In recent years, Thailand’s elephant parks have come under scrutiny from animal activists and responsibly-minded travellers alike. Increasingly, tourists are seeking out elephant ‘sanctuaries’, where the welfare of the animals is paramount. While some would argue no animal should be kept in captivity, the following parks are actively involved in rescuing elephants and subsequently providing a high level of care and treatment.
Located 32 km outside of Kanchanaburi, ElephantsWorld was established by a Thai vet to provide a sanctuary for disabled, injured, old, ill and former working elephants. Visitors are here strictly to work for the elephants, with duties including sourcing and preparing food, giving the elephants a good scrub in the River Kwai, and satisfying their sizeable appetites with lots of sticky rice and fruit. As part of the ‘Overnight’ program, visitors get to stay in a traditional Thai-style cottage beside the river with the chance to walk the elephants to and from the forest during the wet season.
Elephant Nature Park
A rescue and rehabilitation center in northern Thailand, Elephant Nature Park has been one of the leading voices in ending the ill-treatment of captive elephants; the emphasis is very much on caring for the animals rather than exploiting them. Visitors can wash, feed and interact with the elephants, but there are strictly no rides. Elephants are also left to freely roam around the park and form their own social groups as they would do in the natural environment. As well as single day trips, it’s possible to volunteer for a seven-day experience to get more hands-on in the animal’s day-to-day care.
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
In 2015, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (located an hour north of Sukhothai) featured in Lonely Planet’s top 10 unforgettable family travel experiences. Along with this notable endorsement, the sanctuary’s British founder has been recognised for her conservation work by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. So all told, this sanctuary comes with plenty of credibility. Visitors can get involved in a variety of aspects related to elephant care, while the chance to hike with them into the forest to set up camp is an experience that’ll live long in the memory.
Elephant Retirement Park
Former working elephants are given a new home at Elephant Retirement Park, a small elephant sanctuary around an hour’s drive outside of Chiang Mai. Just like Elephant Nature Park, there’s no riding the elephants and ‘taming’ instruments like rods and bull hooks are never used. As such, visitors are here to care for the park’s rescued residents. Duties include feeding, brushing, bathing and even making up herbal medicine. The current range of programs is limited, but there are a number of multi-day volunteer programs being planned. In the meantime, we recommend the private ‘Special Program’, which comes with the opportunity to care for the oh-so-cute new born calf.
Baanchang Elephant Park
Adopting and rescuing elephants from unsuitable living conditions and illegal logging camps, Baanchang Elephant Park provides a home and a purpose for domesticated elephants. Reached via a 50-minute drive north of Chiang Mai, the park offers visitors a number of programs, with the Elephant Mahout Training program being an especially popular choice. You can spend one to three days as a mahout (there are on-site accommodations), learning all about the Thai Elephant, and their lifestyle and behaviour. This includes feeding, bathing and brushing your elephant, learning their basic commands and riding bareback around the hilly premises.
Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort
For a full-on (and luxurious) elephant camp experience, splurge on a weekend at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort in the Golden Triangle area of northern Thailand. Established in 2003 as a traditional mahout village, the onsite elephant camp works alongside the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation to perform street rescues, and provide employment and a comfortable lifestyle for over 25 elephants and their mahout families. There are a number of programs for guests such as learning to “drive” an elephant at sunrise with mahout training, bathing an elephant in the river, going elephant trekking through native forests and more.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
Pioneering ethical elephant tourism in Phuket, the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary provides a home for sick, injured, tired, or old elephants who have previously worked for tourism entertainment or in the logging industry. Here, amidst the forest bordering the Khao Phra Thaeo National Park, visitors can spend a morning feeding, walking with, and observing the gentle giants as they roam freely, socialise with other elephants, and bathe in the freshwater lagoons. Week-long volunteer opportunities are also available.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Chiang Mai and Phuket
Located in Chiang Mai and Phuket, the Elephant Jungle Sanctuaries offer a hands-on all round visit in the most serene jungle settings. Having opened in 2014 and 2016, respectively, each venue creates a glorious experience for all ages. Suitable for children, the activities on offer convey how to understand the needs and requirements of the elephants; close adult and parental supervision is required at all times.
Image Credit: Elephant Nature Park