Elephants are an integral part of Thailand’s history and culture, and since the 1980s, when logging was banned here, they’ve been become a huge drawcard for tourists. But attitudes towards training elephants have changed significantly since the 80s; even more so in the past 10 years.
It was around 10 years ago that I took my daughter to Thailand for the first time. She was six years old, and our trip to an ‘Elephant Camp’ near Chiang Mai, was one of the highlights of our holiday.
We watched the elephants being bathed in the river, playing a game of football, and painting pictures for us, before we climbed onto a platform and boarded our elephant for a ride through the jungle. I still have the photo, mounted in a frame made of elephant dung. I have mixed thoughts about it now, and I’m not alone.
While the fascination with elephants still holds, there is a shift away from supporting elephant camps that offer trekking and shows. Thailand has a growing number of wildlife sanctuaries where you can observe these gentle giants without riding them. At these sanctuaries, you can learn about their history, their welfare and, in some places, volunteer to care for them. Here are a few good examples.
Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai
Located on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, this rescue and rehabilitation centre provides sanctuary for over 30 elephants, as well as rescued cats, dogs and buffalo. The park has a range of short-day, full-day and overnight visits suitable for kids. And offers a wide range of programs for visitors, from one-day visits to seven-day volunteer programs.
On a single day visit, you’ll learn how to care for elephants, and simply watch them being elephants, interacting in their herd, playing with each other, and bathing in the river.
The park also has an outreach program called Saddle Off! to help improve the lives and conditions of elephants under the care of independent camps near Chiang Mai and Kanchanaburi, which families can also visit, and walk through the jungle with these recently saddle-liberated elephants. elephantnaturepark.org
Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, Chiang Rai
Located at the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort, this camp provides a home and employment for over 30 former street elephants, mahouts and their families. Guests at the luxury resort can assist with the daily care of the elephants, helping to bathe them in the river, and take part in a forest trek with elephants, accompanied by a resident veterinarian or biologist. helpingelephants.org
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Phuket.
This sanctuary was founded through a partnership with Mr Montri Todtane, a Phuket elephant camp owner; conservationist Lek Chailert, founder of Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park; and Louise Rogerson, founder of EARS Asia.
“We offer a retirement home for sick, injured, tired, or old elephants who have previously worked hard for tourism entertainment or in the logging industry.”
Here, visitors can feed, walk with, and observe the resident elephants as they roam throughout the sanctuary, socialise, and bathe and cover themselves in lovely thick mud; as they would in the wild. Kids can take part in the sanctuary’s morning tour that runs from around 9.30am to 1.30pm. phuketelephantsanctuary.org
Phang Nga Elephant Park, Phang Nga.
This elephant park is run by a family who share a very close relationship with elephants, having looked after them at home, and when working in their fields, for over 150 years. Here, visitors can bathe, feed and ride the elephants bareback.
“We believe passionately in human-elephant interaction and educating of our visitors about the significance of the elephant in Thai culture. Many of our elephants were previously in the logging industry and they and their mahouts now enjoy a happy and fulfilling life with us.”
The park offers a ‘Kids Elephant Experience’ designed especially for children aged six and under. Kids aged seven and older can take part in the ‘Elephant Experience’ which also includes an opportunity to ride the animals bareback. Both tours include a traditional Thai lunch. phangngaelephantpark.com
Elephant Hills, Khao Sok
This eco-resort and elephant sanctuary is within the Khao Sok National Park, on the Thai peninsula, with transfers available for a two to three day ‘safari’ from resort locations on both the east and west coast, including from Phuket, Krabi, and Koh Samui.
Accommodation is in luxury safari-style tents, and all of the activities you can participate in here will teach you something about Thailand’s culture and ecology – this includes a presentation and film about the history and conservation of elephants, a cooking class, a cultural performance by kids from the local school (that the resort funds), a canoe safari and the Elephant Hills Elephant Experience, where you’ll learn about the care of the animals. elephanthills.com