How to Choose an Elephant Sanctuary and What to Expect

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During an 18-day trip to Thailand in December, I had the opportunity to visit two different elephant sanctuaries in Phuket and Chiang Mai. This post will explain why you should visit an elephant sanctuary instead of participating in elephant rides, paintings, or shows on vacation; explore the complexities of trying to be a “responsible” tourist; and detail my unique experiences at each facility.

Watch: Video of my elephant sanctuary experiences!
Read more: 3 Days in Chiang Mai

Inspiration for this Post

When I was first planning my trip to Thailand, I knew that I had to see elephants no matter what. My original plan was to make it to at least one elephant sanctuary during my time in the country. After going to a sanctuary in Phuket with my tour group where we had minimal interaction with the elephants (but tons of observation!), I decided that I wanted to go to a sanctuary in Chiang Mai that would give me more face-time with the elephants. After all, I figured, as long as I wasn’t riding them, getting a painting, or watching a show, it had to be humane, right?

Well, after both experiences, and further research in preparation for this blog post, I can honestly say that now I’m not so sure. Depending on your perspective, there probably isn’t a perfect solution for 100% ethical elephant treatment – because even those that are in sanctuaries need to be controlled in some manner, and they’re still domesticated to an extent. The second sanctuary that I went to in Chiang Mai seemed very humane on the surface, and we had a wonderful time. But, after recently reading a handful of poor reviews (which are still far outweighed by positive ones), I’ve started to reconsider whether there were hints to subtle cruelty that I may have missed. Later on in this post, I’ll share my experience and let you decide for yourselves.

If you are already well-aware of the pitfalls of elephant tourism, are set on going to a sanctuary, and/or just want to see the cute elephant photos, feel free to click here and skip ahead to my recap of the experiences. Otherwise, I sincerely hope that you’ll continue reading to learn more about this practice.

The Dark Side of Elephant Tourism

At this point, you may be wondering, “Why is this a topic of interest? Why can’t I ride/get a painting from/see a show with elephants if they’re such big, gentle, intelligent creatures?” My goal is that this post can open your mind to other ways to interact with elephants in a more humane and natural way.

Sadly, despite improvement in the past few years, most of the elephant tourism industry has a very dark side. The worst of it involves a common process called “crushing” or “phajaan”, which is a cruel negative reinforcement method used to condition elephants to submit to human command, in order to offer rides, paintings, shows, etc.

In the crushing method, a young wild elephant is often tied down or confined to a very small cage, where it is then subjected to a variety of physical tortures. These could include beatings and stabbings with sharp objects, starvation, and/or sleep deprivation, in order to break its will and make it submit to human will out of fear. (Source: insideasiatours.com)

Furthermore, a 2017 study of elephants in southeast Asia showed that at least 77% of the captive elephants were chained day and night when not being used for entertainment purposes, and experienced very little social interaction with other elephants. They also had poor diets, little to no access to proper veterinary care, and were often exposed to stressful environments with loud music and a large number of tourists.  (Source: theguardian.com)

What makes this more heartbreaking is the fact that elephants are highly intelligent, emotional, and social creatures that form complex hierarchies and relationships within their own herds. They are also among the most highly aware creatures on the planet. Therefore, the psychological implications of such practices can have even further complications. If you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to take a look at this video. (WARNING: Graphic Content).

Me happily hugging an elephant's trunk at Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary for elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Complex Nature of Sanctuaries

So now, some good news: the demand for elephant rides, painting, shows, etc. is slowly decreasing as more people become aware of these practices, and trade the desire to ride an elephant with the desire to simply observe or interact with them. That said, it is very costly to own an elephant in any capacity – some sources even say one elephant can cost mahouts/keepers upward of 1000 THB ($31 USD) a day. With that in mind, the question about “true” ethical treatment becomes more murky when you consider the cost of sustainability to keeping, feeding, and caring for elephants.

Choosing to visit an elephant sanctuary is really rewarding, but it can be difficult to find the right one. For example, some “sanctuaries” claim to offer mahout training in their packages – this ultimately translates to riding elephants. It’s even been up for debate whether sanctuaries that ensure elephants aren’t ridden, but still offer bathing, feeding, and walks can truly be classified as ethical.

In the end, some would say no sanctuary is 100% ethical because of the human-interaction activities that keep the sanctuaries flourishing. Even our sanctuary in Phuket allowed us to feed the elephants, albeit from behind a fence. Besides donations, ticket purchases for these kinds of experiences are what allow the sanctuaries to keep taking care of the elephants. So, it’s a bit of a tricky situation. That said, I think it is much better to participate in a feeding/bathing/walking elephant experience instead of riding, painting, or going to a circus show.

My Elephant Sanctuary Experience

As mentioned earlier, I had two very different experiences at the following elephant sanctuaries: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary and Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary. Read on to learn more about each experience, and find out what’s right for you.

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is considered the very first ethical elephant sanctuary in Phuket for abused elephants. Their mission is to rescue overworked elephants from the logging and tourism industries, and allow them to retire and rehabilitate in the huge park owned by the sanctuary. Our interaction was very limited with the elephants, to allow them to have as natural and free of an experience as possible. However, we had many observation opportunities!


The day started with a scenic drive to the sanctuary grounds, where we sat down to watch a video about the elephant tourism industry before beginning our experience. After this, we received special long socks and boots that could withstand trekking through the muddy and grassy terrain.

Our first – and only – direct interaction with the elephants was feeding them. Our tour guides provided a big bucket of bananas and cucumbers, and we all lined up to take turns holding out the produce for the elephants to grab with their trunks and gobble up. As you can imagine, this was a great opportunity for photos!

After feeding time, we were split into groups to observe the elephants – from a safe distance – in a variety of settings. Our group started off with visiting a lone elephant chowing down on palm fronds, and then watching two other elephants bathe together in a special pool with a fence around it (to keep out us pesky humans!). It was cute to see these two older elephants playing with each other and squirting water onto their backs. They truly seemed happy!

Our next stop was to walk by and observe two other elephants, in different parts of the park – still from a distance. This was pretty cool to watch the elephants interact in a (more) natural habitat, and I loved getting to walk by a grazing elephant in such close proximity. But, I was slightly disappointed to be so far away for the rest of the tour. I will say, however, that disappointment was purely based on my selfish desire and expectation to interact more with the elephants, and not knowing the details of the tour since it was pre-organized. This tour really is lovely if you know what to expect!

Read more: 2-Week Tour of Thailand with Intro Travel

The last elephant-related viewing before lunchtime came in the form of watching one of the elephants swim around in a pond located in the middle of the park. It was delightful watching the elephant enjoy itself without any human interaction! All of the mahouts and tour guides seemed to have a genuine appreciation of and affection for each rescued elephant, and this really made the atmosphere more enjoyable.

Elephant bathing in pond at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary in Phuket, Thailand

Following this last elephant observation, we were served a delicious buffet lunch back at the sanctuary’s building. As you can see, my eyes were way too big for my stomach. But, everything looked so good, I couldn’t resist loading up my plate. I’m happy to report that everything tasted as good as it looks!

Delicious lunch served after watching elephants at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary in Phuket, Thailand

The Takeaway: If you’re looking for the most humane and natural elephant experience possible, then a place like Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is probably your best bet. What I admired about this sanctuary was that they truly put the needs of the elephants first, and every interaction (and observation) seemed to be on their terms. If you’re looking for more face-time with elephants, this experience may not be for you.

Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary

Before I detail my experience with Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary, I have to revisit a previous point. As I was doing research for this blog post, I discovered a negative review about Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary that I did not see when we booked (as it was last-minute planning). After seeing that review, I decided to take a look at the other negative reviews. For transparency, the 1-star reviews on Trip Advisor are linked here.

When I chose to book this half-day tour, it was the night before my last full day in Chiang Mai and it had had been recommended to me by one of the guys staying at Stamps (a hostel that I frequented for nightlife activities). At that point, the most recent reviews of the sanctuary were great and confirmed it was indeed a sanctuary – and that it happened to be home to a cute 4-year old elephant. However, after seeing the bad reviews, I can’t be 100% certain anymore that it was truly a humane sanctuary – which is incredibly disheartening. That said, I’d still like to provide an account of my (mostly positive) elephant experience, during which I truly didn’t see any cruel practices going on. I’ll let you decide for yourself if the good outweighs the bad:

Laughing with a baby elephant at Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Getting to the sanctuary was about a 1.5-2 hour drive, and it was also made stressful due to a logistical issue. Basically, the original 3rd person in our group had to go to the hospital for a broken ankle the morning before the car picked us up. I still don’t know how he broke his ankle, but I didn’t know he couldn’t make the tour until I arrived at Stamps that morning – about 10 minutes before we were picked up. Long story short, it appears that the sanctuary may have booked us last minute solely because we were a group of 3; so they told me and my other tour companion that we’d have to pay for the missing person unless we could get a doctor’s note! This was incredibly frustrating, as we had no way to get a doctor’s note since he had just been admitted to the hospital that day…so as you can imagine, this wasn’t a great start to the day. Good news is, it got resolved by the end of the tour.

Unlike Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, the lunch here was a lot simpler…and a bit underwhelming. Thankfully, we hadn’t come for the lunch. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that I stuck to pad thai and avoided the fruit. Luckily, it wasn’t long before we got to start our elephant experience.

The tour guides gave us a shirt and shorts to change into so that our own clothes wouldn’t get muddy, and I wore flip flops so that I could wash them off easily if needed. After we were all changed, the elephants were led into an open area where we were able to walk around and feed them bananas and sugar cane. This was a really cool experience, because the elephants were super close this time! We were instructed to say a phrase that sounded like “Bong-soon” (I’m probably super wrong, let’s be honest) and pop the banana in their mouths. But, I preferred to let the elephants grab the food with their trunk, as that seemed to be their preferred method of eating. Either way, it was a fun experience – especially feeding the adorable and greedy baby, Jacky Chan!

After an extended feeding session, it was time for a brief walk through the jungle path behind the sanctuary’s main building. My buddy and I got to walk with Jacky Chan and an adult elephant, and I got to be right next to Jacky Chan. I was overjoyed to be in such close proximity to a baby elephant! The walk didn’t seem too regulated, as the elephants were allowed to graze a bit as we walked. I didn’t see any sticks being used to direct the elephants to move along; rather, it seemed to be mostly vocal command and perhaps some firm (but not harsh) pushing in the right direction.

The walk ultimately led us to a little mud bath, which the elephants eased themselves into. Jacky Chan especially seemed to love it! The main tour guide encouraged us to come and play in the mud with the elephants, but nearly everyone chose to watch the elephants play instead. I went in for a brief moment just to get the experience, but didn’t stay long since the mud was not all mud…enough said.

An elephant scratching its back, using a tree trunk at Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand
An elephant scratching its back, using a tree trunk!

The last activity of the day was heading to the river to rinse off the elephants. Again, they really seemed to enjoy this activity, at least from my perspective. We all were given little buckets to fill with water and toss onto the elephants, as well brushes to “groom” them. For the most part, we all stuck to splashing water on the elephants and keeping a bit of distance. I also got to (kind of) hug one of the elephants at the end, while we were still in the water. It was a lovely way to end the day, and it filled me with a lot of happiness at the time.

After changing back into our normal clothes, it was time to go home. I was delighted by the experience, and over-the-moon that I had gotten to see a baby elephant!

The Takeaway: A sanctuary like this one will definitely provide a lot more elephant interaction, which can feel really rewarding in the moment. However, I would strongly encourage you to thoroughly research the sanctuary beforehand, to see if any other visitors have noticed red flags about the elephants’ treatment. If I had done more research on this sanctuary beforehand (and had more time to book), I can’t be certain that I still would have chosen it. Regardless, this experience was great for fulfilling my dream of meeting a baby elephant.

Final Thoughts

If there’s anything that you can take from this in-depth post, I hope it’s a newfound interest in elephant sanctuaries and appreciation of how they help these gentle creatures. However, I would also encourage you to keep this in mind: even the best of intentions can still contribute to cruelty. As you can see, I truly tried to seek out 100% ethical sanctuaries during my travels; but may have missed the mark in Chiang Mai. No experience will be perfect, but all we can do is our best!

What do you think about animal tourism in general? Do you find elephant tourism to be more cruel than that of donkeys, horses, camels, etc.? Why or why not? I’d love to talk more about this, so be sure to leave your opinion in the comments!

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