Thailand

Visiting an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand

Visiting elephants in Thailand, nearly something every traveler to Thailand wants to experience.

Planning my week in Chiang Mai, I was curious about visiting an elephant sanctuary but also weary.

I know riding elephants, and really, any, human interaction with these wild animals, isn’t ethical. I have strong feelings about visiting zoos and would never set foot inside animal exploitation experiences- looking at you Tiger Kingdom.

But, I kept hearing great things about a place called Elephant Nature Sanctuary (ENP). Looking into it, it seemed like a reputable place. Still a bit weary, I decided to just go for it- I did want to visit elephants in Thailand. And, I reasoned, I could always leave if I was uncomfortable with how the place was run and animal were being treated.

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So happy to share leaving wasn’t necessary. As I learned more about ENP’s mission throughout the day of my visit, I began to understand why organisations like them are needed.

Do I feel a bit funny about wild animals being restricted and dependent on humans?

Yes, but many of the rescued elephants at ENP arrived with serious injury or history of abuse. It’s likely they wouldn’t have even survived in the wild if they were reintroduced to it.

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And, ENP takes in many other rescue animals- dogs, cats, water buffalo- all in the interest of helping rehab them, and in some cases, finding them new homes.

Picture an enormous park (really, not even a park because some of the land borders aren’t identified), where elephants roam, dogs run around and cats meader.

It’s an incredible place for visiting elephants in Thailand.

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I’ve heard it’s also one of the only reputable sanctuaries in Thailand when it comes to treatment of animals. A lot of places claim to be ethical, but actually aren’t.

It’s worth doing research ahead of a visit. Most of the time, elephants are heavily mistreated to perform tricks or let humans ride them.

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During my visit to ENP, I watched countless videos and listened to many stories about the horrible past lives of each elephant. Some were in tourism, others worked in logging, some were horribly injured after stepping on a landmine, or being caught in a trap.

It’s heartbreaking to think about how humans have abused and mistreated these beautiful creatures.

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Even if a sanctuary that lets you ride elephants and tells you it’s humane- it’s absolutely not.

It’s really quite simple: Elephants are wild animals.

Wild animals don’t let humans ride them willingly- they have to be trained.

To train an elephant to allow humans to ride it, or even to have it perform tricks you’d see in a circus, elephants are often kidnapped as babies. Because elephant herds have such tight connections, it’s not unusual for older elephants to be murdered in the process of taking the baby.

Once kidnapped, the baby is ‘broken’ by its trainers. This physical and psychological process typically involves caging the baby and torturing them (think: hooks, weapons) to force them into submission.

When the baby’s spirit is completely broken, then the trainers are able to ‘teach them’ different things.

Every time tourists spend their money on these kind of experiences, it sends the message there’s interest in them, and so the vicious cycle persists.
Please, please, please visit an ethical sanctuary if you decide to spend time with elephants when you’re in Thailand. Visiting elephants in Thailand shouldn’t be something you experience at the expense of the animal.

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A Day at Elephant Nature Park

First things first, if you want to visit elephants in Thailand, book in advance. I booked a few weeks before my trip, and even during the low season (late March), some days were fully booked.

Some hotels offer you the option to book through them, but I booked directly through ENP’s website and had no issues. You’ll be able to choose from three options: a full day visit, half day visit, or overnight stay.

I opted for a full day visit to ensure I had plenty of time. I’d love to return someday with my sister (elephants are her favourite animal) and stay overnight.

The day of your visit, you’ll be picked up from your hotel/Airbnb and transported to ENP (1.5-2 hours north, depending on traffic) in an air-conditioned van.

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What to Bring to ENP

At the time of my visit, they’d stopped doing the bathing opportunity with elephants, which I was happy to hear. They’re trying to have the elephants get used to bathing themselves/each other to better simulate what it’s like in the wild.

I didn’t need a swimsuit/flip flops, but I did bring:

  • sun screen
  • bug spray
  • Kindle (to read on the way there and back/during down time)
  • snacks (didn’t need these, but more on that below)
  • money to cover the remainder of my tour cost (you only pay a deposit if you book online) and anything I wanted to buy at the park
  • an ID card (left my passport at the hotel)
  • a water bottle to refill, and hand sanitiser

To stash all of this, I brought my 12L daypack, which turned out to be a great option since it kept my hands free.

I wore trainers, long loose pants, low impact sports bra and a tank top.

Some people advise against wearing trainers since you’ll likely get muddy/dusty, but I found them helpful for the uneven ground. I washed mine the night I got back in a laundromat near my hotel, and they came out good as new.

Definitely don’t bring anything new or items that are expensive. People who’ve visited in the rainy season recommend hiking-style, all-elements sandals instead of trainers.

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Your Day Once You Arrive at ENP

Once you arrive, you’ll have a bit of down time to walk around the main lodge area and observe other groups feeding elephants. Fear not, it’ll be your turn soon enough.

Our first official activity was feeding a few elephants snacks (watermelon, bananas).

This was so fun! The elephants ate so much, it was surprising.

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Next up: We walked the grounds for a little over two hours. Walking the grounds was the favourite part of the day.

In our morning rounds, we met a bunch of elephants, watched them throw dirt on each other to stay cool, observed a momma and baby playing in a large pool, and learned so much about the elephants ENP has rescued.

At one point, we were allowed to touch one of the elephants- an older one that’s been under ENP’s care for a while. So special touching one of these magnificent animals.

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Soon enough, it was time for lunch. I’d brought snacks because I wasn’t sure what the meal situation would be like, and as a vegetarian with serious food allergies, I wanted to be prepared.

I had no need to worry. The vegetarian buffet provided was fresh and full of choices- salads, fruit, noodles, soups, rice dishes, vegetables cooked a bunch of different ways- it was amazing.

Cold filtered water, as well as aloe water, were also available. At any point in your stay, you’ll have access to water, so no need to worry about being thirsty.

After lunch, we had time to walk around the main lodge area again. I choose to read and play with some of the puppies.

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During our afternoon walk of the grounds, we went to the river to watch some of the elephants bathe. So fun watching them spray each other and bob about in the water.

We walked around a bit more, observing elephants interacting with each other. This act alone is pretty amazing- elephants are highly social creatures and prefer to be in tribes.

However, when they’re captured or injured, they’re on their own and become weary of other animals and humans. Seeing the tight knit relationships elephants who were previously afraid to be around each other have formed just further convinced me ENP’s mission is worth supporting.

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Before I knew it, it was time to head back to Chiang Mai. Spending time at ENP was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had while travelling.

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Is visiting elephants in Thailand something you’d like to experience? Would you ever visit an ethical elephant sanctuary?

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