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CAN YOU VISIT ELEPHANTS ETHICALLY IN CHIANG MAI, THAILAND?

Updated: Mar 31, 2023


One of the things tourists are often most keen to do in Chiang Mai is visit the elephants. These massive animals have a huge role in the history of the city, as well as within its tourism. Sadly, they also have a long history of being mistreated by tourists and their owners here, and elephant rides are still offered in the area despite the pain that the associated abuse and torture is known to cause these gentle giants.


Of course, nowadays tourists are becoming more aware of the mistreatment of animals that has been happening for centuries, and thankfully such activities are in decline. But did you know that it's not just riding elephants that is harmful? Any kind of forced interactions, such as elephants being fed or bathed by people that they don't know and trust is against their natural instincts and can therefore be uncomfortable for them; these interactions, despite not obviously causing them pain, are considered to be unethical too.


So where does this leave vegans who want to visit and help the elephants in Chiang Mai, whilst making sure that doing so doesn't harm the creatures in any way? This is a dilemma that we grappled with when visiting Thailand. Luckily, we found the answer.


Where (and how) can tourists visit elephants ethically in Chiang Mai?

To answer this conundrum we researched far and wide to find out if there were any elephant visits in Chiang Mai that we felt comfortable with in terms of the activities and ethos of the business. We came across one place: Elephant Nature Park. Now, the price to visit Elephant Nature Park was a little more than some of the others on offer, but it included a full day's visit to the park, including transport, lunch, and our guide, Tommy. We went for the Single Day Visit (which included pick up at 7:40am and drop off around 5:30pm). This cost ฿2,500 each (approx. £61.62, €70.16, or $76.29).


The reason that we chose Elephant Nature Park, and the thing that most impressed us while we were there, is that tourists are absolutely not allowed to touch the elephants. There is no riding, feeding, or bathing going on here. They also have a zero tolerance policy on approaching the elephants without a guide, for the safety of both the elephants and the visitors. There are many reasons for this, but primarily this is the elephants' home, their space in which they should be able to be free to be relaxed and happy.


What impressed us so much about Elephant Nature Park?

Elephant Nature Park is enormous. It is so big because the elephants that live there are big too! They have acres of room to roam around in, and what is beautiful about the elephants' lives there is that they are free to do whatever they want, whenever they want. If they want to eat, they eat; if they want to bathe in the river they bathe in the river. They are creatures of habit, so the guides generally know where they'll be, but visitors move respectfully around the park to see the elephants (don't worry, they teach you how to walk without spooking the elephants!) whether they are under the shades, in the river, or elsewhere.


Mike pretending to be an elephant, with two elephants bathing in the river behind him.
Mike doing his best elephant impression!

You'll see that some of the elephants living at Elephant Nature Park have some scars or tears to their ears. This is because the elephants living there are rescued, many from the abuse of the tourist industry, and settle into their own herds at the park. Often Elephant Nature Park run campaigns to fundraise in order to buy elephants from unpleasant or unethical settings; sometimes elephants are given up to them. When the elephants arrive at the sanctuary they are allowed to choose their own friends, as well the humans that look after them too. If they don't trust a person or another elephant, that's their prerogative: here they live the life they want to live.



So what is there for humans to do at Elephant Nature Park?

Well, the best and most important thing to do there is to learn, and take in the utter majesty of these incredible creatures. It's a long day with lots of walking around the park (we wore our walking boots, took sun cream and plenty of water!) and there's always something incredible to look at. We obviously spent most of the day watching and learning about the individual elephants - how they came to live at Elephant Nature Park and about the lives they lived before. We learned about their friends, life and behaviours since settling into the sanctuary, their individual characteristics, and what makes each of these elephants special.


You'll be taken to the area where staff are preparing LITERALLY TONNES of food for the elephants: think lorry loads of plants, fruits, and vegetables! It's quite a task! There are also water buffalo roaming around the park, so you'll learn a little about them too. And one for the pet lovers among you: the site also houses a sanctuary for injured and abandoned Thai cats. I was absolutely in my element hanging out with the cats in the sanctuary: it was an unexpected and lovely extra (especially as I was really missing my cats back home). The cat sanctuary is honestly beautiful, with really pretty gardens and so much space for the cats to roam (and nap) - I spoke to the manager too, who was really passionate about making sure that the cats live out their lives in the happiest and most comfortable way possible here (and their happiness and comfort was very clear!)


There's also a small gift shop and coffee shop at the park; I bought a handmade toy elephant - a little keepsake for me and another little bit of monetary support for the sanctuary.


What about lunch?

Honestly, I had no idea what to expect for lunch. I thought maybe at best I'd be able to eat some rice and salad. So imagine my surprise when I asked the guide if there was anything I could eat and he said 'it's all vegan!' Their rationale? 'When you come to Elephant Nature Park you eat what the elephants eat!'


Never fear though, this doesn't mean that all you get is a plate of mango, papaya, and leaves. On the contrary, there was a massive buffet full of all the vegan delights I could have ever wanted! From hot curry dishes with noodles and tofu, to salads, potatoes, spring rolls and fruit, I honestly could not believe it. We were in our absolute element eating here - fuelling ourselves for an afternoon of more elephant watching!


So, do we recommend Elephant Nature Park?

The clear and obvious answer here is yes we massively recommend a visit to Elephant Nature Park if you are in northern Thailand and you want to support an ethical elephant attraction. Obviously these elephants aren't in the wild, they are still roaming around a manmade area, and dependent on the staff here for food, but their lives are as natural as they can really be here. Some people might be disappointed by the lack of interaction with the animals, but for us it was an honour to watch them - and a relief that they weren't being made to act in a certain way for our entertainment as tourists. If, like us, you want to see elephants while not imposing on them in any way, in a place where you know that they are rescued, rehabilitated, and loved and cared for like family, Elephant Nature Park is the place for you (bonus points for cuddly cats and an enormous vegan buffet!) If you're really serious about the elephants, you can volunteer here too!


Visits to Elephant Nature Park can be arranged through their website, elephantnaturepark.org or by visiting their office at 1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing,

Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand between 7am and 5pm (we did the latter and found the staff really friendly and helpful).


Have you visited Elephant Nature Park, or another ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand? Let us know what you thought in the comments below.


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If you want a comfy sleep, the opportunity to make friends and get involved in fun activities, and be located super close to the night market, then The Islander hostel is definitely somewhere you should check out!


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Tours & Experiences

While you're in Northern Thailand, we really recommend a trip to Chiang Rai, which is well known for its incredible white, blue and black temples. We stayed a few nights in Chiang Rai too, but if you don't have time for that, this highly reviewed tour takes you on a round trip from Chiang Mai to the stunning White Temple and back again, with a knowledgeable guide to help you out along the way.

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