Having the opportunity to see elephants up close and personal is one of the major draws that brings tourists to Thailand year after year. More and more people are now looking for ethical elephant sanctuaries where the elephants can live out their lives in peace without the threat of mistreatment.
After years of campaigning from animal welfare groups as well as elephant loving locals, the industry is slowly moving away from the horrifically cruel practices that were once the norm. There are, unfortunately, still a handful of elephant parks that operate by training elephants to carry dozens of tourists on their backs or, for the sake of a photo, by forcing elephants to dance and paint pictures for crowds of paying customers.
We’ve put together a list of tried and tested ethical elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai where you can be rest assured that they care for their elephants with the love and respect that these amazing animals deserve. We have also listed a handful of elephant sanctuaries that are not recommended to visit due to their unethical ways of looking after the elephants.
Elephant Nature Park was the first ethical sanctuary in Thailand. It was a unique project set up by the famous conservationist Lek Chailert in the Chiang Mai countryside. Established in the 1990s, the park’s aim has always been to provide a safe haven for rescued elephants.
The park has provided a loving home for dozens of mistreated elephants from all over Thailand for decades. You won’t just find elephants there, however. The park also houses cats, dogs, buffalo, and many other rescued animals. This place truly is an animal lover’s paradise!
Enjoy a full day at Elephant Nature Park or an overnight stay. You will get to observe the elephants bathing but you can no longer go into the river with the elephants as there were concerns that it was causing too much stress for them.
At feeding time, you’ll learn about the elephants’ eating habits.
A delicious vegetarian buffet lunch is included in the price.
At the end of the day, you will have the chance to watch a film about how elephants are ‘trained’ to work and perform in shows and camps in Thailand. It makes for some difficult viewing but is definitely educational in highlighting just how badly elephants can be treated for the amusement of tourists in other less ethical places.
Price (day trip): adult rate: 2,500 baht; child rate: 1,250 baht (2–11 years)
Location: 60 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai
Starting from: 8–8:30am. You will be collected from your hotel in Chiang Mai.
Returning: 5–5:30pm to Chiang Mai city.
Formerly known as Happy Elephant Valley, Chang Chill has moved away from interactive activities, such as riding, bathing, and feeding the elephants, that you’ll commonly see at other camps. Visitors at Chang Chill are no longer encouraged to interact with the elephants so that they are left to go about their daily business in peace.
There, you will get the chance to learn about the Karen hill tribe people and their local traditions as well as to enjoy the mesmerizing view from the elephant observation deck. Chang means ‘elephant’ in Thai and chill obviously means ‘relax’, and that’s exactly what the six resident female elephants do there...relax!
On arrival, you will be given an introduction to Chang Chill’s past, present, and future along with the program schedule. You will then follow your guide into the forest to see the elephants grazing and interacting with each other from a safe distance.
You will learn about Chang Chill’s six resident elephants as well as some interesting facts about Asian elephants and their mahouts.
There is the opportunity to take part in an ‘elephant cooking class’ where you will prepare food and supplements for the six elephants. You will learn about the elephants’ diet and the health benefits gained from each of the ingredients used.
The day ends with a short discussion about what you have learned about the elephants and how you can continue to help them even after leaving Thailand.
Lunch is included in the price and there are vegetarian and non-vegetarian options available. Specific requests for food can be made at the time of booking.
Price per adult (day trip): 2,500 baht
Location: 65 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai (1½ hours)
Starting from: 7–7:30am. You will be collected from your hotel in Chiang Mai.
Returning: 5–5:30pm to Chiang Mai city.
BEES, or Burm and Emily's Elephant Sanctuary, is a community based elephant retirement and animal rescue center in Maechaem, located 2½ hours outside of Chiang Mai city.
Currently, there are just three permanently retired elephants at BEES, meaning that they receive the love, care, and attention that they truly deserve.
The message there is clear: Let elephants just be elephants! No riding, no bathing, and certainly no tricks. BEES is the ultimate happy place for retired elephants.
A message from their website:
“Our program focuses on allowing elephants their freedom to just BE an elephant, free from exploitation and abuse. By joining us, you're directly helping these elephants to live a happy, more natural life. This is a responsible and ethical program focused on giving back to the elephants after they have spent their lives working for humans. BEES is a place where humans now work for them. This is NOT a program to pat, play, kiss, bathe, or hand-feed elephants. This is a place where you can observe elephants in a natural setting and help with other aspects of their care.”
There are no day or half-day tours available at BEES. The minimum stay is overnight. Anyone who wants to delve a little deeper into animal conservation and really see the hard work that goes into looking after these wonderful animals will be truly rewarded. This is an experience like no other.
Day 1: You will be collected in Chiang Mai and enjoy sightseeing along the way. Have lunch at a waterfall in Doi Inthanon National Park with a full park tour available upon request.
Arrive at BEES and go through some health and safety regulations. Then you are free to chill out with the resident cats and dogs before you have your Thai dinner.
Day 2: Have breakfast before starting your hike through the beautiful forest to observe the elephants in their natural surroundings.
Have lunch in the forest while observing the elephants before heading back to prepare the elephants’ dinner back at the camp.
You’ll get to watch the elephants eating all of the tasty food you have prepared for them before meeting your driver to head back to your Chiang Mai hotel.
The price includes four meals and free drinking water (you must bring your own bottle to refill).
Price per adult: starts at 6,000 baht for an overnight stay
Price per child: 1,250 baht (2–11 years)
Location: 65 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai (2½ hours)
Starting from: 8:30–9am. You will be collected from your hotel in Chiang Mai.
Returning: 7pm (the following day) to Chiang Mai city.
Here is a list of elephant camps and so-called sanctuaries that we recommend you avoid during your trip to Chiang Mai:
Why we recommended that you avoid them: All of the above camps advocate the riding of elephants, the use of bullhooks to control them, chaining the elephants up when the visitors leave, not feeding the elephants adequate amounts of food, and forcing the elephants to interact with tourists for long periods when they should be relaxing in their natural habitat. These are effectively the same as the old working tourist camps that are just being dressed up as ‘ethical sanctuaries’.
1. Comfortable clothes that you don’t mind getting muddy. You might want to consider wearing long sleeves and pants.
2. Hiking shoes and perhaps some flip-flops or sandals in case you need to go into the water.
3. A hat, sunscreen, and mosquito repellent.
4. Drinking water or a refillable bottle to use on-site.
5. Some snacks to eat between meals.
In our opinion, experiencing elephants in their natural habitat is a must-do activity during your Thailand trip, and our premade itineraries can easily accommodate a trip to one of these amazing sanctuaries. Alternatively, our knowledgeable travel advisers are on hand to take the hassle out of planning your trip and to help you create your own customized trip . Take a look at some of our most popular Thailand tours below and start dreaming about your next Thai getaway today.