3 things to know before you visit an elephant sanctuary in Thailand

While planning my recent trip to Thailand, I came across several references to the many elephant sanctuaries just outside of Chiang Mai. These parks serve as havens to elephants, who were once subjected to horrific abuse and torture in the logging industry. Many more of these animals were forced to walk the city streets in chains (their feet not adapted to the hot concrete), where tourists would pose for pictures in exchange for a tip for the elephant's captor. (I won't go into detail about this abuse here - if you want to learn, the internet is full of resources.)

As an animal lover, I knew right away that I wanted - no, needed - to visit one of these sanctuaries for myself and hang out with the elephants for a day. 

The experience was one I'll never forget, and definitely served as the highlight of my time in Thailand. It was a very emotional, almost spiritual experience. It was hard not to feel like I had a comfort level and bond with these gentle giants by the end of our day together.

But my experience might not have been so incredible if I had chosen differently. Here's what you should know if you're planning a trip to an elephant park in Chiang Mai:

1. Go all in. Do a full tour, not just a park visit.

After doing a lot of research on the many elephant parks in the area, I eventually settled on Elephant Nature Park. It is definitely the most popular and well-regarded, and this gave me pause at first. Would I really have that intimate of an experience at such a big park? Would it be worth the cost?

That's why I decided to go all in and do a full day-long tour, and not just the simple park visit that most tourists do. The park visit also comes with a free shuttle directly to and from your hotel, and because it's about an hour away from Chiang Mai, it's almost a full day experience even just to visit the park. But once you're there, the park visit just involves just walking around the immediate enclosures and hanging out with a few elephants who are relatively stationary.

The Care for Elephants tour was a completely different experience. It involved a smaller group and a full day of activities with elephants who were dedicated to just hanging out with us for the day. It's 1-2 hours more than the park visit, but you're doing this for a full day either way, so why not just go for the best experience? We did not stay in the immediate area of the park - instead, we hiked around the surrounding forest for hours, stopping for a delicious lunch in a cabin overlooking the river, then hiking back.

At 6,000 THB (about $180 per person), this was not a cheap experience - not by Chiang Mai standards, certainly, and not for us - but it was absolutely worth it.

2. Choose your park carefully, and PLEASE do not ride the elephants.

As we drove through the winding forested hills, getting closer to Elephant Nature Park, our tour guide pointed out many other elephant parks along the way. He told us about how many elephant parks don't take great care of their animals, even though they are meant to be sanctuaries. 

He told us about the harm that is caused to the elephants' backs when they are forced to carry tourists all day. The tourists generally don't ride bareback, they ride on steel contraptions. Elephants can carry a person like this for a little while, maybe 30 minutes to an hour without harm - but in most cases they are carrying tourists for 8 hours straight. This causes repeated damage to their spines. And the people driving the elephants forward sometimes do so with sharp spears. The abuse is probably much less than what they experienced before, but is this even necessary when supposedly, we have rescued them?

A few moments after he said this, we rounded a turn and came across the entrance to another elephant park. A large caravan of 6, maybe 8 elephants were lined up to cross the road. They each wore steel saddles with 2 people each seated atop. Tour guides poked and prodded. As our van drove by, the tourists seated atop their elephants waved at us, wearing the biggest smiles. I knew they didn't know any better, but I felt sick.

Unfortunately, unknowing tourists want this experience, so the tourist-focused economy will rise to meet demand. If you are considering a visit to an elephant sanctuary, please be sure to look for one that explicitly says it does not allow riding. And if that was your fantasy about an elephant experience in Thailand, please replace it with one in which you actually get to know your elephant, not just ride on its back. It's way better this way!

If you are considering an elephant sanctuary other than Elephant Nature Park, be very careful about reading all of the reviews for the park. Finding one that very explicitly prohibits riding is usually a good start if you are looking for a park that treats its animals well.

3. Make sure your tour involves a small group of people and several elephants.

There were 4 couples in our group, and 4 elephants, so it was like each couple had their own elephant. Together we climbed over bramble and brush, stopping frequently to feed the elephants fruit and vegetables.  

bathing elephants at Elephant Nature Park

What was special about this human to elephant ratio is that it really allowed us to get to know the personalities of our elephants. Eventually, we could distinguish some of the adults from each other. We always knew when the little one was around, thought - because as a known troublemaker, he wore a bell around his neck to warn others of impending mischief (and possible danger, because he could take you out if you're not careful). 

After lunch, as we made our way back, we stopped to bathe the elephants in the river. Now, I'm not sure how much of this was really necessary our just for our benefit (did they need a bath? maybe not) but it was a chance to cool off after a hot day and get a little more playful with the elephants.

Washing the elephants at Elephant Nature Park
Washing the elephants at Elephant Nature Park

As we got closer to the end of our journey, I actually began to feel sad. I felt like I'd bonded with my elephant, and I was sorry to have to leave. When we first met, I was cautious about getting too close. I'd gingerly held out cut up bananas and cucumber from across a dividing fence. An hour later, we were walking side by side, and I had to guard my bag of fruit against her prying trunk.

The park guides were very smart to give us these large bags of food. With those cotton sacks slung around our shoulders, these elephants were like a dog after a bone. Like my cat when I open a can of tuna, a carton of milk, or a Kraft cheese single (don't ask, she's weird). Except way bigger, and probably a little smarter. (They'd reject cucumber when they saw we still had plenty of banana left. They'd take it, but throw it to the ground. They definitely had a preference for the sweet stuff and were trying to teach us to give them more banana!)

By the end of it, the elephant I'd spent the most time with was comfortable enough to let me snuggle up against her trunk. I had never been so close to an animal that large, and it was truly a special moment for me.

Hugging elephants in Elephant Nature Park

I will never forget my experience at Elephant Nature Park. I hope everyone who visits an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai has as rewarding of an experience as I did.

Want to learn more about my trip to Thailand, including specifics like where I stayed and how much I spent on flights and hotels?

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3 things to know before you visit an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand