If you're traveling to Thailand and want to hang out with some elephants, make sure you're going to the right parks.
Millions of tourists travel to Thailand every year — for good reason. There are some incredible places to see in this part of the world! From the dreamy beaches in the south to the underrated jungles found in Northern Thailand, it's no wonder it's one of the most popular vacation spots in the world.
Headed to Thailand soon?
All our favorite spots are in this Thailand Destination Guide
One of the most popular things to do in Thailand is seeing the elephants. These beautiful animals are so gentle (and so beautiful to see up close) it's no wonder everyone visiting Thailand wants to make some elephant friends. Sadly though, way too many tour organizations mistreat the elephants in the name of tourism which has become a lucrative business. Some elephants are beaten, mistreated, brutalized, and more .... not something you want to support!
There are some organizations that have decided to do better by the elephants though and still offer a way for you to see them. If you're looking to interact with elephants while in Thailand, please make sure you do your research to make sure you're visiting an ethical and sustainable organization that has the best intentions for both their elephants and for you.
What Makes A Good Elephant Park?
There are what seems like endless options for seeing elephants in Thailand, and some are better than others. The good news is you can easily weed out the parks to avoid if you see a few things.
What To Avoid
Any park that has the elephants doing something unnatural like painting, standing on their hind legs, wearing a seat for tourists to sit on or anything else like that isn't something to support. For years, elephants have been trained for entertainment shows for tourists, or unnaturally forced to wear a metal-frame seat to give rides for tourists. Not good at all!
Options to ride elephants aren't a good sign — the bamboo or metal saddles are incredibly harmful. Even riding bareback isn't the most ethical, especially 2-person rides which force one person to ride on the back, which can be harmful to the elephant's spine (especially when it's happening all day, every day).
What To Look For
Instead, look for rescue or sanctuary parks that are out there to provide a better experience for the elephants and for you. Reputable organizations often take elephants from where they are being mistreated and give them a better life, one where they're able to heal and do elephant things, all day long.
The best option is to look for an organization that has no interaction with humans at all, known as "observation only". As tourists begin to demand more and more for ethical practices, some organizations are starting to respond by doing away with activities where tourists get up close like riding, bathing, etc. Instead, they allow you to observe elephants ... just being elephants! You can watch elephants play together and just live their day. In their natural habitat, while being protected and cared for by the organization's team. Those are the experiences that are recommended most.
It's a good sign if they limit the number of people who can come see the elephants each day — meaning they're likely not pushing as many people through as possible and not putting extra strain on the animals. Sometimes it's better to step into a typical day of a healthy elephant, volunteering to do things like prepare food, or trek out into the jungle to see how the elephant family is interacting.
Once you make a list of parks you're interested in (we have some suggestions below), do more research on the individual parks. Don't be fooled, all of their websites will say they do not abuse the animals because they know that tourists are picking up on this practice and expect them to be treated better. Oh and just because there is the word "rescue" or "sanctuary" in the name of the organization, it does not guarantee that they follow those practices. We suggest reading reviews to see what other visitors are saying.
Another thing to consider is the price and know that cheaper isn't always better in this case. Most are using your cost as a donation to provide the care and food these animals require. Your cost also helps reputable organizations raise the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to buy an elephant from an abusive trainer, so this animal can hang out in a sanctuary.
And one more tip! There are many parks that will rip off the name of the good ones and try and lure people over there. Don't let that happen to you! Book and make any plans directly through official websites.
Some Organizations To Consider Going With
Observation Only Parks
- Chang Chill — located in the north, in Chiang Mai
- Following Giants — located in the south, on the island of Koh Lanta
- The Sappraiwan Elephant Sanctuary — located in central Thailand, near Phitsanulok. This park is close to where ILP volunteers live and has become really popular with them because it's so easy to do on any weekend during your semester living in Thailand!
A cool fact: After working with the team from the World Animal Protection, Chang Chill and Following Giants have both transitioned to provide opportunities for tourists to observe elephants from afar, and there are no human-interaction activities that have the tendency to harm animals. You can read about some of their efforts here.
Other parks still strive to find ways for you to experience the elephants as they live out their normal daily schedule during bathing, trekking, and feeding times. And again, it depends on the place, but ILP volunteers have told us that they loved their experience at these parks, listed below. If you are going to interact with the elephants, they've found these locations to be better than some of the other options in Thailand:
- Elephant Nature Park — located in the north, in Chiang Mai
- Ran-Tong (Save And Rescue Elephant Center) — located in Chiang Mai
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary — multiple locations including Chiang Mai and Phuket
- Green Elephant Sanctuary Park — located in the south, in Phuket
- Elephant Retirement Park — located in Phuket
- Chai Lai Orchid — located outside of Chiang Mai. This one has lots of additional options too, things like hiking to waterfalls, bamboo rafting, and visiting hill tribes. You can even stay the night in one of their bungalows where elephants are known to wander right up to your porch! It's seriously so cool ... just check out their Instagram (and the pics below too). Their most expensive rooms are 3,000 Thai Baht (which is roughly $90 USD) but can house 5 people, so split that with a group and it's under $20 for an amazing night in the jungle you'll never forget. Oh and bonus, they also use proceeds to support Daughters Rising which is a non-profit that works to empower girls who are at-risk of trafficking and exploitation.
Looking for ways to get to Thailand?
Come volunteer in Thailand for a semester! International Language Programs (ILP) is a non-profit organization based out of Utah with years of experience sending college-aged volunteers abroad to places like Thailand where they can serve the community by helping children learn English, really live in and experience the culture, and of course, travel all over the country with new friends!