Where to See Elephants in Thailand at an ETHICAL Sanctuary

There are hundreds of places to see elephants in Thailand, but finding an ethical elephant sanctuary is difficult

The truth is, it won’t be hard to find elephant encounters on your trip to Thailand. You’ll find tour adverts, billboards, and tuk-tuk drivers recommending a myriad of elephant experiences across all the tourist regions like Phuket, Krabi, Chiang Mai, and even Bangkok. Sadly, the majority of elephant tourism in Thailand is not run ethically.

After countless trips to Thailand, I’ve finally found a real elephant sanctuary; Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. This is an ethical elephant sanctuary and rescue center with over 120 rescued Asian Elephants living in conditions close to their natural habitat.

In this blog post, I’ll detail my experience visiting Elephant Nature Park, I’ll also give you an overview of what you need to know before booking an elephant experience in Thailand and how to do it the right way.

Olly gasparOlly gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, traveler, travel blogger & photographer for 5+ years with 600+ published travel guides. I visit every place I write about & share real tips from what I learn.

About Elephant Tourism in Thailand

Elephant tourism in Thailand has long been a part of the country’s history and culture. However, as with most animal tourism practices in Southeast Asia, it is many challenges concerning animal welfare.

Here are some important things to know.

  • It’s still common to see elephants performing on streets or exploited for rides in elephant camps where their welfare is not prioritized. This causes unnatural stress and health issues for the animals.
  • Forest logging was banned in 1989 but many elephants are still used for heavy labor where they sustain heavy injuries. They then often transition to exploitative tourism.
  • Logging contributed to a significant decline in wild elephant populations, leaving only around 3,500 wild elephants in Thailand.
  • Mahouts (elephant keepers) at unethical elephant parks often use ankus or goads (bullhooks) to control elephants with pain, forcing them to perform unnatural acts for tourists. This is neither natural nor ethical.

But, everybody wants to see elephants in Thailand, which drives a huge demand for elephant tourism. What we need to do as ethical travelers is to demand ethical animal tourism.

Ethical Elephant Encounters in Thailand

How is this possible you ask? The answer is that we should be flowing our tourism dollars into true rescue centers or an animal sanctuary that provides shelter for exploited or injured elephants.

Ethical sanctuaries like this allow elephants to behave naturally, without forced interactions like elephant rides, daily washings, or trail walks. There are a select few places like this in Thailand. Here are a few tips that I recommend to find the best elephant sanctuaries that are ethical.

  • Check reviews: Use sites like TripAdvisor, Google, GetYourGuide, and Viator to compare reviews left by other travelers. The good news is that these days, awareness is strong, and many travelers will leave a bad review if they sense that the elephant attraction is not ethical.
  • Sanctuary credentials: Look for sanctuaries accredited by global animal welfare organizations, such as the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) or the Asian Captive Elephant Standards (ACES). Sadly, some of these still accept riding camps, so don’t base your decision only on these accreditations.
  • Elephant itinerary: Look on the website or ask your tour guide about the schedule. Ethical sanctuaries prioritize the natural behavior and well-being of elephants. Inquire about how much freedom elephants have throughout the day and how much interaction they have with humans.
  • Investigate the source of elephants: Ethical sanctuaries often rescue elephants from exploitative situations. Find out where the elephants come from and the sanctuary’s role in their rescue and rehabilitation.
  • Research conditions & environment: Avoid any elephant park where the elephants are tied up or chained. Look for sanctuaries or rescue centers with open fields and a natural environment with a water source.

After a lot of research and going here myself, the best ethical way to see elephants in Thailand is to visit or volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park located approximately 1.5 hours north of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand near the border of Myanmar.

Below I’ll share my experience visiting these elephants and explain why this is the best place to go.

Booking a Visit to Elephant Nature Park

For those visiting Chiang Mai, you have several options to choose from to get to Elephant Nature Park. All options include free return transport to your accommodation.

We chose the daily afternoon session and I can highly recommend it. The most popular are half-day visits which last around 7 hours with transport from Chiang Mai.

  • Half Day Morning: 07:30 to 2:30 pm – 2,500 THB
  • Half Day Afternoon: 12:30 to 7:00 pm – 2,500 THB
  • ENP Overnight Stay (2 Days + 1 Night): 08:00-08:30 am, return 5:30 pm next day – 5,800 THB
  • Elephant Highlands Single Day: 08:00-08:45 am, return 6:00 pm – 6,000 THB
  • Care for Elephants: 08:00-08:45 am, return 5:30 pm – 6,000 THB
  • Walking with Elephants: 08:00-08:30am, return 5:30 pm – 3,500 THB
  • Volunteer at ENP (Chiang Mai): Starts Mondays 09:00 am, return 5:30 pm Friday – 15,000 THB (meals, accommodation included).

Did you know? ENP was founded by Saengduean Chailert (Lek) in the 1990s. Due to her conservation efforts, it is now home to over 120 elephants rescued by the Save Elephant Foundation. The sanctuary is also home to 700 rescued dogs, 1,600 rescued cats, 100 water buffalo, and more.

My Experience Visiting Elephant Nature Park

Haylea and I booked our visit to the Elephant Nature Park the day before, which was no problem. The convenience of included transportation was a perk for us. This was a comfortable 1.5-hour journey from our accommodation in Nimman, Chiang Mai in an air-conditioned van, with about eight other travelers.

Meeting Rescued Elephants

Once we arrived, we were greeted by our local guide, who introduced us to the main seating area and gave a short but informative brief with information about the park and safety instructions for interacting with the elephants.

Shortly after, we walked through the gate into a large open field, where at least a dozen female elephants were roaming freely and enjoying mud baths.

Our guide told us that each elephant had its own carer, who stays with them around the clock. These carers are really dedicated individuals and almost all refugees from Myanmar.

We continued to walk around the sanctuary and came within meters of several elephants enjoying various activities—some reveling in mud baths, others feeding, and a few playful ones leading their carers on loops around the property.

The opportunity to get close to some of the older, more relaxed retired elephants that were rescued a long time ago, was very moving. We learned about their previous lives and how badly they were treated. Some elephants were left blind after being stabbed in the eye by their previous owners.

We really enjoyed watching one particular baby elephant named Chaba running around and causing mischief. Our guide told us to give the younger ones some extra space because they don’t know their own body weight yet!

Tip: Remember, elephants are wild animals. Unfortunately, some people in our group were quite oblivious to that fact. Treat these gentle giants with respect and don’t move around quickly or frighten the animals.

Another unforgettable moment was witnessing over 100 rescued water buffalo crossing the river.

Lunch & The Elephant River Crossing

After exploring for about 1.5 hours, we returned to the starting point, where we were treated to a delicious vegan buffet lunch.

I highly recommend opting for the afternoon session as we did since every day at around 4:30 pm, many elephants make their daily walk across the river back to the sanctuary to sleep.

We watched this amazing spectacle from the bridge and managed to snap some of my favorite photos from the experience. Walking out, we spotted the founder Lek Chailert, still working tirelessly. Haylea said this was a big fan-girl moment for her since she’s been following this center on social media for nearly a decade!

On the ride back to Chiang Mai, I had some quiet time to think about everything I saw and learned. It’s one thing to hear about the sanctuary from others, but being there and seeing it all for yourself is a whole other experience.

If you want to see elephants in Thailand and contribute to one of the best animal welfare projects that I’ve ever experienced, I highly recommend visiting Elephant Nature Park.

More Places to See Elephants in Thailand Ethically

Visiting other parts of Thailand and want to see elephants ethically? Here are the best places.

Northern Thailand

  • Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), Sukhothai: Dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating elephants, BLES provides a safe haven where elephants can roam freely across vast natural landscapes.
  • BEES – Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary, Maechaem (Chiang Mai area): Founded with a strong commitment to elephant welfare with a ‘hands-off’ experience, emphasizing respectful observation of elephants in their natural habitat.
  • Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, Lampang: The world’s first elephant hospital, dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of elephants.

Central Thailand & Bangkok

  • Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), Petchaburi: Provides refuge and rehabilitation for abused or neglected animals, including elephants.
  • Elephants World, Kanchanaburi: A sanctuary offering peace and dignity to elderly, sick, or previously worked elephants.

Eastern Thailand

  • The Surin Project, Surin: Enhances the living conditions of captive elephants, allowing them to live more naturally and with less human interaction.

Southern Thailand & Phuket

  • Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Phuket: Offers a humane and loving retirement home for elephants retired from the tourism and the logging industry.
  • Samui Elephant Sanctuary, Koh Samui: Koh Samui’s first ethical sanctuary, providing a peaceful retirement for elephants.

Where to Stay in Chiang Mai Before Your Elephant Experience

Chiang Mai is the capital of the Northern Thailand tourist trail, and also a huge Digital Nomad hub. This is the reason why I’m always drawn back to this city. As you might expect, there are some excellent accommodation picks in and around the city. Below are three of the top places to stay for various budgets.

1. POR Thapae Gate Luxury

With over 700 reviews this is the ultimate luxury hotel located 200m from Tha Pae Gate. The hotel provides an outdoor swimming pool, free bike rental, and an exceptional breakfast.

2. Rimping Village Mid-Range

Just a 10-minute walk from the Night Bazaar this hotel offers a large outdoor swimming pool, an on-site restaurant, and spectacular outdoor seating areas. Away from the crowds, this is a perfect place to unwind and relax.

3. Green Sleep Hostel Budget

Situated in the heart of Chang Mai this hostel boasts a fully equipped kitchen, co-working space, communal area, and comfortable beds. A top pick for backpackers wanting a cheap and comfortable stay.

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I hope that my experience seeing elephants in Thailand has inspired you to visit this incredible sanctuary in Chiang Mai and left you with more knowledge about ethical elephant tourism.

Have an update or suggestion for this post? Want to share your insights or experience? Let me know in the comments below. I reply to each and every one.