiang Mai province, Northern Thailand just 1.5 hours drive from Chiang Mai city.
Established in the 1990’s the goal of the sanctuary is to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants, restoration of the surrounding rainforest, and to educate visitors about the plight of the elephants in Thailand.
As well as being home to over a hundred rescued elephants, the park also provides a natural environment and care for dogs, cats, buffaloes and many other animals.
Short visits, day visits, and overnight visits to Elephant Nature Park are all available and include activities such as watching the elephants bathe in the river, feeding the elephants, the chance to see the elephants roaming in the open pasture, and visiting the other animals at the park.
There are also elephant trails on offer which allow you to trek alongside the elephants in the stunning mountain scenery, elephant wellness days to learn how to care for the elephants using traditional Thai herbal baths, the chance to help rehabilitate newly rescued elephants, and more.
Prices start at 2500 THB per person.
Built on a huge plot of forest belonging to Kao Look Chang temple, the Wildlife Friends Foundation Elephant Refuge & Education Center is a 2 hours 20 minutes drive south west from Bangkok.
WFFT is part of a nationwide effort involved in rescuing domesticated and captive wild animals allowing them to live the rest of their lives in a safe environment, as close to nature as possible and providing them with the best care possible.
The foundation actively campaigns against all forms of animal abuse and exploitation in Thailand, working towards ending the illegal pet trade and discouraging people from keeping all wild animals as pets.
They focus on educating local people, tourists and the international community to appreciate, understand and protect wildlife and their natural habitats, as well as rehabilitating abused animals and releasing them back into the wild whenever possible.
The large elephant enclosures have natural trees, lakes and grazing areas which allow the elephants space to move around and socialise with other elephants.
Full and half day experience tours at the refuge include a guided tour, meet and greet the elephants, walk with them and give them a shower, learn about the conservation issues that elephants face, and watch the other rescued animals being fed.
Prices start at 1100 THB per person for a half day experience, and transport to the refuge can be arranged for an additional fee depending on your location.
It’s also possible to volunteer at the refuge, with a minimum commitment of one week.
Accommodation is in simple bungalows within the centre with toilet and shower and dorm rooms with either two or three beds.
The price for one week volunteering is around 14,000 THB all inclusive.
BLES Elephant Sanctuary is passionately devoted to creating a safe and natural home for rescued and retired Thai elephants, allowing them to interact freely in an eco-friendly environment within 600 acres of forested land near the rural village of Baan Tuek in northern Thailand.
Living spaces and guest houses are built of sustainable materials primarily collected from the land, and BLES has also embarked on a program of tree planting for reforestation.
There are currently 14 elephants at the sanctuary, and guests share in a hands-on experience that includes gathering their food, walking with them to release sites, and scrubbing them down, as well as the chance to observe the elephants in their natural habitat.
The refuge also offers the opportunity to hike with the elephants and set up camp in the midst of the jungle. Every day the the sanctuary is unique, so there is no strict daily program of activities.
BLES Elephant Sanctuary does not offer day visits.
Instead guests are invited to stay for multiple nights in one of the three traditional teak guest houses on site with wrap-around porches and modern bathrooms, and featuring a unique one-way glass wall.
Meals are included, as is pick up and drop off from Sukhothai Airport or Uttraditt bus or train station, a laundry service and plenty of contact with the elephants.
The price for a one night stay for one person is 6000 THB.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is a home for retired working elephants, set on 30 acres of lush tropical jungle on the beautiful island of Phuket off the west coast of Thailand.
The sanctuary was founded as a joint partnership between Mr. Montri Todtane, a Phuket elephant camp owner and world-renowned elephant rescuer and conservationist Lek Chailert, founder of Save Elephant Foundation, and there are currently 8 rescued elephants being cared for here.
A visit to Phuket Elephant Sanctuary gives visitors the chance to observe how elephants rehabilitate into forest life after decades of abuse, and experience just how incredible the largest land mammal on earth really is.
A half day visit involves an educational video presentation, followed by a trek into the forest to find the free roaming elephants, as well as the opportunity to get up close and feed them.
A one day program offers the chance to meet two of the elephants up close and learn their stories, as well as seeing the older and injured elephants being rehabilitated in their hydrotherapy pool. A half day visit costs 3000 THB per person.
If you wish to volunteer at the sanctuary, tasks will vary each day but may include cutting grass, bamboo, and banana trees for the elephants, cleaning and tidying around the sanctuary, food preparation, mucking out elephant night shelters, and any maintenance work that needs doing to facilities throughout the sanctuary.
1 day, 3 day, and 1 week volunteer programs are available and prices start at 2000 THB per person for 1 day all inclusive.
Run by the Save Elephant Foundation, the Surin Project is dedicated to providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population through a multifaceted approach involving local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programs, and educational ecotourism operations.
One of the main goals at the Surin Project is to establish sustainably managed elephant tourism as an alternative to both street begging, and to other forms of tourism such as circuses and elephant rides, which they are accomplishing by re-educating the mahouts.
There are already over 2,000 acres of land set aside for elephants and their mahouts for this purpose, and the mahouts are provided with a weekly salary and other incentives to keep them involved and provide them with a sustainable form of income which is totally dependant on the continued welfare of their elephant.
The weekly volunteer program at the Surin Project can last anywhere from 1 to 8 weeks depending on how long you wish to participate.
Volunteers are immersed in the local Gwi culture in the remote village of Ban Tha Klang, and by working alongside the mahouts and the local community it’s possible to learn more about this unique culture and their relationship with elephants.
Volunteers also get the chance to go on daily walks with the elephants to see them in their natural setting. Accommodation is on site in basic but comfortable quarters in the forest.
Three meals a day are included, with a buffet style breakfast and dinner with many different dishes to choose from. The cost to volunteer for one week (Monday – Sunday) is 13,000 THB.
Located in the heart of the Royal Elephant Kraal Village — a working elephant village with over 60 elephants in Ayutthaya just 1 hour from Bangkok — the program at Elephantstay operates under the Phra Kochabaan Foundation, a registered non profit organisation which directly benefits the welfare of our retired and non working elephants.
The program at Elephantstay involves living with, caring for and learning about elephants.
Each day offers the opportunity to ride on, feed, water and bathe your elephant in the river, allowing you to form a personal relationship with your elephant and be a part of practical elephant conservation.
It’s possible to visit Elephantstay just for the day (prices upwards of 5000 THB), but longer visits are encouraged to really experience many unique facets of elephant life and culture in Thailand.
There are 6 shared bungalows for guests at Elephantstay, each with air conditioning, hot showers, free Wifi and a laundry service. Prices for a 2 night stay start at 15,000 THB for one person with one elephant.
Located just 2.5hrs drive south west of Chiang Mai, amongst breathtaking mountain scenery and lush countryside, BEES is a local family and community based project dedicated to providing a home for old, injured and retired elephants needing rest and/or permanent care, giving them the chance to live free and to just be elephants.
BEES is also actively working to raise awareness and educate locals and elephant owners and mahouts, in the hope to bring an end to the suffering and exploitation of elephants in Thailand.
BEES also works closely within the community, providing locals with employment, as well as supporting local businesses, and as well as being an elephant sanctuary, BEES also rescues cats and dogs, and provides out reach programs in the local community to vaccinate and sterilise stray animals in the region.
Bees offers a fantastic volunteer program where guests can help in the day to day running of the sanctuary and get hands on with the elephants.
Stays are available from 3 nights up to 1 month in unique local Thai style accommodation with shared Western toilet facilities. Transfers from Chiang Mai and 3 meals a day are part of the package.
Which is your favourite elephant sanctuary in Thailand?