For centuries, elephants have played a central role in Thai culture, showing up in art and custom as frequently as in real life – indeed, they are the de facto national animal. An elephant experience is typically a key activity for tourists, exciting both for its novelty and Instagrammability, but practices like trekking often come at the expense of the animals themselves. Luckily, in recent years, sentiment has changed and an increasing number of organizations are offering sanctuary to rescued old, injured or abused elephants. Others are building camps from the ground up with the safety and care of the elephants at the core of their business. The result is a new model of elephant tourism that puts the animals first. Here are some of the best in the country.
The town of Kanchanaburi is perhaps most famous as the location of the River Kwai, and is located about 2.5 hours northwest of Bangkok by car. ElephantsWorld, operating under the motto, “Where we work for the elephants, and the elephants not for us,” is a sanctuary for more than 30 animals rescued from the tourism and logging industries and a self-sustaining eco-farm providing not only care for the elephants but also work and a home for 130 staff including mahouts (elephant handlers). Visitors are offered a variety of options from half-day excursions where they feed and wash the animals to weeks-long mahout programs.
Elephant Hills, Khao Sok
Situated in the verdant rainforest of southern Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park, Elephant Hills is the place to go if you want to combine elephant-spotting with luxury tenting tours over two to four days. With a variety of options that combine glamping with safari activities – tours can be tailored for families, couples, or solo travellers – this company offers immersive adventures. Their Elephant Experience is a four-time winner of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Green Excellence Award for Animal Welfare, so you can be sure the elephants are treated ethically.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Phuket
Known more for its nightlife than animal conservation, Phuket may seem an unusual location for an elephant sanctuary, but the 30 acres bordering the Khao Phra Thaeo National Park set aside for these former beasts of burden offer the perfect environment for rehabilitation. At this, the island’s first ethical elephant sanctuary, visitors can observe the animals as they eat, wash, and play – a pastime as good for the human soul as the elephant’s.
Baanchang Elephant Park, Chiang Mai
This capital city draws millions of visitors every year, many of whom are eager to see the temples and historic architecture. But since 2004, there’s been another unique attraction – a family-run elephant eco-park in Mae Taeng district, about 50 minutes by car from the city centre. With three programs and no riding activities, Baanchang delivers education and the opportunity to spend relaxed, unscheduled time with the animals.
Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, Chiang Rai
The “golden triangle” refers to the area in the northern Chiang Rai province where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, and is a destination for travellers looking for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The Four Seasons Tented Camp fits the bill nicely – and with elephants! Take a break from your alfresco spa treatments to indulge in any of the camp’s elephant experiences, and rest assured that the animals are treated with the utmost care. In addition to its onsite offerings, the Camp also works with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), a registered non-profit to assist captive elephants and promote conservation.