Elephants are an essential part of Thailand’s culture and history. And they’re quintessential to the Thai royal iconography. So if you’re planning a trip to Thailand, it’s a given that seeing an elephant take a bath or going on an elephant safari is a part of your itinerary. Since the Thai government banned logging in 1989, a lot of elephants ended up in tourism, which has led to a burgeoning growth in the elephant tourism industry.

However, there’s now overwhelming evidence to support claims by animal welfare experts that this form of tourism is harmful for Asia’s gentle giants. In fact, Asian elephants are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are also on the CITES list of endangered species.

Popularity Of Elephant Tourism

Despite widespread criticism for most elephant parks parading themselves as sanctuaries, riding on an elephant at these elephant parks is something that is on a lot of bucket lists. You can barely turn a corner in Thailand without seeing a billboard touting elephant rides or shows, but Thailand’s government has yet to implement laws to protect its captive elephant population. Unbeknown to many travellers, newly-captive and captive-born Asian elephants are traditionally subject to systematic abuse in order to ‘train’ them to accept riders and perform in shows.

It might also come as a surprise to learn that elephants don’t have very strong backs. Experts claim that adult elephants can only support a maximum of around 150 kgs on the middle of their back for up to four hours per day, but many of Thailand’s elephants work eight hour shifts, carrying two riders at a time. And this is before factoring in whether these elephants have adequate access to water, healthy food (not just sugary bananas handed out by tour operators) and shade.

This places the burden of responsible elephant tourism squarely on tourists. About 160 travel companies have already committed to stop selling tickets or promoting venues offering elephant rides and shows. In 2016, TripAdvisor announced that it would end the sale of tickets for wildlife experiences where tourists come in to direct contact with wild animals, including elephant riding.

The Solution

Fortunately, there are a small but growing number of elephant refuge centres in Thailand that are employing more sustainable methods to keep tourists, elephants and their mahouts (elephant trainers) happy. 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. Read on to learn about six of the most rewarding elephant interactions Thailand has to offer – all of which run comprehensive elephant volunteering programs if a short visit isn’t enough.

1. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), Sukhothai

Featured in Lonely Planet’s top 10 unforgettable family travel experiences for 2015, BLES was founded by Briton Katherine Connor after a courageous baby elephant called Boon Lott (‘survivor’ in Thai) inspired her to dedicate her life to nurturing rescued and retired elephants. In the decade since, Connor has been recognised by the International Fund for Animal Welfare for her efforts.

BLESBLES via kimpluscraig

Guests at BLES, located outside the village of Baan Tuek, an hour from Sukhothai airport, are involved in all aspects of sanctuary life, from collecting elephant food from the jungle to maintaining herding areas and walking elephants to grazing grounds. This destination is very popular, so early reservation is recommended.

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Cost: Overnight visit (including transfers and all meals): 5000THB. Due to its remote location BLES does not run single-day tours – most visitors stay for several days on individually-tailored itineraries.
How to get there: Tambon Baan Tuek, Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai 64130, Thailand

2. Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai

Thailand’s best-known elephant rehabilitation centre has won dozens of awards for its commitment to rescuing and rehabilitating Thailand’s working elephants since the ‘90s. On a one-day visit to Elephant Nature Park, about 60 kms from Chiang Mai, you’ll get the chance to hear the elephants’ stories before feeding them, and then walking them down to the river for an afternoon bath. All tours include feeding and bathing the elephant, applicable meals, plus pickup and drop-off in Chiang Mai.

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Cost: One day tour (including transfers and lunch): 2500THB/1250THB (adult/child). Overnight tour (including dinner): 5800THB/2900THB.
How to get there: Elephant Nature Park, 209/2 Sridom Chai Road, Kuet Chang, Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai, Thailand

3. Friends Of The Asian Elephant Hospital

For a truly unique elephant experience, visit Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) Hospital. This hospital is one of the few elephant hospitals in the world and is dedicated to the treatment and rehabilitation of elephants.

Here, you’ll learn how professionals treat sick elephants and see the fantastic equipment they have to help elephants return to good health. It’s a great way to see the animals in their natural habitat. Visitors are not permitted to get too close to the elephants, in an effort to protect the vulnerable creatures during their healing process.

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How to get there: Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, Wiang Tan, Hang Chat District, Lampang, Thailand

4. The Surin Project, Surin

Not far from the Cambodian border, this innovative not-for-profit is focused on improving the living conditions of Asian elephants and providing sustainable economic revenue for their mahouts in the local community. A one-week minimum volunteering stint is required to visit the Surin Project, located about an hour northwest of Surin city. During their stint, volunteers primarily help to plant, maintain and harvest elephant food for the project’s 13 permanent residents, and assist in the development of elephant-friendly tourism options for the elephants and mahouts of Surin province.

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Cost: One week (all-inclusive): 13,000THB
How to get there: Ta Klang Village | Tha Tum, Surin 32120, Thailand

5. Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, Petchaburi

Based 30 kms from the seaside resort of Hua Hin, WFFT runs nine animal welfare projects across Thailand ranging from an elephant refuge and education centre to a marine research and rescue outfit and a gibbon rehabilitation program.

The elephant refuge camp is equipped for day visits, during which guests will learn about the conservation issues threatening Thailand’s elephants before taking some of the residents for their daily walk and shower. Visitors will also follow WFFT’s volunteers on their feed out to the 350 rescued animals at the centre, and get to see the bears and monkeys enjoy their meal.

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Cost: One-day visit (including transfers and lunch): 1800THB
How to get there: 108 Moo 6, Tha Mai Ruak, Phetchaburi 76130, Thailand

6. Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary

The Sanctuary was founded by Burm Pornchai Rinkaew and Emily Rose McWilliam in 2011. Since Burm and Emily started BEES they have been working to preserve and protect the local forest area and with the help of visitors to BEES and local village kids, BEES have planted approximately 10,000 trees since 2012. Located in a stunning area of rural Thailand, South-West Chiang Mai in the district of Maechaem, the sanctuary focuses on letting the elephants be, and helping out in the overall taking care of the elephants.

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How to get there: Tambon Chang Keung, Mae Chaem 50270, Thailand

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