Note from the editor: This article was updated on May 25th, 2017.
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 its 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. Here are three elephant sanctuaries with great reputations to look into visiting during your trip to Thailand, plus some background on why you shouldn’t ride an elephant and some tips to make your time at the sanctuary more memorable.
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 ($73US); overnight tours are 5,800 baht ($168US).
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, towel, walking shoes and flip flops or sandals, mosquito repellant, and a change of clothing. For overnight, also bring clothes to sleep in and a jacket.
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary offers a homestay program during which you’ll live among the rescued and rehabilitated animals and are encouraged to help take care of them and the facilities.
Cost: 6,000 baht per guest per night ($175US).
What’s included: Meals and non-alcoholic drinks, pickup and dropoff, accommodation in a teak cottage, Internet access, laundry, and lots of time spent 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
What to bring: This is run more like a B&B, so show up with your luggage and pack clothes appropriate for the outdoors.
The Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) helps all kinds of animals, including elephants at its Elephant Refuge and Education Centre. WFFT offers day tours as well as week-long volunteer opportunities.
Cost: 1,600 THB per person ($46US) for the day tour. $485US for a one-week volunteer stay.
What’s Included: The day tour includes an educational tour, a walk and shower with the elephants, and lunch. The volunteer program includes accommodation, food, and many opportunities to interact with the elephants.
Location: Located within about a 35-minute drive of the towns of Hua Hin and Cha-Am, and about two and a half hours from Bangkok.
Visiting: Reservations required, plus an application form must be submitted for volunteer stays.
What to bring: Wear lightweight clothes you’ll be comfortable in outdoors along with mosquito repellant and easy walking shoes.
At the sanctuary
Here are some pointers for ensuring a fun and engaging time with the elephants at whichever facility you choose.
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.
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.
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.
You may have noticed a common “bucket list” item experience missing at the above sanctuaries: riding an elephant. That is because elephants have historically been abused into submission using torturous training methods and painful bullhooks to get them to the point where they will carry humans on their backs. Elephant’s backs are also not as strong as people may think they are, meaning riding them can cause long-term harm to the animal. When researching your trip to Thailand, you may see that some conservation centers still offer bareback riding for a limited amount of time each day; while that may be a better option than the treks that have wooden benches strapped to the elephants and which offer multiple rounds of rides a day, many elephant advocates are quick to point out that it is still promoting the elephant riding business in Thailand and can ultimately hurt the elephant population you will likely come to love during your time in Thailand.
The plight of the Asian elephant and what to do about it is a complicated situation for many reasons; it’s unfortunately not as simple as just releasing the estimated 2,000 elephants in captivity in Thailand back into the wild, and mahouts (the traditional term for the caretaker of an elephant) need to find a way to afford to feed and house their elephants. The sanctuaries listed above can explain that in detail to you when you visit and steps being taken to try to solve the problem that will help both elephants and mahouts and their families, but a first step you can take before even getting to Thailand is to plan to not ride an elephant while there.
Instead, visit an elephant sanctuary and marvel in the pleasurable wonderment of simply being around these intelligent beasts and getting the chance to interact with elephants in a way that keeps them safer.