Is visiting ethical elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai on your bucket list? I am not surprised, it is one of the most popular trip to take whilst in Thailand – but how do you know the one you’re visiting is truly ethical?
We all want to know that the money we are spending on our trip is going to a good cause, that the elephants we visit are free from stress, and live happy lives.
There is a huge amount of ethical elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai to choose from, whilst you walk up and down the streets you will see rows and rows of travel agents selling trips to elephant sanctuaries all around Chiang Mai.
But doing your research and wising up on elephant tourism is the only way you can ensure the tour your choose is truly ethical.
Thank you for being here and for taking your decision seriously, together with more knowledge in this area we can help to protect the elephants in Thailand from being exploited for tourism purposes.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you click a link and purchase something I have recommended I will earn a small commission. This does not affect the price you pay but helps me to keep Travels by Izzy going.
Top 5 Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Chiang Mai
Whilst researching where to visit during our stay in Chiang Mai I have chosen my top 5 ethical elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai.
I have chosen these sanctuaries for their dedication to the elephants and the local communities around them. After reading through their websites and reviews I feel they are at the forefront of ethical elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai and believe they are truly only interested in the welfare of these animals and about educating tourists, rather than making a profit.
Elephant Nature Park is one of the most well known sanctuaries not only in Chiang Mai, but in the whole of Thailand.
Founded in the 1990s by Saengduean Lek Chailert, who has been recognised on an international level for her conversation work and protection on elephants.
Elephant Nature Park is a hands off centre, touching, bathing and riding is all forbidden here.
The rescued elephants are allowed to live in the 250 acres in herds as they would in the wild, allowing them to live as naturally as possible in an undisturbed way.
Tourists are encouraged to observe the elephants in the park via the skywalk and driven tours, whilst being taught about each one and their journey before being rescued.
Feeding is allowed here but is only included in certain tours, such as the ‘Care for Elephants’ package.
Each package is individually priced and includes different activities, ensure you read through them all to choose the one best suited for you.
You can choose from half day visits, full day visits, volunteer days and overnight stays.
Located 60km from Chiang Mai transport to and from is included.
To book either here to their website or main office in Chiang Mai:
📍 1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
Elephant Freedom Project is also run by the Elephant Nature Park as one of their many projects throughout the region, they work closely with elephant owners to educate them in how elephants should be kept and treated.
This works hand in hand with more responsible tourism coming their way.
They help to educate the communities and demonstrate the kind of elephant encounters that tourists want nowadays, this not only leaves the tourists feeling good about how they have spent their money it improves the elephants wellbeing and quality of life.
The better the elephants are then treated and the more positive tourists feel, the better the reviews are and the more recommended a sanctuary becomes.
During a full day tour at Elephant Freedom Project you can get involved in activities such as feeding the elephants, taking a jungle trek with them and bathing them.
You will also get to meet the Mahouts who care for the elephants, he will give you an overview of the herd and a bit more information about the background of each member.
At Elephant Freedom Project you can choose from a feeding tour, morning tour, evening tour or full day tour.
Located about an hour from Chiang Mai transport to and from is included as well as free pictures and videos throughout the day.
To book either head to their website or main office in Chiang Mai:
📍 1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
‘Allowing elephants to BE elephants away from exploitation and abuse‘
BEES Sanctuary is a safe haven for old, injured and retired elephants offering these giants a forever home away from abuse and performance.
At BEES they encourage the elephants to live out their days as they would in the wild, allowing them to naturally forage, dust bath, interact and socialise with each other.
Visiting the sanctuary you are encouraged to work for the elephants, not the other way around.
BEES works with the local communities arranging clean up days, educating the children both about the elephants and to teach them English.
As part of the visitor program as well as caring for the elephants you can also help the surrounding communities with tasks such as irrigation, fire walling, clean ups after natural disasters.
Visiting BEES you are not only improving the lives of the elephants you are also improving the lives of the locals within the community of Mae Chaem. The sanctuary also employs locals and buys produce from the local area.
BEES only offer overnight stays of 1 night, 3 nights or 6 nights.
The sanctuary is a hands off centre, activities during your stay depend on the length of your visit but these include, observing, preparing food, cleaning the elephants areas, caring for other rescued animals, teaching English, planting trees, visiting the local communities, cooking and visiting local temples.
To book head to their website.
📍 34 M1, Ban Thung Yaw, Tambon Chang Keung Chiang Mai
BLES is a small and intimate sanctuary keeping visitor number on the lower side to maintain the wellbeing of the elephants lives.
Here the elephants are free to roam over 600 acres of forested land, banana plantations, grasslands, fresh water rivers and fields.
The elephants can carry out all their natural behaviours such as digging, scratching, swimming and socialising, that so many have been denied over the years whilst exploited for tourism.
Not only providing a safe haven for rescued elephants, BLES offers support to local elephant owners who lack funds to care for their elephants properly.
They provide jobs and housing to mahouts and their families, encourage them to participate in BLES ethical elephant tourism whilst providing education about the elephants and the environment.
BLES offers overnight stays only, encouraging you to stay for the full week of 4 nights, this way you can fully immerse yourself in sanctuary life. Minimum stay in 2 nights.
During your time at the sanctuary there is no pre arranged activities other than walking with the elephants, this allows for a serene experience for both the elephants and visitors.
Daily tasks during your stay are seasonal and will vary every day, a few examples could be collecting elephant food from local areas, maintaining herding areas, observing medical treatments performed on our elephants, walking the elephants to various grazing areas and socializing with the BLES family.
To book head to their website.
📍 34 M1, Ban Thung Yaw, Tambon Chang Keung Chiang Mai.
The main mission at Into the Wild Elephant Camp is to give the rescued and retired elephants a home that is safe, enabling them to roam freely and live as naturally as possible.
After years of supporting their ancestors in the logging and tourism industries elephants have become family, it is now the responsibility of todays generation to ensure the elephants are cared for and have a safe place to live out their days.
The Mahouts who care for the elephants are from the local area, working with the Karen hill tribe members Into the Wild believes strongly in giving back to the local community.
They support the locals by providing them with supplies and clothing, by supporting these surrounding villages it helps to improve the well being of the whole community.
This in turn brings more opportunity to care for the elephants and ensure more and more in the surrounding areas are cared for in an ethical way.
Offering half day and full day tours you will be able to spend the day admiring these gentle giants and learning all about their daily habits and needs.
Activities throughout the day include feeding the elephants, walking through the jungle with them and observing as they forage naturally, bathing the elephants and creating vitamin balls for them.
🙋🏻♀️ we visited Into the Wild Elephant Camp for a full day, you can check out my full overview of the day, my honest opinion about the sanctuary and why I recommend visiting Into the Wild Elephant Camp.
To book head to their website or office in Chiang Mai:
📍 115 3 Room 1 Sri Poom Rd . Office at Hug Hostel, Chiang Mai
Why are these elephants domesticated?
The elephants of Thailand have a long history of domestication which is believed to go back as far as 2000 BC.
Throughout the centuries they have been used in wars and for the logging industry, however, following the ban on commercial logging in 1989 all of these elephants and their owners were suddenly left with uncertain futures.
No longer able to use their elephants for the logging trade meant that unfortunately many elephants were then trained to perform unnatural tricks such as begging and being used for rides.
In the last few decades elephants have mainly been used for riding and entertainment purposes with many tourists taking part in this mistreatment, completely unaware of the abuse that happens behind closed doors.
Fortunately through media coverage of this mistreatment, tourists are now more and more aware of the physical and psychological damage these animals endure to be able to have you ride on their back or perform tricks.
Luckily there are many out there who have changed the way we interact with the elephants and because of this many sanctuaries are following suit, stopping unethical practises and educating tourists on elephants and how we should be treating them.
It is our responsibility to ensure the sanctuaries we visit are ethical and that our money is going towards the well being of these animals.
How to find an ethical elephant sanctuary?
Finding an ethical elephant sanctuary can sometimes be very challenging, but if you are here reading this post then thank you because you care enough to do your research and that is the first step.
Educating yourself about what practises are unethical and ensuring you read all of the information about your chosen tour before purchasing are great places to start.
Truly ethical sanctuaries that care solely for the elephants well being never exploit, trade or profit from the elephants.
They do not use any form of torture towards them including bull hooks, chains, or punishment and they do not force the elephants to interact with humans or perform tricks.
In saying this you could be thinking but how come these sanctuaries benefit from us visiting, surely that’s unethical?
I thought exactly the same, but after visiting I now have a better understanding of why these sanctuaries have visitors everyday.
Elephants are extremely expensive to look after and eat one third of their body weight in food every day.
Because of this expense and others that come with running sanctuaries such an medical care etc, these places would not be able to keep their doors open and keep the elephants safe and well, without the support of tourists.
Visiting a sanctuary is not an unethical thing to do, if you visit the right one your money is going to a good source and will truly help the well being of the elephants.
Riding elephants is a tourist attraction that has been carried out for years, but the more we are becoming aware of the well being of the elephants and the torture they have to endure to be able to be ridden, the more we are saying no, to this unethical practise. It goes without saying that riding elephants is definitely unethical and should not be practised, however many camps throughout South East Asia still offer this activity so ensure the one you visit does not.
I have read a few reviews and heard stories of places that bring the elephants out during the day and then they are returned to a small area at night and chained up. This is not healthy for the elephants and is not a natural way to live, sanctuaries that do this are still exploiting the elephants for profit and are not truly interested in their well being.
This can often be used at an ‘ethical’ sanctuary to get an elephant to do something that it might not want to, such as be bathed or to come and interact with tourists. Often the Mahouts will get the elephants to stand where they want or perform tricks for food.
Bathing the elephants is something that is very common among sanctuaries and is something that is becoming more and more questioned. It is something that was carried out at Into the Wild when I visited, whilst I could see the elephants were not forced to be there, could come and go as they pleased and did genuinely have playful and intimate experiences with the guests, it wasn’t a part of the day that I was very comfortable with and is not something I would participate in again. I do feel it is something that needs to be phased out, I believe day trips such as these should be led entirely by the elephants and not structured at all allowing for a completely natural experience.
Ensure the sanctuary is transparent about what its intentions are and why is does what is does. How do they support the local community? Why have they rescued the elephants? What is in it for the people and the communities other than profit.
Read the reviews
Reading the reviews will be the best way to gain an honest and clear picture of your chosen sanctuary. Make sure to read through Tripadvisor and Google as well as any on the operators website. If someone has had an experience that they have then dwelled on and feel is not ethical they will often share it, this is also a great way to find a truly ethical experience as if the level of care and dedication to the elephants has been felt this will also be clear whilst reading.
Laws, education and our responsibility
At the moment there are currently no laws in Thailand to prevent the abuse and mistreatment of elephants, however they are currently working on a new animal welfare law and a National Elephant Care Master plan to protect these domesticated giants.
This new law would require all domestic elephants to be registered at birth and given ID cards, it also requires the mahouts working with them to obtain a license and elephant sanctuary owners must have a permit to operate.
This means that the protection and wellbeing of the elephants can be prioritised and maintained.
But it is not all down to the Thai government to protect the welfare of the animals, it is also up to us as paying tourists to ensure we are not supporting unethical treatment and taking part in cruel activities.
Education is key and we must all work at spreading awareness for what these elephants endure behind the scenes to create this unnatural behaviour.
‼️ If you hear someone is planning to go somewhere that you know to be unethical, then speak up for elephants as they can’t themselves.
Photos and short rides are not worth the elephants suffering.
Please share this message with those around you and lets stand together to ensure Thai elephants have a safe and happy future.
Looking for more things to do during your travels in South East Asia? Then you’ll want to check out these posts: