Thailand is home to some magnificent residences, and we’re not just talking about the welcoming locals. The “Land of Smiles” also happens to be the land of breathtaking wildlife, from its lush rainforests to its tropical beaches and, of course, majestic creatures.
The Asian Elephant is a symbol of Thailand and is thought to bring good fortune. But these superstitions haven’t prevented the domestication of wild elephants and their employment in abusive industries. Logging was banned in the 1980s, but unfortunately, most captive elephants ended up in the tourism trade, with less than 2,000 left in the wild.
Thailand currently enforces no laws that prevent the abuse and use of elephants in tourism. Still, the ethical sanctuaries in our guide are doing their bit to rehabilitate mistreated elephants, and you can, too. Check out these seven places to find out where to see elephants in Thailand sustainably.
The Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
Although not to be confused with the word “Chang,” actually meaning “elephant” in Thai, Chiang Mai is widely regarded as one of the best places to see elephants in Thailand. The Elephant Nature Park is the best-known conservation project in the area and prides itself on a track record of ethics and sustainability.
The refuge is home to 75 free-roaming elephants, each with its own heart-wrenching rescue story, which only makes the Elephant Nature Park’s work more commendable. Most elephants have been saved from exploitative tourism, such as abusive training camps or logging work.
There are also dogs, cats, horses, and water buffalo, among the other animals that have been rescued by leading conservationist Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, who founded the sanctuary in 1995. Set on the edge of dense rainforest in the northern capital, the forgiving climate and lush grounds make the park a dreamy refuge for these once-abused creatures. But it’s equally enjoyable for volunteers who can visit for the day or arrange longer overnight trips to muck in, prepare food, clean, and nurture the elephants.
The Surin Project, Baan Tha Klang
The Surin Project recognized one of the main problems around elephant abuse in Thailand to be poverty. It’s easy to demonize mahouts, the traditional trainers who work, ride and manipulate elephants for tourism and other purposes. But most of them are offered no alternative when it comes to making a living, forced to turn to their family businesses or the lucrative tourism trade for income.
Nestled in Baan Tha Klang in northeastern Thailand, The Surin Project works directly with mahouts, offering refuge to trainers and their elephants to keep them off the streets and interrupt unethical tourism.
There are near 200 mahouts and elephants living at the center, and the unique non-profit employs mahouts to tend to the land and the animals who roam free in the forested park. The sanctuary promotes sustainable tourism, and volunteers are essential to the project. Visitors can stay for a minimum of one week, and their donations go to the salaries of the mahouts and the care of the elephants.
Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary, Maechaem
Local Thai, Burm, and his English wife Emily started BEES in 2012 to bring Thai elephants owners onboard with a more ethical approach to animal tourism. They pride themselves on being at the forefront of welfare, and their approach to ethical tourism is all about putting the elephants’ needs first.
BEES is a home for old, injured, and retired elephants who’ve endured years of logging, tourist trekking, and abuse. Two hours southwest of Chiang Mai, the dense green valley and rolling mountains are the perfect setting for these gentle giants to live out their final years. It’s no surprise they have an outstanding record and five-star rating, the highest in this guide.
Their volunteer program takes a more hands-off approach, with activities limited to active care of the animals like preparing their afternoon snacks and cleaning their areas. There’s also an onsite cat café whose residents need caring for. BEES is fully immersed in the local community, and volunteers can also partake in village conservation work like tree planting and building repairs.
Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital
Friends of the Asian Elephants Hospital (or FAE) is one of the world’s only elephant hospitals and a truly unique experience for visitors to Thailand. Located in the northwest, FAE’s mobile vet clinic is crucial to treating and rehabilitating elephants all over Thailand. These professionals care for injured, disabled, and vulnerable elephants while welcoming volunteers to do the same.
Their visitor program introduces you to veterinarians who give their lives to caring for nature’s majestic giants. They’ll also show you how they treat injured elephants, how to prepare food for them, and clean their areas.
Since its inception in 1993, the hospital has treated over 5,000 elephants. But they rely solely on donations and need volunteers to ensure they can keep tending to sick ellies.
The Sai Yoke Elephant Camp, newly-named Elephant Haven, is a fascinating elephant project in Kanchanaburi, west Thailand, and a leading example in elephant tourism reform. The sanctuary’s name change came about with its dynamic switch in intention. Once a tourist trekking camp that chained elephants, Elephant Haven is now home to roaming elephants who are free to socialize, bathe in mud, cool off in the river Kwai, and live out their years in peace.
Elephant Haven is among a handful of elephant experiences making changes in line with the groundbreaking work of the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. The former camp invites visitors to walk with elephants through the jungle rather than on their back and prepare fresh fruit and millet balls for them to enjoy along the way.
You’ll also find cats, dogs, birds, goats, and buffalos among the rescues here, and volunteers can visit for the day or as long as a week to help out with care for all the animals.
Samui Elephant Sanctuary
Samui Elephant Sanctuary is the island’s first refuge for mistreated and overworked elephants. A dozen elephants live peacefully on the 10 acres of forest land, and visitors can feed and walk with the elephants and even play with them in their mud pit and custom pool.
Thanks to the help of Lek Chailert, Save The Elephants, and volunteers, Samui Elephant Sanctuary has recently opened a second location with the hopes of extending its conservation work to all areas of the touristy island. Both sanctuaries also allow outsiders to sponsor an elephant, receive updates on their retirement, and donate towards their elephant’s care.
Wildlife Friends Foundation
Three hours from Bangkok, nestled between the Gulf of Thailand of the Myanmar border, is Phetchaburi, home to the dense rainforest of the Kaeng Krachan National Park and the Wildlife Friends Foundation.
Big cats, bears, primates, deer, and birds can all be found here, rescued from abuse and sheltering the exploitive animal trade. Among the 600-plus residents, just over 20 elephants call the sanctuary their home.
The Wildlife Friends Foundation rehabilitates and releases around 40 percent of their rescues back into the wild in protected conservation areas. But the elephants are not part of this demographic. Coming from trekking camps, the retired animals are too reliant on humans to survive without their care. Luckily, the Wildlife Friends Foundation is willing to provide it for them.
Volunteers can embark on a half or full-day experience, cleaning enclosures for all the animals, building enrichments, harvesting banana trees, and observing animals in their natural habitats.
Are there still wild elephants in Thailand?
There are around 3,000 to 4,000 elephants left in Thailand, with half of these roaming freely in grasslands and jungles of the National Parks Reserves. Some 100,000 elephants lived in the former Kingdom of Siam a century ago. These numbers have been dissipated by years of torturous logging practices and elephant tourism. Despite conservation efforts, elephants can be hard to rehabilitate, primarily if they’ve been bred in captivity because their reliance on humans lasts for life.
Still, Kuiburi is one of the only remaining regions in the country where you can still observe elephants in the wild. With a population of around 230 freely roaming in the thin forests and open fields, they keep their distance from daily visitors but are easy to spot.
Is it OK to ride elephants in Thailand?
Interacting with elephants has long been one of Thailand’s major tourism draws. But elephant tourism is built on the premise of ancient torture rituals that seel elephants into a fate of total reliance on humans. Domesticated elephants in Thailand have either been captured from the wild or bred in captivity to be “broken” by mahouts. Wild elephants are strong-willed and would never allow a human to ride them without the manipulation and torture enforced from a young age to break their spirit. Even without the uncomfortable-looking traditional carriages and camp’s claims to “sustainability,” riding elephants in Thailand is never OK.
Are elephant sanctuaries in Thailand ethical?
Aside from observing wild elephants from a distance, the only way to ethically interact with these creatures is at an elephant sanctuary. There are several ethical sanctuaries in Thailand, where the rehabilitation and care for animals are put before human entertainment. But, sadly, many camps pose as sanctuaries, especially since the rise of “sustainability” as a buzzword.
Organizations can promote themselves as “ethical” to draw more tourists, but visitors could unknowingly contribute to elephants’ torture. Always do your research before choosing a “sanctuary” to visit, and remember that any treatment beyond caring and petting the elephants is not in their best interest. Suppose a sanctuary advertises trekking, elephant riding, or entertainment as simple as kicking balls or painting for spectators; this clearly indicates that the refuge is not ethical.