🐘 Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Chiang Mai & My Experience

A woman wearing colorful clothes standing next to an elephant putting foods in its mouth.

Visiting an elephant sanctuary is one of Thailand’s most popular must-do activities. The unique elephant experience typically lets visitors feed, bathe, and interact with elephants.

However, not all elephant sanctuaries are ethical, and many still use dubious practices. So, which sanctuaries are best, and how do you choose one? This post covers:

  • 🐘 Best elephant sanctuaries
  • 🧠 How to choose an ethical one
  • 💧 Ethical vs. unethical tourist activities
  • 🦟 What to bring and pack
  • 🍀 Honest review of my experience

Planning a trip? Here’s what to know about Thailand.

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Brief History of Elephant Tourism in Thailand

Before delving into what’s considered an ethical elephant sanctuary and safe haven, here’s a brief history of how elephants became popular for tourism in Thailand.

🐘 Elephants: An Important Icon

Elephants are majestic animals that have played an important role in Thai society and history.

  • An icon – Elephants are Thailand’s national animal. For centuries, they’ve been a culturally significant icon representing loyalty, strength, and longevity.
  • Historically relevant – Throughout history, elephants have been used in Thailand for wars, entertainment, transportation, logging, and other manual labor.

Although other Southeast Asian countries use elephants for entertainment, Thailand is particularly known for it because it has the highest number of captive elephants (over 4,000).

🪵 The Shift to Tourism for Elephants

In the 1900s, the Thai government passed logging restrictions, leading to using elephants in the tourist industry instead.

  • Logging ban – Thailand banned logging, which heavily used elephants, in 1989. The ban left most mahouts, elephant caretakers, and overseers without work.
  • No homes – It also left captive elephants without homes. They couldn’t be easily released into the wild for several reasons, including:
    • Lack of foraging and survival skills, especially for those born in captivity
    • Dependency on humans for food and care
    • Natural habitat loss due to deforestation
    • Lack of social skills needed to integrate with wild elephants
  • Rise of tourism – This led to elephants being used for tourism and entertainment instead (e.g., elephant shows, rides, circuses), which provided mahouts employment and helped generate the income to feed and shelter captive elephants.

🎪 Tourism Impact on Elephants

Since elephants started working in tourism, there’s been increasing global awareness of how the industry negatively impacts them.

  • Research into welfare – Since 2010, non-profits, such as World Animal Protection, have researched and published the negative impacts of tourism on elephant welfare.

Elephant riding is still popular and legal in Thailand despite being proven harmful and unethical. Demand for it has lessened, but not disappeared, in the past decade.

  • Demand for ethical experiences – Animal rights groups and social media have helped spread awareness of elephant cruelty to change tourist behavior. This has led to increased demand for more ethical elephant encounters and interactions in tourism.

Today, many elephants in Thailand are kept in shelters that go by different names: elephant sanctuaries, elephant camps, elephant parks, and elephant orphanages.

What Is Ethical Elephant Treatment in Tourism?

The “right way” to treat elephants is a complex issue. There’s an ongoing debate among elephant experts and caretakers on ethical vs. unethical elephant treatment in tourism.

Here’s the consensus so far:

Tourist ActivityIs It Ethical?
Elephant rides❌ Very unethical
Bathing with elephants❌ Likely unethical
Touching elephants❓ Ethically questionable
Feeding elephants❓ Ethically questionable
Walking with elephants ❓ Ethically questionable
Observing elephants✅ Ethical, if from afar
Ethical vs. Unethical Treatment of Elephants in Tourism

💡 Why is Riding an Elephant Unethical?

Riding an elephant is considered unethical because it negatively impacts the animal’s health and well-being.

  • Deformed spines – Elephants’ spines are not made to carry the weight of people, platforms, saddles, etc., so their spines become deformed, leading to chronic pain.
  • Psychological damage – To make elephants complicit and not dangerous to tourists, they need to fear humans. To do this, physically and psychologically damaging practices are employed to “break” their spirit, which includes beatings, isolation, and food deprivation.
  • Physical abuse – Elephants used for riding are often overworked to exhaustion, not provided with adequate rest or food, and forced to do unnatural behaviors that deprive them of development.

A great way to reduce tourist demand for elephant riding is to avoid any experiences that offer elephant rides. These businesses normalize the activity and make it seem ethically acceptable when it’s not.

💡 Why is Bathing With Elephants Likely Unethical?

Wild elephants bathe in water and roll around in mud pits to stay cool and keep their skin clean from parasites.

This makes it seem like bathing with elephants is natural and ethical, but this practice is risky both for elephants and visitors.

  • Diseases – Elephants poop in the water they bathe in, so tourists who bathe with them can get transmitted diseases.
  • Unnatural behavior – Elephants are often forced to bathe with humans even when they don’t want or need to.
  • Psychological manipulation – To make the elephants complicit and unlikely to harm tourists during bathing, they need to be scared of humans and are subject to abuses that make them fearful and stressed.

Most elephant sanctuaries allow elephant bathing today, but in recent years, the more ethical sanctuaries have moved away from this practice.

🍌 Is It Ethical to Walk, Touch, or Feed Elephants?

Walking, touching, and feeding elephants can be ethical if done respectfully.

The main thing to remember is that elephants should not be forced to interact with people. For example, elephants should be able to move at their own pace, proactively take food from people, and be able to refuse being touched.

The most ethical way to treat elephants is to leave them alone without human interaction. However, since that’s not possible for all captive elephants, the best thing to do is to minimize forced contact.

A woman wearing colorful clothes feeding bananas to an elephant.
Feeding an elephant in Chiang Mai.

🚫 Should You Boycott Elephant Sanctuaries?

Boycotting elephant sanctuaries is ineffective because some rescue centers genuinely support elephants and depend on tourism money to care for them. As mentioned above, releasing captive elephants back into the wild is challenging.

Aside from needing to house and feed elephants (they can eat 140 pounds of food per day), many rescue elephants also need medical treatment (some drugs need to be imported into Thailand, contributing to higher costs).

How To Choose an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary

Many elephant camps in Thailand have rebranded themselves as “sanctuaries” without changing their practices to be ethical, so it can be hard to know which ones are genuine sanctuaries.

Below are signs that an elephant camp or sanctuary is ethical. Some of these will not be obvious on the tour operator’s website or marketing, so you’ll need to do your own due diligence, look at photos, and read reviews.

  • Elephant rides are prohibited and condemned.
  • Ideally, elephant bathing is not provided. However, this practice continues to be prevalent. For now, looking for no signs of forced bathing in reviews is more realistic.
  • The best places promote observing and learning about the elephants as the primary activities.
  • The elephants are not rented or traded. They are bought so that they are permanently residing in their current homes.
  • Elephants are not forced to perform tricks or any form of entertainment for tourists; they simply exist.
  • Elephants don’t have any chains and are free to wander around in a large natural environment.

The less interaction an elephant sanctuary encourages, the more ethical they are.

An elephant scratching itself against a tree.
An elephant scratching against a tree (natural behavior) in Thailand.

Chiang Mai Map of Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries

One of the most popular places to see elephants in Thailand is Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. All ethical elephant sanctuaries are located about one to two hours outside the city, with enough space for elephants to roam.

This map shows the location of all elephant sanctuaries mentioned in this list.

Another unique thing to do in Chiang Mai is to have a casual conversation with monks.

5 Best and Most Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Chiang Mai

Below are five of the most ethical and best elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai in no priority order.

All sanctuaries are committed to giving rescued elephants a better life (e.g., no forced baths with tourists, plenty of space to roam freely), have positive reviews on Google and Tripadvisor (4.8+ stars), and have English-speaking guides.

See how to incorporate an elephant sanctuary visit into your Thailand itinerary.

1. Elephant Nature Park

💡 Why It’s Ethical: Elephant Nature Park is considered Thailand’s best elephant sanctuary. It often acts as a leader in setting best practices and new ethical models for other elephant camps.

🐘 # of Elephants: The elephant park has over 100 elephants in its care and primarily rescues ones that were formerly in the riding and circus industries.

🤝 Other Work: Elephant Nature Park funds community projects, offers volunteer programs, and provides an excellent opportunity to learn about elephant conservation.

⭐️ Google Rating: 4.8/5
⭐️ Tripadvisor Rating: 5/5

💰 Tours Offered: The non-profit offers half-day visits, single-day visits, and overnight stays ranging from 2,500 to 12,000 Baht (about $75 to $350 USD).

Tourist ActivityOffered?
Observing Elephants✅ Yes (this is the primary activity)
Feeding Elephants✅ Yes (in some tours)
Walking With Elephants✅ Yes (in some tours)
Bathing With Elephants🚫 No
Riding Elephants🚫 No
Elephant Nature Park – Elephant Experiences

Elephant Nature Park tours are extremely popular, so they need to be booked weeks in advance. I tried to book it one month ahead in November, and they had no slots available.

2. BEES – Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary

💡 Why It’s Ethical: BEES has a “No Contact – Hands-Off” policy with its elephant and is considered one of Thailand’s most ethical elephant sanctuaries.

🐘 # of Elephants: BEES currently has three adult elephants.

🤝 Other Work: They also provide volunteer opportunities and educational services to the local community.

⭐️ Google Rating: 5/5
⭐️ Tripadvisor Rating: 5/5

💰 Tours Offered: BEES offers a single-day overnight stay, a four-day program, and a one-week program that starts at 2,500 Baht (around $75 USD).

Tourist ActivityOffered?
Observing Elephants✅ Yes
Feeding Elephants🚫 No, but you help prepare food
Walking With Elephants🚫 No
Bathing With Elephants🚫 No
Riding Elephants🚫 No
BEES – Elephant Experiences

3. Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary

💡 Why It’s Ethical: Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary is deeply invested in its elephants having a natural habitat to roam in. Their elephants are often foraging in the forest, and visitors have to hike to observe them.

🐘 # of Elephants: Kindred Spirit has seven elephants, including one baby elephant.

🤝 Other Work: The non-profit has won several awards for responsible tourism and employs workers from the local village, which are members of the Karen Hill Tribe. They also give back to the community by teaching English.

⭐️ Google Rating: 4.9/5
⭐️ Tripadvisor Rating: 5/5

💰 Tours Offered: Kindred Spirit offers two-day and three-day packages costing approximately 10,000 to 11,500 Baht (about $290 to $330 USD).

Tourist ActivityOffered?
Observing Elephants✅ Yes
Feeding Elephants🚫 No, but you have lunch near them
Walking With Elephants🚫 No, but you hike to them
Bathing With Elephants🚫 No
Riding Elephants🚫 No
Kindred Spirit – Elephant Experiences

4. ChangChill

💡 Why It’s Ethical: ChangChill is supported by the World Animal Protection (WAP), the organization that conducted studies on how tourism negatively impacts elephants. They have an observation-only model.

🐘 # of Elephants: ChangChill currently has four elephants.

⭐️ Google Rating: 4.8/5
⭐️ Tripadvisor Rating: 5/5

💰 Tours Offered: ChangChill offers half-day, full-day, and two-day trips ranging from 1,900 to 5,500 Baht (about $55 to $160 USD).

Tourist ActivityOffered?
Observing Elephants✅ Yes
Feeding Elephants🚫 No, but you help prepare food
Walking With Elephants🚫 No, but you hike to them
Bathing With Elephants🚫 No
Riding Elephants🚫 No
ChangChill – Elephant Experiences

5. Elephant Freedom Project

💡 Why It’s Ethical: Elephant Freedom Project is a well-established organization in Chiang Mai that allows its gentle giants to roam freely in an elephant park. Although they offer bathing, they discourage tourists from making direct contact with the elephants.

🐘 # of Elephants: The organization currently has four to six elephants.

⭐️ Google Rating: 4.9/5
⭐️ Tripadvisor Rating: 5/5

💰 Tours Offered: The organization offers full-day and half-day tours as well as a feeding experience. The prices range from 1,225 to 3,000 Baht (about $350 to $86 USD).

Tourist ActivityOffered?
Observing Elephants✅ Yes
Feeding Elephants✅ Yes
Walking With Elephants✅ Yes, and can walk at their own pace
Bathing With Elephants✅ Yes, but encouraged to keep a distance
Riding Elephants🚫 No
Elephant Freedom Project – Elephant Experiences

5 Notable Elephant Sanctuaries in Chiang Mai

Below are five other notable ethical elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai. They may not be the most ethical (e.g., they offer bathing with elephants), but they condemn elephant riding and generally work towards providing rescued elephants with a better quality of life.

All of these elephant sanctuaries also have high ratings on Google and Tripadvisor (4.5+ stars) and have English-speaking guides.

1. Happy Elephant Home (My Experience)

I booked my experience with Happy Elephant Home and recommend them with the caveat that they offer elephant bathing (more on that below). They’re located about an hour-and-a-half drive north of Chiang Mai in the Mae Taeng district.

🐘 # of Elephants: They care for three Asian elephants formerly from the riding or logging industry.

🍀 Lukiih’s Take: My Happy Elephant Home experience is one of my favorite and most memorable moments in Thailand.

  • Feeding the elephants – During feeding, I ripped apart bananas, placed them in a bag, walked out to the open fields, and held them out for the elephants to grab. The elephants were not forced to eat or interact with me or other tourists during this time.
  • Walking the elephants to the river â€“ We then walked alongside the elephants at their pace to the river. On the way back, Molo, their oldest elephant, slowed down, so her mahout patiently waited for her to continue without rushing her despite us running behind schedule.
  • Bathing with elephants (optional) – The organization allows bathing with elephants but doesn’t force them to get into the water and interact with people.

    When we arrived at the river, Molo didn’t get into the water, and no one forced or encouraged her to do so. We stood a few feet from the water, and she was allowed to engage in natural behaviors, such as scratching herself against a tree and foraging for food. I enjoyed observing her one-on-one as I chose not to swim in the river.
An elephant walking through a muddy trail while eating plants around her.
Molo foraging on the trail.

⭐️ Google Rating: 4.7/5
⭐️ Tripadvisor Rating: 5/5.

💰 Tours Offered: Happy Elephant Home offers half-day visits, full-day visits, and an overnight stay. The prices range from 1,800 to 5,000 Baht (about $52 to $143 USD).

I paid $50 for a half-day visit. I share all my travel expenses in this Thailand cost breakdown.

Tourist ActivityOffered?
Observing Elephants✅ Yes
Feeding Elephants✅ Yes
Walking With Elephants✅ Yes
Bathing With Elephants✅ Yes (optional; elephants not forced to enter the water)
Riding Elephants🚫 No
Happy Elephant Home – Elephant Experiences
A woman wearing colorful clothes standing next to an elephant near a muddy river.
Hanging out with Molo by the river. (I’ve since learned that touching elephants is not recommended, as you want to minimize interactions for ethical reasons.)

2. Asian Elephant Projects

Asian Elephant Projects works with Elephant Nature Park and Save Elephant Foundation to advance animal welfare. They allow bathing with elephants but do not promote close contact during the swim.

Tourist ActivityOffered?
Observing Elephants✅ Yes
Feeding Elephants✅ Yes
Walking With Elephants✅ Yes
Bathing With Elephants✅ Yes (no close contact)
Riding Elephants🚫 No
Asian Elephant Project – Elephant Experiences

3. Into The Wild Elephant Camp

Into the Wild Elephant Camp provides its elephants plenty of space to roam in the forest. However, they promote close-contact elephant bathing.

Tourist ActivityOffered?
Observing Elephants✅ Yes
Feeding Elephants✅ Yes
Walking With Elephants✅ Yes
Bathing With Elephants✅ Yes (close contact)
Riding Elephants🚫 No
Into The Wild Elephant Camp – Elephant Experiences

4. Elephant Freedom Village

Elephant Freedom Village is a small, family-run sanctuary that ensures their elephants spend most of their time in the forest. However, they promote close-contact elephant bathing.

Tourist ActivityOffered?
Observing Elephants✅ Yes
Feeding Elephants✅ Yes
Walking With Elephants✅ Yes
Bathing With Elephants✅ Yes (close contact)
Riding Elephants🚫 No
Elephant Freedom Village – Elephant Experiences

5. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an established center with multiple locations that help raise awareness about elephant welfare, but they promote close-contact elephant bathing.

Tourist ActivityOffered?
Observing Elephants✅ Yes
Feeding Elephants✅ Yes
Walking With Elephants✅ Yes
Bathing With Elephants✅ Yes (close contact)
Riding Elephants🚫 No
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary – Elephant Experiences

What to Bring and Pack to an Elephant Sanctuary

Having spent a day at an elephant sanctuary, here’s what to bring when visiting an elephant sanctuary in Thailand.

  • Sunscreen – Whether you’re observing the elephants or walking with them, you’ll be outside in the sun with minimal shade for most of your visit, so put on some sunscreen.
  • Insect repellent – Elephant sanctuaries are located in forests and national parks where mosquitos and other bugs are prevalent, so wear some insect repellent.
  • Sturdy shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy – If you’re walking with elephants or hiking to them, you’ll often have to walk through muddy trails. I wore my Chacos and thought they worked well.
  • Bathing suit if you plan to get into the water – Bathing with elephants is ethically dubious, but many places still offer this experience, so bring a bathing suit if you plan on participating.
  • Quick-dry towel if you plan to get into the water – For the same reason as above, bring a quick-dry towel you don’t mind getting dirty.
  • Cash – Bring some cash to donate more to the sanctuary, tip the guide (tipping in Thailand is not customary, but it’s appreciated), or buy a souvenir.

Thoughts? Questions? Leave a comment below.

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