Visiting Thailand? An excursion with elephants is a must—just make sure it’s ethical.
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For Michael’s 30th birthday, we decided to take a trip to Thailand (it was either there or Sonoma!) to celebrate. It had been been about 15 years or so since I’d last been there, so I was excited to experience Thailand as an adult aka truly appreciate the country. As a kid, I definitely took our family trips to Thailand for granted—I really hated rainy season and the mosquitos. It also never felt like a vacation for me.
That’s why when we picked Thailand, I wanted Michael to experience things that are really unique to Thailand. In particular, the elephants! But I wanted us to experience the elephants in a completely ethical way, which is how we found Elephant Nature Park.
Why you should never ride elephants
Sadly, when I was a kid, there were various times where I rode elephants. Back then, there really wasn’t any type of information reporting on the harms of elephant riding and the training that goes into it. Even now, there are still hotels in Thailand and songthaews (red taxis) that will promote animal excursions from elephants to tigers. It’s because tourists are still driving a demand for these types of excursions. That’s why it’s so important to be an informed traveler everywhere you go, and not spend your dollars on unethical excursions.
So why is elephant riding so bad?
There are only around 6,500 elephants living in Thailand, with about 2,500 being caught from the wild. Many are often poached from Myanmar and then trafficked into Thailand. Baby elephants are then trained using phajaan or “the crush.” Baby elephants are taken from their mothers and kept in isolation for days to weeks at a time. At times, mothers are killed. They’re tied down, starved, and beaten until their will to live is crushed. After this, they are now ready for the tourism industry, whether it’s riding camps, circuses or street begging.
You can find more information on this by watching Lost LeBlanc’s “Black Tusk” film made in collaboration with Elephant Nature Park.
Other elephants who were in the teak logging industry (banned in 1989), were also abandoned or sold into elephant tourism industry. Elephants are also often left maimed when poached for their ivory.
Choosing the right elephant sanctuary
Research. Research. Research.
The only way to find an ethical elephant sanctuary is to do your homework and research. There were various other elephant sanctuaries I was looking into that seemed ethical, but then I dug a little further. Some of these places still use bull-hooks, allow bareback riding or didn’t seem to treat the elephants well. I highly recommend looking on TripAdvisor and blog posts for reviews and looking on YouTube for a visual of the sanctuary or experience you’re researching.
I found so many glowing reviews, blog posts, and YouTube videos on Elephant Nature Park, which really solidified our choice. Remember, as a tourist, you can create a lasting impact!
About Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park was established in the 1990s by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert. It’s located about 37 miles from Chiang Mai and serves as a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants, cats, dogs, buffaloes, and other animals.
It offers various volunteer programs at the park itself or at local villages in the region. Visitors can choose from 1 day options to weekly options too.
One of the things that really drew me into the Elephant Nature Park was the understanding that they needed to educate visitors and locals alike on more sustainable animal tourism. I’ll talk more about this ahead, but this really made a big impact on me.
You can read their full Mission Statement below:
1. Sanctuary for endangered species: We provide homes for these animals as well as contributing to their welfare and development.
2. Rain Forest Restoration: One of the most exciting developments at the park is our program of tree planting the surrounding area. The ecological balance of plants and animals will be encouraged by the re-introduction of the rain forest. Some 25 acres of the mountainside will be planted every year for the first 5 years.
3. Cultural Preservation: To maintain, as much as possible, the cultural integrity of the local community. By creating employment and purchasing agricultural products locally we are assisting the villagers in sustaining their distinct culture. Park managers are recruited locally to oversee the park’s progress.
4. Visitors Education: To educate visitors, individuals, study groups, schools and interested parties. Emphasis on the plight of the endangered local species will be presented in an entertaining and constructive manner. Future phases will include audio / visual equipment and other modern educational aids. It is anticipated that small conferences and workshops will be organized at the park.
5. Act independently: of pressure groups and political movements that we consider contrary to the well being of the park and the creatures in its care.
Planning your visit with Elephant Nature Park
When you plan your visit with Elephant Nature Park, you’ll have the option to pick from quite a lot of projects (view here)! The most popular options are the ones that visit the park, so if you’re looking to do that, you should book when booking opens up (60 days in advance). I eagerly put a calendar alert for myself 60 days out, hah!
As a note, Elephant Nature Park recently (in the past few months) changed its elephant bathing policy. If you visit the park, you will not be able to do this as they want the elephants to live as natural a life as possible. You can read their explanation here.
Elephant Nature Park provides pick up and drop off air conditioned van service to and from your hotel. You will just need to confirm your hotel with them after you book.
Depending on the project you choose, you might need different things. We chose the Karen Elephant Experience, which ended up being quite a lot of hiking! Below are the things I recommend bringing with you.
- KEEN Sandals: I’ve used these sandals in Costa Rica for canyoneering and hiking, and these were perfect for our elephant day. I don’t think I’ve ever slipped wearing these, and they’re really ideal for the mud/water. They’re easy to clean too!
- Workout clothes or clothes you don’t mind getting dirty: Don’t dress up for the day. You will be sweating and getting muddy!
- Extra set of clothes: You will definitely get dirty! There are showers for you to clean up, and change so you can easily change into clean clothes.
- Hat: I goofed and forgot to bring a hat with me, and I really wish I had!
- Sunscreen: Sunscreen is a must-have too. I like this one from Neutrogena as it’s light and also carry-on friendly.
- Bug spray: Do NOT forget bug spray! More than likely the area you’ll be visiting is in or near the jungle. We used bug spray we found at a local Thai pharmacy and that worked really well!
Karen Elephant Experience
So we actually chose not to see Elephant Nature Park (though I’d still love to go next time!) because we wanted to have more of an impact on the locals and participate in a sustainable model. The elephants at this project (besides the young 8 year old male) used to work in the logging industry before it was banned. Then they were rented out to elephant riding camps.
I know what you might be thinking… “How could they do this to their elephants?” This is actually a really big problem for elephants and their owners because it costs a lot to properly care for an elephant. Elephants eat about 10% of their bodyweight per day, so the costs add up extremely quickly. Owners initially think that these elephant riding camps are the only way for them to take care of their elephants, most of which have been in their families for generations.
So that’s how projects like the Karen Elephant experience come into play by creating a sustainable and ethical way for owners to care for their elephants. Bobby, our guide, told us that the more popular these types of tourist excursions become, the more other elephant owners will understand they can care for their elephants this way and opt out of the riding camps, circuses, and street begging.
Our Experience with the elephants
On the day of, we were promptly picked up by our van and met Bobby. We picked up a few more groups and then we were on our way. We watched a safety video and then a short documentary on Elephant Nature Park and the founder, Lek.
After driving about an hour or so, we switched to a pick up truck and made our way to the Karen village we were visiting. This part was super bumpy, so if you get motion sickness or have a bad back, opt to sit inside on the passenger side.
Once we were at the village, Bobby told us about our day and what to expect. We’d be feeding the elephants, walking through the jungle with them, having lunch, and then bathing them. He also asked us to wash off our sunscreen or anything else on our hands. Elephant skin is super sensitive, and different products can harm their skin.
Before meeting the elephants, we were able to leave our bags and whatever else we brought. They had water bottles for us, so there’s no need to bring this! Also, the mahouts have a DSLR to take photos of us throughout the day. They upload pretty quickly onto their Facebook!
We walked up a little hill area and finally got to meet the elephants and their mahouts (their trainer/keeper)! We met Mahboun (37, female), Mahdulou (40, female), and Kompoun (8, male). Note: I’m definitely spelling these wrong, but my Thai writing/reading skills are REALLY lacking since I was a kid, so I can’t write these in Thai.
We fed them a TON of bananas and they happily ate them up, eating way more than 10 at a time. Mahdulou was a particularly hungry one! Once we were done feeding them, we started our hike in the jungle. Kompoun and his mahout went on ahead and we spent our time with Mahboun and Mahdulou. Bobby says since he’s young, he’s got a lot more energy and can be really naughty at times!
The hike allowed us to see the elephants in their natural environment, foraging for food. We also saw how the mahouts communicate with the elephants and give them commands. They use a lot of positive reinforcement in the form of bananas and call them using their name and telling them to come. The mahouts did not use any physical force with the elephants.
After our hike, we went back to the village for a vegetarian lunch. It was much needed after our hike! We don’t remember exactly, but the hike was at least an hour or so. After lunch, we put on a traditional Karen tribe shirt and headed for the mud bath.
Remember when I said elephant skin is sensitive? The mud bath acts like a natural lotion sunscreen for the elephants. Bobby told us that if you see elephants that aren’t treated well, their skin will be a lighter gray color rather than the browner color you see in my photos. This is because they aren’t allowed to mud bathe. He mentioned that a lot of the newly rescued elephants that come to Elephant Nature Park have poor skin conditions, and this is another reason why visitors aren’t allowed to touch them.
After walking over the mud bath area, the mahouts called the elephants and they came down to drink water and then they started spraying themselves and rolling in the mud. It was like watching giant puppies play. We got to join in on the fun too. After getting thoroughly dirty, we hiked a short distance to a stream to wash off with the elephants. It amazed me how they were able to climb up and down the steep hills! After this, we went back to the village to shower and change.
I couldn’t be happier with our choice and experience with the Karen Elephant Experience, Bobby, and the mahouts. It was truly a highlight of our trip and probably my favorite part. We’re definitely fortunate to be able to choose where our tourism dollars go, and I’m hoping I can impact more people with my experience so that they choose an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand.