๐Ÿ˜ Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand: Firsthand Review & Tips

A woman wearing colorful clothes standing next to an elephant putting foods in its mouth.
๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Overall Rating8.1
๐Ÿฆ„ UniquenessHigh
๐Ÿ˜Š EnjoymentVery High
๐Ÿ’ฐ ValueModerate
๐ŸŽ’ PreparationMinimal
Overall Rating is based on a weighted average of factors (learn more).

Visiting an elephant sanctuary, where visitors feed and interact with elephants, is one of Thailandโ€™s most popular activities. Here, I review my experience with a coherent rating system before sharing firsthand tips.

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๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Overall Rating

8.1
Visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand is one of my top recommendations โ€“ don’t skip it.

My overall rating is based on a weighted average of four factors travelers consider important when assessing an experience. I break down the factors in my review below.

Verdict

Visiting an elephant sanctuary was one of the highlights of my Thailand trip. Seeing these majestic creatures up close is delightful and rewarding. I urge you to do the due diligence to ensure the sanctuary is genuinely ethical.

Elephant sanctuaries are moderately priced, and the package includes transportation and lunch.

Minimal preparation is required, as you need to book in advance, wear suitable clothes and shoes, and travel for over an hour to get to the sanctuary.

Note that many captive elephants in Thailand look “rough” because they’re typically rescued from industries that use them for manual labor.

A woman wearing colorful clothes standing next to an elephant near a muddy river.
Elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai

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

๐Ÿ† Where Does It Rank?

Visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary ranks as my #2 thing to do in Thailand. Here’s how it compares to other experiences on my trip:

#ExperienceLocationOverall Rating
1๐Ÿœ Old Siam Bangkok Food TourBangkok8.3
2๐Ÿ˜ Elephant SanctuarySeveral8.1
3๐Ÿœ Chiang Mai Street Food Tour Chiang Mai7.9
4๐Ÿ’†โ€โ™€๏ธ Thai MassageAnywhere7.6
5๐Ÿ’ง Sticky WaterfallChiang Mai7.4
6๐Ÿ–๏ธ Phi Phi Island Day TourKrabi7.1
7๐Ÿ‘ฒ๐Ÿป Monk ChatChiang Mai6.9
8๐Ÿฐ Grand PalaceBangkok6.8
9๐Ÿฅพ Doi Suthep & Monk’s TrailChiang Mai6.8
10๐Ÿ–๏ธ Railay Beach Rock ClimbingKrabi6.8
11๐Ÿฎ Yaowarat (Chinatown)Bangkok6.8
12๐Ÿฅพ Railay Lagoon HikeKrabi6.7
13๐ŸฅŠ Rajadamnern Stadium Muay Thai MatchBangkok6.3
14๐Ÿฏ Wat Pho TempleBangkok5.9
15๐ŸŽค Cabaret ShowChiang Mai5.4
16๐Ÿ›๏ธ CentralWorldBangkok5.2
17๐Ÿ  SEA LIFE Bangkok Ocean WorldBangkok5.0
Overall Rating is calculated using Lukiihโ€™s rating system.

See my Thailand itinerary featuring the experiences above.

โœˆ๏ธ About My Trip

For context on my review, here’s what to know about my trip:

  • ๐Ÿ€ย Self-fundedย โ€“ I finance my trips and don’t receive sponsorship, so this review reflects my honest opinions.
  • ๐Ÿ—“๏ธ 2022 โ€“ This post has updated 2024 information, but I visited an elephant sanctuary in 2022.
  • โ˜€๏ธ High season โ€“ My Thailand trip was in November when it was more crowded and expensive.

๐Ÿฆ„ Uniqueness: High

The Uniqueness Score is based on how rare and memorable an experience is.

Rarity: Uncommon

Elephant sanctuaries are an uncommon experience, as roughly 100 places across less than 15 countries offer them.

๐Ÿ’Ž What Makes It Rare?

  • Elephants are Thailand’s national animals. For centuries, they’ve been a culturally significant icon used for wars, entertainment, transportation, etc.
  • Their deep history has created a unique elephant tourism industry in Thailand that’s accessible and striving towards welfare and conservation.

๐ŸŒ What Makes It Less Rare?

  • Other countries, including Sri Lanka, India, South Africa, Nepal, and Cambodia, also offer elephant tourism.

Memorability: High

Visiting an elephant sanctuary is one of my most memorable experiences in Thailand.

๐Ÿ“ธ What Makes It Memorable?

  • As someone from the United States, I’ve only looked at elephants from afar at a zoo. Walking next to these giants and being close to them was majestic and unforgettable.

๐Ÿ’ค What Makes It Forgettable?

  • Depending on the sanctuary, the surrounding area may not be as natural or beautiful as expected, which decreases memorability.

Learn what ethical elephant treatment is in tourism.

๐Ÿ˜Š Enjoyment: Very High

The Enjoyment Score is based on how much happiness and reward an experience provides.

Happiness: Very High

I found walking and feeding elephants in Thailand very fun and delightful.

๐Ÿ˜ƒ What Makes It Enjoyable?

  • It is incredible to watch elephants use their muscular trunks to gently take a banana from your hand. Their dexterity is phenomenal.
  • Walking next to them is just an incredible experience.
A woman wearing colorful clothes feeding bananas to an elephant.
Feeding an elephant

๐Ÿ˜ฅ What Makes It Less Enjoyable?

Not all elephant “sanctuaries” are ethical. As demand for ethical tourism has increased, some companies have rebranded themselves as sanctuaries but still employ dubious practices.

Reward: Moderate

Visiting an elephant sanctuary is a rewarding experience.

๐ŸŒŸ What Makes It Rewarding?

  • I left the sanctuary with a much deeper understanding and awareness of elephants’ role in history and how to support ethical treatment in tourism in the future.

Boycotting elephant sanctuaries isย ineffective because some rescue centers genuinely support elephantsย and depend on tourism money to care for them (releasingย captive elephantsย back into the wild is very challenging).

๐Ÿคท๐Ÿปโ€โ™€๏ธ What Makes It Less Rewarding?

  • As mentioned above, ethical elephant treatment is still up for debate.

๐Ÿ’ฐ Value: Moderate

The Value Score is determined by the price divided by the duration of an experience. All prices mentioned here are in USD.

Price: $60 PP

A half-day elephant sanctuary visit costs betweenย $50 and $70, and a full-day visit costs double the amount. At about $15 per hour, I consider this experience moderately priced.

Thailand’s most ethical elephant sanctuary charges $68 for a half-day tour. I last checked prices in May 2024 (check current price).

I booked with Happy Elephant Home and paid $50 for a half-day tour.

See my Thailand trip expenses.

๐ŸŽ’ Preparation: Minimal

The Preparation Score is based on the required skills & fitness, transportation, and bookings & packing. The higher the score, the less preparation is needed.

Skills & Fitness: None

You don’t need any skills or considerable fitness to visit an elephant sanctuary, but some places require a short walk or hike to observe elephants.

Transportation: Moderate

Ethical elephant sanctuaries are typically located in forests and national parks where the animals have enough space to roam.

  • ๐Ÿš™ Method โ€“ Almost all sanctuaries provide vehicle transportation to where the elephants are located.
  • โฐย Durationย โ€“ The journey from a tourist area to a sanctuary usually takes 30 minutes to three hours.

Booking & Packing: Minimal

Elephant sanctuaries in Thailand need minimal booking and packing:

  • ๐ŸŽŸ๏ธ Tickets โ€“ Book a sanctuary visit two days to a week in advance.

For the popular Elephant Nature Park, you’ll need to book one to two months ahead (I booked too late, so I missed out and went with another organization).

  • ๐ŸŽ’ Packing โ€“ You only need to pack a few items to visit a sanctuary.

How To Guide & Tips

Interested in visiting an elephant sanctuary after reading my review? Below is a practical how-to guide and firsthand tips.

Brief History

Why is Thailand known for elephant tourism? The TLDR is:

  • Historical importance โ€“ For centuries, elephants have played an important role in Thailand and were used for everything from royal processions to logging to warfare.
  • Shift to tourism โ€“ Due to urbanization, habitat loss, and changing Thai laws, elephants were increasingly used for entertainment (e.g., elephant rides and circuses).
  • Welfare awareness increases โ€“ As elephant tourism became popular, non-profits researched how it negatively impacts animal welfare. This has increased the demand for more ethical elephant encounters and interactions in tourism.

Elephant riding is still popular and legal in Thailand despite being proven harmful and unethical. Demand for it has lessened but has yet to disappear.

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What Is Ethical

The โ€œright wayโ€ to treat elephants is a complex issue. There’s an ongoing debate among experts and caretakers on what’s considered ethical treatment. Hereโ€™s the consensus so far:

Tourist ActivityIs It Ethical?
Riding๐Ÿšซ Very unethical
Bathing๐Ÿšซ Likely unethical
Touchingโ“ Ethically questionable
Feedingโ“ Ethically questionable
Walkingโ“ Ethically questionable
Observingโœ… Ethical, if from afar
  • Elephant rides โ€“ Riding elephants is highly unethical because they lead to deformed spines and psychological damage and require physical abuse for training.

Ethical sanctuaries not only prohibit riding, but they also condemn them.

  • Elephant bathing โ€“ This is currently a common practice, but it’s likely unethical because bathing with tourists is typically forced and not part of natural behavior.

Elephants defecate in the water they bathe in, so tourists who bathe with them can get transmitted diseases.

  • Touching, feeding, and walking โ€“ These are only slightly more ethical if elephants aren’t forced to interact with people in any way.

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

A woman wearing colorful clothes standing next to an elephant in a muddy trail.
Elephant sanctuary walk

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Ethical Sanctuaries List

Below are some of the most ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. They encourage little to no interactions with elephants and have very positive reviews on Google and Tripadvisor.

  • Elephant Nature Park (Chiang Mai)โ€“ ENP is considered Thailandโ€™s most ethical elephant sanctuary and is a leader in setting new ethical models for other camps.
  • BEES (Chiang Mai) โ€“ BEES has a “No Contact โ€“ Hands-Off” policy and typically only offers more robust ethical experiences.
  • Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (Chiang Mai) โ€“ Kindred is invested in providing a natural habitat for its elephants to roam and forage in. Visitors have to hike to observe them. They only offer two-day and three-day packages.
  • ChangChill (Chiang Mai) โ€“ ChangChill has worked with World Animal Protection to stop visitors from directly interacting with elephants.
  • Following Giants (Krabi & Koh Lanta) โ€“ Following Giants has an observations-only model and prides itself on providing an educational experience.
  • Phuket Elephant Sanctuary (Phuket) โ€“ Known for its popular canopy walks, this sanctuary sets best practices in Phuket.

I booked my experience with Happy Elephant Home. I recommend them with the caveat that they offer bathing. During my visit, one of their elephants, Molo, didn’t get into the water and walked slower than the visitors. The guide did not force or encourage the elephant to bathe or walk faster; they just let Molo be. While it would be more ethical if they stopped elephant bathing, they at least didn’t force their elephants to do tourist activities.

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What To Pack

Bring the following items to an elephant sanctuary:

  • Sunscreen โ€“ You’ll be outside, even if you’re just observing.
  • Insect repellent โ€“ Sanctuaries are located in lush areas where mosquitos and other bugs are prevalent
  • Sturdy shoes โ€“ If youโ€™re walking with elephants or hiking to them, youโ€™ll often have to walk through muddy trails. I wore my Chacos and thought they worked well.
  • Cash โ€“ Bring some to donate, tip the guide, or buy a souvenir.
An elephant walking on a muddy trail with trees around it.
Elephant sanctuary’s muddy trail

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Thoughts? Questions? Leave a comment below.

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