Thailand is one of the best places in South-East Asia to get close to Asian Elephants. These massive creatures are friendly, curious, and harmless.
As travelers look for tours to interact with elephants, elephant sanctuaries are gaining more popularity because it is an ethical and sustainable way to interact with these creatures.
With the rise of the internet people realize riding elephants is horrible to their health. Before you book your elephant tour, you should be aware of the negative affects of riding elephants.
This way, you can choose to support a sustainable industry:
feeding and bathing, not riding elephants
In this post I will include:
- Harm from riding elephants
- What are elephant sanctuaries?
- My experiences at sanctuaries
- Visiting the Phuket sanctuary
- A tiny bit about sustainable tourism in The Philippines
The Mistreatment of Elephants
When an elephant park offers elephant riding, you – as the rider, are breaking their back overtime. Unlike horses, elephants have very thin spines that are not meant for carrying weight. So, over time they cannot sustain the weight and their spines break.
Companies that run these tours force elephants to give rides up to 10hrs a day. They aren’t built for this type of labor.
Even more horrible is the torture of the elephant before you ride them at a park.
In order to ensure elephants are “tamed,” or obedient to the human, people believe their spirit must first be destroyed: infant elephants are tied to a pole and beaten for three days straight. They are not allowed food and water, and they are separated from their parents.
It’s an awfully brutal way to treat an elephant. So if you are riding an elephant on your vacation, you support this process.
There are alternatives to riding elephants that allow you to get close to these gentle giants without harming them. One of the best experiences, and sustainable to the well-being of the elephant, is by visiting elephant sanctuaries.
A sanctuary is a place to interact with the elephant, but not ride them. Oftentimes, you feed them, learn about the elephant, and give them a mud bath which is designed to cool them off in the heat.
I have been to three elephant sanctuaries in Thailand:
- The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
- Green Elephant Sanctuary in Phuket
- Elephant Hills in Khao Sok National Park
below are my experiences at each:
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
In October of 2014, I spent a day at the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary. I will never forget my tour and its been great to see how much it has grown. Since my trip, I have recommended this experience to countless friends and travelers.
You will spent a day with a local villagers who takes care of the elephants, you will feed them, learn about them, mud-bathe and swim with them in the river. In 2014, the elephants roamed free on the property and when visitors came for a day tour, they were rounded up with the promises of bananas.
When I visited, you also had the option to spend a night in the village, learning about the local way to live and eat. During one of the days you will help clean around the village and hike around the area before interacting with the elephants the next day.
I was told accommodations are basic – a mat on a wood floor with dinner and rice wine. The highlight was actually meeting the families who lived in the village.
Despite changes in recent years, the most important part of this experience is that you are engaging with the locals. You are supporting a local village and meeting elephants in a sustainable way. Playing, feeding, and mud-bathing, NOT riding.
Green Elephant Sanctuary in Phuket
In March of 2018 we spent an afternoon at the Green Elephant Sanctuary in Phuket. This is another ethical spot to get close to elephants without riding them.
We learned a lot about how the sanctuary acquires elephants:
The sanctuary must pay up to $60,000USD per elephant to remove it from a tour operator that uses them for elephant rides. Then, they must also re-locate the mahout and their families because they have a bond with the elephants that cannot be broken. Who knew it cost so much?
During our visit, we saw the mahouts homes and where the elephants sleep at night. Although the elephants are never tied up, they are housed in separate covered cages. We were told they needed to be separated because they are territorial when it comes to sleeping space. It still made me sad they weren’t allowed to roam free.
During our tour, we were introduced to the elephants by feeding and meeting them before proceeding to the elephant mud bath, and lastly, to clean them off under the showers.
The downside in comparison to Chiang Mai was that there was 60 other travelers on our tour. During my tour in 2014, there was 5 of us with 4 elephants. It was much more personalized. I am sure the Chiang Mai sanctuary has grown through the years, but Phuket was more of a business than a small village experience.
Despite the group size, we had a blast. It is obvious that the sanctuary takes good care of the elephants. We learned a lot, played with the elephants, and were served a big meal after the tour.
All you need to know about visiting the Green Elephant Sanctuary in Phuket
Tour times: 6:30am-12 or 2pm-6:30 (we did afternoon)
Getting there: we got there by a scooter, but the sanctuary provides pick up and drop off to your hotel
What’s included? Meeting the elephants, plenty of drinks, a lunch or dinner, and free photographs posted on their facebook page after your experience
Elephant Hills at Khao Sok
I stayed in the eco-tents at Khao Sok National Park for two nights in September 2018. The park rangers are wonderful, tents were comfortable, but not glamorous – a great way to get your glamping on. And, the elephant day was fun!
Don’t be deceived though — even though it is named “Elephant Hills,” the elephant experience is only a small part of your experience here. It is named after the shape of the hills not the full-blown elephant experience you may be expecting.
In reality, you’ll spend a half a day or so feeding, photographing, and hosing the elephants off after their mud bath. It’s quite relaxing and intimate, when I was there it was nearly one elephant to 1-2 people.
Elephant Sanctuaries & Sustainable Tourism
The good news is that this type of industry is changing. People are practicing sustainable tourism as they become more aware of their impact on wildlife. These are the companies I want to support.
I mean seriously, aren’t they adorable?
Donsol, The Philippines, & Whale Sharks
If you travel to the Philippines you will also see how two separate cities are allowing tourists to swim with whale sharks. In Oslob, fisherman disrupt the whale shark’s natural behavior and lure them in for tourists. They feed them so the whale shark stays year round.
Sure, it may be nice to swim with a whale shark, but you are not supporting a natural interaction. You are supporting an industry that is harming the animal.
Why is this detrimental? Feeding a wild animal changes their behaviors and creates dependency. Even worse is that Oslob is a small area where there are lots of boats in a compact space. Oftentimes, whale sharks are overcrowded, they could be hit by a boat, and overstressed by masses of swimmers.
If you want to swim with whale sharks, go north to Donsol. If you swim with whale sharks in Donsol, you will be a traveler who supports a local fishing town that believes in eco-tourism.
Donsol has strict rules in place not to overcrowd the whale shark. More importantly, they do not need to feed them to allow travelers to swim with them.
The whale shark comes naturally from Mach-May because the ocean is rich in plankton. So read my post here and visit another sustainable tourism destination in Asia.