Tips from MatadorU student Gina Douglas on how to choose an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and how to enjoy it once you’re there.

HANGING OUT WITH AN ELEPHANT in Thailand is easy to do. What’s not so simple is finding a reputable place that cares about and protects their elephants.

A well-taken-care-of elephant has room to roam and isn’t overworked by constantly performing in shows or giving endless rounds of rides. Research is key. Here are 3 recommended sanctuaries to get you started.

1. Elephant Nature Park

A rescue and rehabilitation center for elephants, where you can bathe and feed the elephants, plus learn about each animal’s past.

Cost: Day tours are 2,500 baht ($79US); overnight tours are 5,800 baht ($183US).
What’s included: All tours include feeding and bathing the elephant, applicable meals, plus pickup and dropoff in Chiang Mai. Overnight tours also include hut accommodation.
Location: 60km outside Chiang Mai.
Visiting: Reservations required. Book online at their website.
What to bring: Shorts and/or swimming gear plus a change of clothing for both tours. For overnight, also bring clothes to sleep in, walking shoes, mosquito repellent, and a jacket.

2. Thai Elephant Conservation Center

This center offers elephant rides as part of their homestay and trekking programs, which put an emphasis on learning how to interact with an elephant as a mahout (the term for a person who rides an elephant), as well as the mahout‘s way of life. The center also has an onsite elephant hospital where previously mistreated elephants are cared for.

Cost: 150 baht ($4.75US) for a day pass to the park. 1-3 day homestay and trekking programs range from 3,500-9,500 baht ($111-$300US).
What’s included: An elephant show that stresses preservation and protection of the species, a hospital visit, and a chance to bathe the elephants. For the 2-3 day homestay and trekking programs, you’ll receive meals, bottled water, and overnight accommodation in a bungalow with hot showers (homestay program) or a simple hut (trekking program), plus a mahout suit for riding the elephant.
Location: Lampang, Thailand.
Visiting: Reservation required for homestay and trekking programs.
Email info@thailandelephant.org.
What to bring: Outdoorsy clothes with change of clothes for each day, mosquito repellent, and swimwear.

3. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary

Boon Lott’s Sanctuary doesn’t let you ride the elephants, but through their homestay program you’ll experience living among the rescued and rehabilitated animals.

Cost: 5,000 baht per guest per night ($158US).
What’s included: Meals and non-alcoholic drinks, pickup and dropoff, accommodation in a teak cottage, Internet access, laundry, and unlimited interaction with the elephants.
Location: Outside the village of Baan Tuel, which is 5-6 hours north of Bangkok by bus, or you can fly into Sukhothai.
Visiting: Reservations required. Email katherine@blesele.com.
What to bring: This is run more like a B&B, so show up with your luggage and pack clothes appropriate for the outdoors.

At the sanctuary

Here are some pointers for ensuring a fun and engaging time with the elephants at whichever facility you choose.

Bananas
Cheap and plentiful in Thailand, which is a good thing since just one isn’t going to satisfy your new giant friend. Those elephant trunks are strong and will excitedly probe you for food, so keep a wide stance when feeding to avoid getting knocked over.

Banana hint 1: To make bananas last longer, split them in half.
Banana hint 2: Elephants eat the whole banana — peel included.

Bathing
If you get the opportunity to bathe an elephant, don’t be afraid to get wet. You’ll have much more fun playing in the water with the animal than watching on the sidelines.

Hugging / riding
Hugging an elephant at one of the sanctuaries can be such a standout moment that you may find riding one pales in comparison. If you must ride an elephant for your experience to be complete, choose a place that takes the time to teach you how to ride bareback, as that is kinder to the animal.

Attitude
When interacting with the elephants, always remember you’re there for them, not the other way around. Treat the animals with kindness and respect, and get ready for the love they’ll pour on you — and possibly spurt on you with their trunks.

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