Seeing elephants in real life is one of those incredible experiences we all want to have at least once in our lifetimes.
Especially when we travel to countries like Thailand, where we know elephants can be found in the wild, it’s only natural to want to add an elephant experience to your Thailand itinerary.
There are many places in Thailand where you can see elephants and get close to them. However not all of them are ethical. Elephant riding is still a very popular activity, which you should avoid if possible.
In this post I talk about our experience at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, an ethical elephant sanctuary and rescue centre.
We will also look at things you should consider before booking an elephant experience, what to expect and more. If you want to discover where to see elephants in Thailand, in an ethical way, this is the guide for you!
A note on animal tourism
Animal tourism has always been popular. I think as humans it’s only natural to be attracted to beautiful wild animals, which we don’t have a chance to encounter in our normal daily lives.
However animal tourism isn’t always done in the best way it could be. Drugged tigers, elephants in chains, dolphin shows, holding turtles… the list goes on.
When it comes to animal conservation some people say; “better fed than dead”. While I do somewhat agree with that, if we can do better, shouldn’t we at least try?
As tourists, travellers and consumers, we have a huge influence over the direction we sway receiving economies. The local people are only trying to make a living, and you can’t blame them for that.
If tourists keep asking to ride elephants there will always be people who provide that service to feed their families. It’s only natural.
As consumers we are the ones that need to change what we are asking for, and ask for more ethical encounters. In recent years there has been a huge rise in ethical animal encounters.
As consumer demand changed to a more genuine approach, supply adapted to provide those services. Pretty much everyone that travels to Thailand wants to see elephants.
In this day and age there is plenty of information online and offline about it. It’s your responsibility as a traveller and consumer to find a place that does so ethically.
How to find an ethical elephant encounter
So how do you decide what elephant sanctuary or centre to visit? There are some famous ones but beyond those, how do you know that what you’re booking is valid?
First things first, steer clear from any place that offers elephant riding. Despite what they say, there is no natural way to make an elephant want to carry people on its back.
Before booking anything, search for the centre name online. You should usually be able to find reviews, whether they’re on their official site or on other platforms such as TripAdvisor.
If other travellers have been there before you can usually understand from their reviews and experience how they treat the elephants.
Sites like TripAdvisor can be useful as you can see the photos uploaded by other tourists, not just the pretty promotional ones the company shares.
We personally chose Elephant Nature Park as we had heard lots of good things about it, both from other travellers who did the day tours and other friends who did the longer week volunteering experience.
About Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai
Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is often considered one of the best elephant sanctuaries that you can visit.
Established in the 1990s they have many years experience both with elephants and tourists, and a completely transparent and ethical approach.
They offer many different kinds of experiences, from half a day to even a full week of volunteering and helping out with the elephants. It’s a sanctuary where you can get close to the elephants, learn more about them and play with them.
With the rise of ethical animal encounters, many of the old elephant riding centres in the Chiang Mai area have joined ENP in their conservation efforts.
When you book an experience on their site you can choose whether to visit ENP or one of the other centres.
The other centres are also ethical since they are part of ENP, they will just be in a different location from the main sanctuary.
The main ENP sanctuary has a herd of over 80 elephants, whilst the smaller centres will usually have less elephants.
We were afraid this might take away from the experience however it actually means that they only accept much smaller groups of visitors.
They might have less elephants, but less people also means more direct elephant time for you. We chose the “Saddle Off” experience at Elephant Green Hill.
Our experience at Elephant Green Hill & what to expect
We did the full day experience for 2,500 THB, which started with pickup from our hostel at 8AM and return around 4:30PM. Make sure to book your experience beforehand as these can get booked out very quickly!
Elephant Green Hill has three elephants, one of which was a baby elephant at the time we were visiting (April 2019).
We were the only people booked onto the tour that day so we ended up being just the three of us with three elephants!
We started the day by preparing the food for the elephants. We made a paste of rice, bananas and dried prunes and shaped it into balls. We then fed these balls and a lot of bananas to the elephants.
The elephants were behind a small wooden fence but they’re not restricted in any way. The cheeky young one kept coming round to steal bananas and nobody ever really tried to stop him.
I really enjoyed this part of the day. Besides being great fun it also started getting us closer to the elephants.
Once we finished feeding them we went for a walk in the forest with the elephants. There were three local guides who were in charge of the elephants, and who were with us all day.
We walked through the trees for about 30 minutes, till we reached a spot the elephants clearly liked and we stopped for a while.
Here the elephants went off each in the direction they liked most and started eating from the trees, branches, grass and anything they found that struck their fancy.
We spent quite a bit of time at this stage just watching the elephants, admiring their beauty and size, and just marvelling at being so close to them.
As it started getting warmer we continued our walk to a muddy pool. Here the elephants raced past us and their mahouts and just dived straight in and started cooling off.
Watching them play in the water, splashing mud all over themselves and each and lying in the water was simply magical.
It’s one of those scenes you see in nature documentaries with David Attenborough’s voice in the background explaining what’s happening.
After the short elephant bath it was time for a brief lunch break. The elephants stayed by the pool with their mahouts while we walked back to the main centre area for a buffet lunch.
They had quite a lot of choice with spring rolls, noodles, rice and fries. After lunch it was time for the elephant bath!
We walked over with the elephants to a much bigger pool, where all the elephants could properly dive into the water and cool down.
You can get in the water too and they will give you a bucket to join in the fun and splash the elephants (as well as your friends)! It soon turned into a water fight with everyone, elephants included, playing along.
One thing to note is the water is very dark and muddy and the elephants don’t really follow human society conventions.
When I saw one of the elephants go for a number two and the results of it floating in the water, I decided that was my cue to get out.
After the bath we walked a bit more with the elephants. We walked through a grassy green field, drying off from the mud and water while the elephants ate a bit more.
It was an awesome day to say the least. What made me most happy was seeing how happy the elephants were. They are incredibly intelligent animals and you can see it from their eyes.
The way they interacted with each other, with us and their mahout was just touching. They might not be completely wild and free, but they’re loved and well looked after, and it shows.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Most of the elephant centres, Elephant Nature Park included, are a bit of a drive outside Chiang Mai (understandably so).
However you don’t have to worry about being too far for them since all the tours usually include hotel pick-up and drop-off. Here are some recommendations on where to stay in Chiang Mai for every budget.
Budget: Leaf Hostel – We stayed at Leaf Hostel since it was close to where our friends were living. It wasn’t a very sociable hostel but the dorms were clean and spacious. If you’re looking for a more party hostel I’ve heard fun things about Bodega Chiang Mai Party Hostel.
Mid-range: POR Thapae Gate – If you don’t fancy a hostel dorm a lovely mid-range option is POR Thapae Gate. Located in the heart of the Old City this hotel has spacious rooms and a pool where you can chill after a long day exploring Chiang Mai.
Luxury: Le Meridien Chiang Mai – We spent our last two nights in Chiang Mai at Le Meridien and loved it. It’s within easy walking distance of the night market and Old City, as well as having awesome city and mountain views.
Looking for more Thailand travel tips? Check out these guides!
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- The most Instagrammable places in Bangkok
- 24 hours in Chiang Rai
- What to pack for a trip to Thailand
- Ayutthaya day trip from Bangkok
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- 7 hotels in Bangkok with awesome rooftop pools
Final thoughts on where to see elephants in Thailand
This post was a bit different from my usual travel guides. I usually write detailed guides to help you plan your trips so you know exactly where to go, what to do, how much you can expect to spend and so on.
Today I wanted to share with you a personal experience that I absolutely loved, and hope you can one day experience it too. If you want to see elephants in Thailand, then Elephant Nature Park is a great place to do so.
There are other places where you can have a similar experience, just make sure to do your research before you go there, and ensure they have an ethical approach with the elephants!
I hope you found this article useful, and that it answers your question about where to see elephants in Thailand in an ethical manner. Any questions just let me know in the comments!
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