If you are in search of an ethical and authentic elephant experience in Thailand, our guide will help you find the right sanctuary to add to your Thailand itinerary. These elephant parks do not allow elephant riding or making these animals perform tricks but instead treat these gentle giants with dignity and respect.
Founded in 1995, elephant lovers will appreciate this sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants located in a Chiang Mai rainforest. More than 75 rescued elephants live here come from traumatic backgrounds. Elephant Nature Park allows both single day and overnight stays. Volunteers can assist with preparing fruit and vegetables for the elephants as well as for the other rescued animals on the property.
About 1.5 hours north of Sukhothai is the Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary who take care of rescued elephants and those who have retired who live in the 750 acres of forested and protected land. Here elephants live with dignity and respect without being subjected to any work or entertainment duties within their natural environment.
A unique elephant conservation endeavour, The Surin Project in Baan Tha Klang in Surin province, works with both mahouts (elephant handlers) and their elephants to keep them away from unsustainable tourism. The province has a long history of elephant herding and the elephant handlers have huge respect for their elephants. Nearly 200 mahouts and elephants live in the centre and the mahouts are given employment while the elephants roam freely. If you wish to volunteer, this Thai elephant conservation centre requires a one-week minimum commitment.
The Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) Hospital is one of the only hospitals of its kind in the world, located in the northwest of Thailand. The hospital is dedicated to treating and rehabilitating sick elephants. Visitors are welcome to learn about elephant care. It operates a mobile vet clinic that travels across Thailand to treats sick and injured elephants.
You can visit just for a single day or stay overnight in Elephant Haven in Kanchanaburi and walk alongside the elephants through the jungle. There are also one-week volunteering opportunities where you can help with feeding and cleaning.
Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary offers refuge to those elephants who spent most of their lives working in logging or tourist trekking. The organisation is based around a two-hour drive south of Chiang Mai, in a valley surrounded by mountains. They accept volunteers to assist with feeding and cleaning and there’s also a cat cafe onsite.
Founded in 2008 by a Thai veterinarian, Elephants World in Kanchanaburi provides a lush safe refuge for rescued and injured elephants on the River Kwai banks. The sanctuary is also a self-sustaining farm and home for 130 staff including local elephant handlers. Visitors can watch the elephants grazing, bathing and socialising. They accept visitors for day trips with an option to stay overnight or you can volunteer for up to one week.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary offers a peaceful retirement refuge to sick, overworked and elderly elephants after years of work and abuse. Set near the Khao Phra Thaeo National Park, elephants romp freely and can be observed by visitors from a treetop observation deck. There are other companies operating elephant trekking in Phuket, but the elephant sanctuary does not support these kinds of activities.
The Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project. This wildlife sanctuary allows visitors to feed and bathe the resident elephants and baby elephants alongside their mahouts, with trained English-speaking guides offering information about them.
One of the first ethical sanctuaries on Koh Samui, rescued elephants roam 10 acres of forest at the Samui Elephant Sanctuary. Visitors are only allowed to walk with and observe the elephants in their natural environment as they rummage and socialise in their custom-built pool and mud pit.
Three hours drive from Bangkok is the Wildlife Friends Foundation in Phetchaburi. This animal welfare centre is not only home to elephants, but also other animals including big cats, bears, monkeys, and various other creatures. Wildlife Friends sanctuary and wildlife hospital rescue and rehabilitates all kinds of animals from abuse. They release around 40% of animals back into the wild in national parks, however, the elephants have become too domesticated from years spent working in trekking camps and therefore sadly cant be released. The sanctuary offers full or half-day excursions at the elephant refuge.
Situated in the Khao Sok National Park, Elephant Hills is home to elephants who have been rescued from a life of captivity who are now free to roam chain-free in the vast natural habitat. Visitors have the chance to stay at one of the site’s two glamping camps for a unique experience.
Open since 2015, Phang Nga Elephant Park holds high animal welfare standards and prides itself on elephant welfare and sustainable conservation work. There’s an education centre on-site where you can learn all about Thai elephant conservation. Visitors can watch the elephants go about their daily routine and can help to plant food as part of the park’s conservation programme.
The elephants at Into the Wild are free to roam the forested mountains of southern Chiang Mai. Visitors can book in for a half-day or full-day program, where you can join the elephants on a jungle trek whilst learning about ethical elephant care in Thailand. As well as supporting the elephants, this sustainable elephant conservation project also supports their community, employing people from the local Karen hill tribe and helping them with supplies.
Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai is an ethical elephant sanctuary that gives visitors a hands-on experience in conservation. You can book morning or afternoon sessions and during the program will get to know your animal by creating a trustful relationship and witness the diligent work undertaken at this Chiang Mai elephant park.
Happy Elephant Home in Chiang Mai gives rescued elephants a natural habitat to move around freely and enjoy their lives. Visitors to the Happy Elephant Home have the unique experience of changing into traditional Karen tribe clothing so they can really get into the local experience of the region.
The Elephant Village has been open since 1973 in Pattaya as a sanctuary for former working elephants run by a local man who has spent his life working with elephants. Visitors can observe demonstrations of the daily life of these animals but some of the shows can be a little gimmicky with the elephants playing football and engaging in other “human” activities. You will see chains on the elephant’s feet which the establishment claims are for both the elephants and visitors safety. They do offer elephant trekking, ox-cart riding and there’s also a mini zoo on site. The owner insists on the ethical treatment of all the elephants, limiting their trekking hours to only two hours per day.
For an excellent day trip, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project where you can learn about wildlife. Visitors can learn all about the resident creatures while having an opportunity to get up close to bathe, feed, or play with them. In addition, the Pattaya venue has a ‘Feed Me’ program that allows people to observe and feed the elephants and discover how elephant faeces is converted into sustainable paper products.
Elephants are a common sight on the island as there are several elephant trekking tours in operation. There are currently six elephant camps on Koh Chang. The elephants live within their natural environment and feed on native plants but live in captivity. Visitors can visit to learn more and also have the opportunity to feed and bathe them. It is not recommended that you ride an elephant but rather support the camps by learning about these gentle giants instead of making them work on treks.
There is no one best elephant sanctuary. Read our guide to elephant sanctuaries to make up your mind on which will be the best to visit. We only present those projects that are widely considered to be ethical.
Yes, there are several ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. See our guide and do your research to decide which one you would like to visit and support.
Prices vary. There is usually an entrance fee and that money goes towards maintaining the sanctuary. Volunteering programs cost and this is also used to sustain the elephant park.
Elephants are considered to be a symbol of royal power and are revered as special animals.
Elephant crushing is a tradition in Thai culture and is used as a cruel training method to train elephants to participate in the tourism industry. Young elephants are taken early from their mothers and then confined to a small place and a strong cage is tied to them with ropes to keep the elephant from moving. The animal is then abused with bullhooks or spiky sticks as a means of training it to adhere to the commands of the master.
The largest populations of wild elephants in Thailand are along the Myanmar border, and around 200 elephants have been documented within Khao Sok National Park.
Some elephant sanctuaries in Thailand are not ethical so it’s imperative to do your research so that you do not inadvertently support destructive or abusive practices.
There are still numerous elephant trekking companies operating throughout the country. In terms of elephant conservation and welfare, this practice is not considered ethical. It is better to support ethical sanctuaries through your visits and paying entry fees, learning about elephants, making donations or volunteering and contribute to their livelihoods that way rather than keeping elephants working under stressful conditions for hours on end.
Around 60% of elephants in Thailand are held in captivity and of those, most work in tourism. There are less than 2000 elephants left in the wild.
Elephants are used in work practices such as for tourism trekking and show as well as working in the logging industry by hauling large logs and food produce. Traditionally they were used for ploughing fields and even used in ancient battles.
There are several options for tourists who want to have an elephant experience. Thailand is the country in Southeast Asia best known for elephant tourism, the term having arisen from tour operators running these Thailand elephant tours. The tropical forests of western and northern Thailand are the natural habitats but many villages have tamed elephants for tourists’ elephant experiences. For a memorable and ethical elephant experience, there are places like an elephant nature park or elephant sanctuaries found in Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Samui.
Tourists can try different options – an elephant ride, Phuket elephant bathing or elephant trekking Phuket, or elephant trekking Koh Samui or visit elephant village Pattaya to see a baby elephant or bathing elephants too.
It would be advisable to go to an elephant sanctuary where you can be sure of no elephant abuse practised there.
The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is among the best-known sanctuaries in Thailand, especially as an ethical sanctuary. This park is a place where the tourists can see previous victims of elephant abuse and later rescued, where they are fed and cared for because they cannot be returned to the wilds immediately after their traumatic lives.
The elephant has become the icon for Thailand because of its significant impact on its history and culture. It is the official national animal of Thailand. Elephants have held important roles in Thai culture: for heavy labour and transport, in war, in royal iconography, and since the last century, in tourism.
The importance of elephants in Thailand goes back to the Phra Ruang Dynasty of the Sukhotai Kingdom in the 1200s. Elephants were trained to do heavy labour and transport. During the period of Thailand’s logging industry, elephants were trained to haul the felled logs through forests. They were trained for war too, (as early as the days of Alexander the Great) being described as a warm-blooded armoured tank. The earliest record of a special relationship between the royalty and elephants was the stone inscription of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great of Sukhothai.
The Thai sacred and royal symbol is the white elephant.
Traditionally, the elephant is known to symbolize good luck, protection, power, wisdom, success and fertility. Especially an elephant with a raised trunk – which is said to draw in the positive energies and will shower blessings of good fortune to its surroundings.
Elephants are social animals, and thus, are also known to symbolize loyalty, unity, companionship or community and parent care.
Elephant images are popular and well-received gifts and are also used as totems at the house entrance to ward off bad spirits or misfortune.
Elephants are big and strong animals but their bodies are not made to carry things or people on their backs. Their backs have sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards from their spine, which protrusions and the surrounding tissue are vulnerable to weight and pressure from above. So carrying even one adult on its back hurts, which pain can lead to spinal injury.
Even before being ridden, the elephants have already been hurt – from the training to carry someone or something on its back. They are trained by abuse – with bullhooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails, starvation and sleep deprivation – to break their spirit and submit to human command.
In the current pandemic which has locked down countries and closed innumerable businesses, in Thailand, this has been a liberating situation for the elephants. Nature parks were among the closed establishments. Without the tourists and the various forms of transportation, the elephants were free to roam around previously crowd-packed areas. Thailand has become another country where nature has been restored.
Those animals in sanctuaries are rescued elephants, those in parks are captive. Reportedly, there are only 2000 wild elephants in Thailand. 60% of Thailand’s elephants are captive of which 60% are used for elephant tourism.
Thai culture regards the elephant as a symbol of good fortune. There are even those who are superstitious who pay sums of money to be allowed to pass under the elephant’s body with the hope that the animal’s luck will pass on to them.
The elephant has been part of Thailand’s history, in good times and bad. When Thailand was called Siam, the white elephant image was in its flag. Nowadays, the elephant image is found in Thai stamps, coins, the Navy flag, all over its architecture and all forms and kinds of artwork. That is how much they regard the elephant as a sign of good luck.
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