As part of a varied Thailand travel itinerary, many visitors are keen to interact with Thailand’s Asian elephants, beautiful animals that are increasingly a part of the Thai tourist offering.
What is Elephant Tourism?
Elephants have been used for heavy labour across Asia for centuries, but their use in the logging industry was banned in Thailand in 1989. After that, many owners turned to the tourism industry as a way to support themselves and their elephants – expensive beasts to keep given the amount of feed they need to consume every day.
But much of the elephant tourism that has sprung up is actively damaging to elephants, both in terms of the physical and mental health of the elephants involved, and also in the unfortunate result of more elephants being taken from the wild, and bred in captivity. The realisation that elephants can be big earners has created a growing demand.
However, there are options for those looking to interact with rescue elephants in an ethical way.
Is it OK to Ride Elephants?
In short, no! The problem is that the only way to train elephants to accept riders on their backs, to perform in shows, do tricks, “paint” or otherwise entertain, they must be mentally broken as babies, a horrific process known as the kraal (crush). Incidentally, this is the same process used to train circus elephants, which is why I’m against that too.
You may not see a mahout obviously enforcing control in front of visitors, but that’s partly because the animal’s will was broken so effectively in the first place, and also because it can be very subtly enforced by use of a small metal hook jabbed into the tender area behind an elephant’s ear, such that most visitors don’t even notice it.
In addition, unlike horses and other large animals, the backs of elephants are not the right shape for carrying weight upon them, and are damaged by the heavy riding platforms and passengers they carry. And don’t forget, even if you are told that the weight of one or two adults on the elephant’s back is not a problem, an elephant’s spirit still needs to be broken completely for it to accept this.
What Kind of Elephant Tourism is OK?
The first thing to look for when seeking an ethical elephant tourism experience is a place that does not allow riding, nor puts on shows where elephants perform. More and more tourism operators are banning elephant riding from their offerings, so look for an operator that is willing to give you a frank answer on this question.
All the ethical options I have found are focused on the rescue of previously domesticated elephants.
I would avoid places that talk about breeding elephants; this is not a sign of an organisation focused on the rescue of suffering elephants. In some cases, the babies have been taken from the wild (and breeding papers faked), further fuelling the continued poaching of an already-endangered wild elephant population. Did you know that in order to capture one baby elephant, an entire herd of adults (which are too old to be trained) is often killed, as they are naturally very protective of their infants?
Finding an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary, Thailand
There are a number of responsible elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, which rescue elephants from physical labour or inhumane tourist attractions. These elephants are often not able to return to lives in the wild, so they are looked after by their handlers in as natural an environment as possible, where they can rest and relax in their retirement.
Because they have grown up with human company, visitors can approach and interact with them (in a controlled manner). In most sanctuaries, this is usually to feed them and to help wash and scrub them. Some sanctuaries also offer walks (where visitors walk on foot alongside the elephants).
- Elephant Hills, in Khao Sok National Park, has been open to visitors since 2010, and has received several awards for animal welfare and sustainable tourism, from both the Tourism Authority of Thailand as well as a number of relevant international bodies. Visitors observe, feed and wash the elephants.
- Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is probably the most famous elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and has received awards for its conservation projects, high welfare standards and work in educating visitors about elephants and other wildife. As well as their main sanctuary in Chiang Mai, they also operate a project in Surin, near the border with Cambodia; one in Kanchanburi, in Western Thailand; and one in Siem Rep, Cambodia.
- Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary is a 600-acre rescue centre, located about an hour’s drive north of Sukothai. The sanctuary helps its rescued elephants to live as natural life as they can. Unlike other sanctuaries, there is not a set schedule to each day, and the intentionally small number of guests may find themselves gathering food for the elephants, walking with them as they forage for themselves, washing them and generally caring for them.
These are not the only ethical choices within Thailand, but I’ve chosen them based on their mission statements, recommendations and awards from those whose opinion and expertise I value, and recognition given by tourism and welfare authorities.
Elephant Hills, Thailand
A Visit To Elephant Hills
Since elephants previously trained for labour cannot survive in the wild, Elephant Hills have created a sanctuary within the Khao Sok National Park where these animals can retire with their mahouts, to a life of leisure.
To fund the costs of this project, paying visitors can visit the rescued elephants, feed them fresh fruit (which they eat in enormous amounts), and help to wash them.
The sanctuary allows no breeding or riding and has won awards from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, as well as a range of international tourism bodies.
One of the aspects I liked about our visit was that individual elephants were not forced to participate. First we watched a couple of elephants enjoying a playful session in a natural waterhole. Then we spent some time washing and scrubbing a few of the sanctuary’s elephants. Lastly, we prepared some fruit and fed a large number of elephants – for this last activity many more elephants were keen to join in!
The sanctuary also played us an educational film about Asian elephants, and about their own project.
Staying at Elephant Hills Elephant Camp
We had a few reasons for choosing Elephant Hills as our choice for an ethical elephant sanctuary. The first was the excellent reputation of Elephant Hills, and its awards for animal welfare, sustainable / green tourism, conservation, and service from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Wanderlust Magazine, National Geographic Traveler and PATA (Pacific Asia Travel Association).
I also liked the sound of an overnight stay in their rainforest safari-style tented camp within Khao Sok National Park.
The Elephant Camp is fairly large, with the tents set out on two sides of the central space which houses a small shop, a reception desk, and the large dining and bar area. This is open air, with a wooden roof high above to protect from downpours, and large communal tables where guests can mingle. Meals are served buffet style and are a bit of an odd mix of Thai and Western dishes; I noticed a large number of their guests did not eat any Thai food at all so they had to cater for a wide range of tastes.
The tents themselves will be familiar to anyone who’s been to a luxury tented safari camp in Africa; each tent has a spacious bedroom area with proper beds and furniture, and an en-suite bathroom at the back, with toilet, sink and shower. Zips and netted windows keep insects out pretty well, and the tents are comfortable and clean, albeit a little closer together than I’d like – who wants to hear the snoring of their tent neighbours instead of the gentle sounds of the jungle fauna?
There’s also a small outdoor swimming tool next to the central dining area, pool towels available from the bar on request.
The last reason that I chose Elephant Hills was the option to stay overnight at Rainforest Camp, their floating camp on Cheow Lan Lake.
Booking the Elephant Hills Package
We booked an inclusive package with pick up and drop off from local resorts and airports, one night in the Elephant Camp, one night in the floating lake Rainforest Camp, activities including visiting the elephant sanctuary, river canoeing, trekking in the jungle and kayaking on the lake, and all meals during the stay.
Because of limited availability by the time we booked and the resulting need to juggle the order of our itinerary, we had to fly down the day before pick-up and stay a night near Phuket airport, to be collected from our hotel lobby in the morning. However, if you co-ordinate with the Reservations team during the booking process, they will let you know specific flights from Bangkok into Phuket or Surat Thani airports which they will meet on landing, so you can fly in the same morning your package begins if you prefer. Of course, if your itinerary includes one of the beach resorts within their pick-up zone, a hotel pick-up will suit you better. The Jungle Lake package costs from 20,372 baht per adult based on two sharing (at time of posting).
Elephant Hills is very family friendly and combines well with a visit to Phuket with kids.
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Want to read more about our three week itinerary in Thailand? Check out my other recommendations for where to visit, where to stay and what to eat in Thailand.
Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!79 Comments to "Elephant Hills | An Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand"
Ethical elephant tourism is so important! I did one in Chiangmai and it was amazing. It was way better of an experience than watching elephants do shows or unnatural acts.
It absolutely is!
Thank you so much for this comprehensive post on ethical elephant tourism. I had no idea it was not ethical to ride elephants.
I didn’t either and rode an elephant in India in the 1980s and in Thailand in the 1990s. Now I know better I will never do it again, and at least in the era of online connectivity and blogs, we can help spread that message!
This post was quite informative. I come from a part of India where captive elephants are common sights, but had no idea of the process by which they were trained.
No, and it’s pretty brutal, right? Quite shocking when you find out!
Thank you for this post! It’s so hard for me to understand how in 2018 people can still take advantage of these gentle, magestic creatures for an awful instagram post riding an elephant. Every person who takes the time to share their experience engaging in ethical elephant tourism helps to make a difference! I spent a few months in 2014 volunteering with the Surin Project (http://surinproject.org/) in Surin, Thailand (on the eastern border near Cambodia) and would also highly recommend their program.
Thanks Erica, the Surin project is one I mention in my listing of Elephant Nature Park as it’s run by the same organisation, I believe. I would certainly love to visit though I imagine volunteering for a few months there must have been a very special experience!
This is super useful! I can’t wait to go back to Thailand someday and visit these lovely creatures.
Glad it’s useful!
Thank you for sharing a trusted place where to see elephants without exploiting them! This is now on my bucket list!
It’s an amazing place to visit, I hope you get there one day soon!
Wow! What an amazing experience! I would love to get up close and stroke an elephant!
Indeed, one of the results of these elephants being rescue elephants is that they, of course, are fine with human contact. It’s also a huge thrill seeing elephants in the wild, but of course I would not dream of reaching out to touch those ones!!
Thanks a lot for sharing this. It makes me so angry and upset when I see oblivious people riding these beautiful animals. I have always wanted to have interaction with the elephants but have always avoided it out of fear it may not be ethical or the elephants are not treated well. NO way would I fund that. So thanks for sharing this place. I will certainly check it out.
I think the only thing we can do to reduce this is to spread the word, posts like mine and many others that make it clear, let’s get them in front of the people who might not otherwise think about it and hopefully if we stop even a handful of people from making the wrong choice, it’s a step forward. Always grateful for shares to get the word out.
Heard lots of unpleasant incidents about elephant sanctuaries which exploit these lovely creatures for riding activities. Great to see that we have ethical ones like this with a genuine interest to care for them and protect them! 🙂
Yes, it’s worth doing the research, don’t just take their word or assume if the name includes the word “sanctuary” that it must be ok!
I don’t even understand the need to ride such a majestic, wild animal. Isn’t it enough to be able to observe them? To wonder at their elegance and beauty? Hopefully the sustainable, ethical tourism will replace practices like this one.
Agreed. Personally, I don’t get the need to ride horses either, but at least their backs are suitable for carrying the weight. And I don’t know how the process of “breaking” a horse differs from the process for elephants, which is incredibly brutal.
Beautiful photos and what majestic animals. I hope the elephants were well kept, you have to be careful with animal ‘sanctuaries’!
Thanks, yes it’s important not to assume that all “sanctuaries” are run in equally ethical ways!
Can’t agreed more with you about the term “sanctuaries” been used loosely in most ads that I saw when was planning for a Phuket trip last year with the intent of visiting an elephant santuaries as my little girl, who loves elephant since young. It was sad to see how companies painted a false image about their itinerary in the name of animal care but offers rides, bathing and touching cum feeding of the animal. Animals are to left alone in the wild and to observe in a distance. That is my view, having been an advocate of the animals extinction, in my younger days, in the zoo. But praise to you for the information you have shared here. It is good to know that true santuaries do exist.
I loved everything about this post! It is breaking my heart to read about how some elephants are being treated. Having worked on wildlife matters, I know that this is a serious problem. Happy to see, that you found great sanctuaries, where we can enjoy these beautiful creatures without causing them any harm I would really, really like to visit this place. Love from Louise
Thanks Louise, really glad this post resonates with you too.
Very informative post! We’ve been to Thailand before, but we weren’t such aware travellers then. Thank you for this info.
You are not alone! I rode an elephant when I first went to Thailand in the 1990s, I remember after the experience my friend and I were both upset when we saw the conditions of the elephants, that was at a time we didn’t even know about the issue of damaging their backs by carrying weight, nor how they are broken to accept riders in the first place.
Thanks for this post! This certainly helps me to be more aware of the need for ethical treatment of the elephants!
So important, I think as travellers it’s our responsibility to travel ethically.
We have never nor would ever ride an elephant, because like you said it well here, it’s just so unethical. But if we ever travel to Thailand, we would love to go to an elephant sanctuary to feed these lovely animals! Thank you for sharing this post!
Yes, it’s a shame there are some who will ride the elephants even when they’ve been told explicitly how damaging it is to their backs, and how those elephants were broken in spirit in order to accept riders on their backs in the first place.
So sad to hear how these elephants are usually mistreated by tourists and the locals. Thank you for sharing about this lovely sanctuary. Good to know that even riding them is unethical! Hope there is a day when the elephant abuse comes to an end. I would love t visit this sanctuary but I don’t think I can afford that package! The room looks lovely though!
It’s definitely pricy, these were easily the two most expensive nights of our 21 night itinerary. I think the Elephant Nature Park may be more accessible in that it’s close to central Chiang Mai so easy to visit without an on-site overnight stay. I’m really happy to spread the message about ethical elephant tourism and if it stops one person from riding an elephant next time they travel, that’s worth it!
Elephants being my favorite animal, I am against riding them. In fact, I am against riding any animal for that matter. I am glad that the sanctuary in Thailand take such great care of the elephants and they have a proper environment to survive. I would love to watch them do their daily chores and if given an opportunity play with them.
It’s a privilege to see and interact with these animals, knowing that the visit supports the costs of their retirement following their rescue.
This is such an important issue! There are so many unethical practices with elephants so it is great to hear about such a sanctuary!
Sadly there are indeed many such places. I hope this will help people identify the responsible options.
I am completely against any kind of tourism which exploits freedom of any animal. The ethical elephant tourism is also in a way an exploitation.
That’s certainly a valid opinion. For me, I believe that, until all domestication of elephants is eradicated, there is a continued need for sanctuaries where rescued animals can rest, relax and be properly cared for. These cost a lot of money, so inviting responsible tourism that contributes to these costs is the only way such places can operate.
Pretty cool to see an actual ‘sanctuary’ for elephants where the enjoyment or at least experience is mutual between both animals and human
It feels that way. Of course, we can’t lose sight of the fact that a wild elephant would not allow or appreciate this kind of interaction and the only reason it’s the case for these rescued animals is that they were already broken during their infancy, and have lived their entire lives within a human environment. But given that we are seem unable to eradicate domestication of elephants fully, this is at least a compromise that allows a responsible interaction that contributes to the cost of rescue and care.
Elephants are such gentle giants and it is really heart-rending to see them being abused in many countries. It is so sad to see the elephants being broken at a tender age and the subtle torture they bear.It is great to see that there are responsible sanctuaries that take care of the elephants.The Elephant Hills seem to be doing a good job and they require all the support that one can provide.
Yes it’s a horrible modern-day horror but hopefully things are moving in the right direction.
Oh my gosh – I love elephants! It sounds like its a wonderful experience, and so important to make these visits ethical.
I have read a lot about the cruelty and exploitation of the elephants in Thailand in the name of tourism but it is really heartening to read that there are many camps that are putting efforts for the welfare of the pachyderms.
Yes, as long as you seek out the genuine ones, a lot of less responsible places are claiming the marketing title without actually following best practice.
Elephants are such amazing creatures. I made the mistake of riding them in Nepal and was afterward educated on the realities of Elephant tourism. I’m glad you knew better and that you’re helping educate others!
I rode an elephant once as a teenager in India (and fell off, but that’s another story) and again as a young adult in Thailand, but even that second experience, I felt uncomfortable about the appearance of our elephant, it did not seem to be healthy and well. And that was before I even learned all about the training process and the damage of riding… We are not born knowing these things, I think the test is how we behave once we know better. 🙂
I totally agree with you. It’s not okay to ride elephants. In order to be compliant with people, I am sure they would be torturing the poor animal. Nice blog post
Yes they have tortured the animal during its initial training such that only smaller reminders as an adult are enough to keep it in line.
Awww, what a magical and peaceful place! I was JUST speaking with my neighbor about her trip to Thailand and told her she needs to do something like this. I will pass this on, thanks for sharing 🙂
I hope she is able to do this, it’s a special experience.
I agree with you! I am glad we are both on the same page and are helping to teach others about responsible tourism and that elephant sanctuaries are the way to go! This place in Khao Sak looks amazing!!! We didn’t have enough time to go to Khao Sok but this is on my bucket list for next time 🙂 Thanks for sharing !
Like many, I also did unethical elephant tourism before I knew better. Education is so important!
Thank you for educating me about this and it is heartbreaking knowing that in order to capture a baby elephant they have to kill the elders who protect it. Seriously…. humans are the most barbaric of all living creatures. I’d love to take my daughter one day so I’l definitely go with your recommendations!
We are, that’s true. In the past, we didn’t know better, now we do so it’s important not to perpetuate cruelty like this any further. I am sure your daughter would enjoy the elephant sanctuary too.
This is an incredibly helpful and important post. When I was traveling through Asia in 2009, these facts were much less known, so it’s heartening to see how people like you are able to spread the word about ethical tourism with regards to elephants. Thank you for giving tips of what to look for (“a place that does not allow riding, nor puts on shows where elephants perform”), and for offering specific ethical places to spend tourist dollars.
Thank you, I’m so pleased you find it useful and hope others will too.
I really, really want to visit this Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand. I believe in their mission. And I love elephants!
I do hope you get to visit soon!
I have to admit I did an elephant ride many years ago in Thailand… I am ashamed of it, as I saw during and after the ride the magnificent elephant was hot with a metal bar/stick… It’s only after that ride I started googling it, and found out that it was so wrong. Ever since I try to inform as much people as possible what is wrong with riding elephants. Happy to see the awareness is growing!
I did that too, over 20 years ago, I didn’t know back then what I know now. Now we know, we can make better decisions next time and help to spread the word to others. ❤️
It’s heartbreaking how some human beings can treat elephants (or any animal) so cruelly. Elephants are such amazing creatures. I do believe there are some places (few and far between) that do help the elephants in Thailand in a kinder way.
Yes, there are many that are perpetuating the problem but you can definitely find ethical places like this.
Very comprehensive. I didn’t realise that elephants would have a problem with giving rides – and so I’ve learnt something from your post. I love the look of your tent too – that’s probably about as close as I’d get to camping myself!
It’s not an instinctive assumption since they look so large and strong, but their backs are not. As for the tent, I reckon you might enjoy it more than you think, these are luxury tents with full size beds, en-suite bathrooms and access to nature right outside!
Thank you for explaining in detail what kind of elephant tourism is okay and what is not acceptable. I understand that none of the places that offer any kind of elephant rides or performances are good and it;s a pity that they’re mentally broken down as babies to train them for these things! I visited an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka and was very particular to read up on them before going, to make sure they’re ethical. Nobody wants cruelty against animals, even if it not really taking place in front of your eyes!
Exactly, Medha. There are people who do know better but refuse to accept there is a problem because “the elephants looked happy” or “we didn’t see any cruelty happening”, without acknowledging that they don’t have the expertise to recognise elephant behaviour nor would the worst of the cruelty be something they’d be witness to.
I rode an elephant when I was brand new to travelling back in 2010 in Thailand and I deeply regret it. It didn’t feel right at the time – my gut was telling me the truth. Thank you for raising awareness of what is going on with these beautiful creatures. Word is thankfully getting out. We can make a change!
I did the same on my first trip back in the late 1990s, I didn’t know better but like you, my friend and I felt very uncomfortable about the marks on the skin of the elephant, and regretted doing so even as we came off the elephant. Now I know better I would never do it again.
THANK YOU! Thank you for this amazing post and spreading the word about animal cruelty and how it is not ok to ride elephants just for your next great instagram shot! I love that you took the time and effort to look for an ethical elephant sanctuary!
Thanks Kate, I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. I think ethical animal tourism is an important lesson to spread!
All we hear about is the elephant poaching in Africa, so it’s great that you shared this to bring attention to the plight of these magnificent creatures. As travel writers I think we should all promote sustainable green travel whenever we can. Thailand is on our list and this will be a must-do.
Yes, the plight of African elephants is perhaps more widely recognised. The situation for Asian elephants is perhaps more complex, given the long centuries of historical association between man and elephant here.
We visit Elephant Hills in Nov Kaveyeats and honestly I was very reticent about it because of the elephant tourism industry in Thailand and poor treatment of those wonderful animals! Your review has reassured me as I was seriously reconsidering going at all. Is there any evidence that the mahouts use the hook from what you saw? Thanks for sharing your experience!
We didn’t see any evidence of it at all, no. I’m also persuaded by the recognition by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and other trusted organisations. I really hope you have a great experience too and make sure to spread the word about riding and so on. I’m saddened by how many people I know have never heard about the cruelty inherent in riding etc
Hi Kavey, thank you so much for this descriptive and appealing article!! My husband and I are planning a trip to Thailand in February and Elephant Hills is at the top of our itinerary. Since seeing and interacting with the elephants is my main interest, so I worry one day with them isn’t enough. Do you see them walking about on the other two days at the camp?
No the camp isn’t next to the sanctuary, I’m afraid so you wouldn’t see them other than the visit and that’s only an hour or two. I know many people have good luck in seeing wild elephants in parks like Khao Yai, with a really good wildlife guide. Enjoy your trip!