Elephants can be found in almost all of Thailand and they serve an important role in keeping the ecosystem balanced in Southeast Asia. Those same elephants have also played an intricate role within local culture since many were employed when commercial logging was a huge part of the economy in Thailand.
Those elephants who were formerly working in logging have now been transferred to sanctuaries in Thailand so that they could continue to live peacefully. There are between three and four thousand elephants within sanctuaries now–about the same as the approximately three thousand that live in the wild. Without the elephant sanctuaries in this country, the population would have dwindled even faster than it has.
Going to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand was one of the highlights of my trip there. Best of all, I knew after doing some research that I was interacting with these gentle giants in an ethical way.
While you won’t have plenty of opportunities to see them out in the wild, you do have a chance to see them at a sanctuary.
How to act at an elephant sanctuary
There are several things you should keep in mind before visiting any elephant sanctuary in Thailand. Make sure to listen carefully to the mahouts, or handlers of the elephants, at all times. While they are used to humans, they may have an off-day on occasion, or a male elephant may be aggressive depending on his time of the month.
Remember to treat the elephants with respect and not to make any sudden movements or loud noises. Your mahout guide will tell you how to approach the elephants from the front so they can clearly see you. Do not feed them unless you are given permission.
Do not take photos with flash, as this can disturb and irritate the elephants. Likewise, pet them gently if your guide says that it is alright, and watch for any signs of distress. Most of them love people and are incredibly friendly, but it never hurts to approach them with caution.
What to pack
Make sure to come prepared since you are likely to spend the whole day outside in the sun. Here are some items to consider bringing with you:
- Bathing suit and change of clothes (if you are planning on bathing with the elephants)
- Bug spray
- Water bottle
There are many sanctuaries, but only a few of them are considered ethical. Taking the time to choose an elephant sanctuary in Thailand that properly cares for their friends is essential.
Why you shouldn’t ride elephants
One of the first signs of an ethical sanctuary is that they don’t allow guests to ride the elephants. Not only are their bone structures not meant to support the weight of a human (or several hundred pounds of logs and logging equipment), but they also go through a traumatizing training experience called phajaan, often when they are extremely young.
While many travelers now know not to ride the elephants, there are still plenty of “sanctuaries” that advertise themselves as safe places when they offer rides. This is why it is important to do some research into the camps before you visit them (and be sure to book online instead of through a local tour provider–they often tell you you’re visiting a sanctuary when you’re not).
Ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand
Here are a few elephant sanctuaries in Thailand who properly watch and care for their animals.
1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing
+66 53 272 855
This elephant sanctuary rescues those who were abused and offers them a slow, quiet retirement. You get the chance to meet each one by name and hear their stories of how they arrived at the elephant park–you might even have the chance to give them a bath and feed them! You also have the chance to stay overnight and participate in some long-term volunteer projects if you would like. This is the one I visited, and I had never seen such happy elephants! You also have an option for a full day or half day depending on your schedule.
100, Moo 2, Paklok, Thalang
+66 88 752 3853
All the elephants at this sanctuary worked in either the logging industry or they were ridden by tourists in the past. The workers at the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary successfully rescued these animals (often with a lot of effort) and they are now living their retirement like they should. During your visit, you can spend hours hanging out with the elephants, feeding them, and maybe even giving them a bath.
Ban taklang Moo 13 Krapo Tha Tum District
+66 84 482 1210
The people who work with elephants in any of the sanctuaries love the animals immensely. However, some workers that are employed at sanctuaries must choose between the care of the elephants and their jobs. The Surin Project was created so the mahouts that work with elephants can maintain working at the sanctuary long term. This allows them to keep their job and stay with the animals that they have grown to love.
You have to sign up as a volunteer in order to visit. The least amount of time you can volunteer is a week and the longest is eight weeks. You pay for your accommodations and food while you are volunteering, but that is a small price to pay to have personal connection with the elephants. Be prepared to clean out stalls, prepare their food, and work on any construction that is in process.
108 Moo 6, Tha Mai Ruak
+66 32 458 135
While elephants are the main attraction at this refuge, there are a whole bunch of other animals that you can interact with and help take care of here. Many of these rescued animals were pets that were mistreated or that were left to fend for themselves. Offering easy transfer to and from Bangkok, you can spend an afternoon here or volunteer your time. Regardless, you know that the elephants and their friends are well-cared for and you get the chance to hear about the stories of their rescues.
How do you make sure you’re picking responsible animal activities on your travels?
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