Ethical Elephant Parks in Chiang Mai
Visiting an elephant park in Chiang Mai is a great way to learn about elephants and interact with them. The ethical parks below don't offer elephant riding or shows like trunk painting and elephant football, and they don't use bull hooks or keep their elephants chained up at night. Choosing an ethical elephant park gives money to people who actually care for elephants, rather than torture them for profit.
I know elephant riding is a common bucket-list, but the truth behind riding is quite awful.
It causes the elephants serious long-term harm and involves a torturous ritual called "phajaan" – the crushing of an elephant's spirit. During phajaan, baby elephants are isolated, tied up, starved, beaten, burned, and stabbed until they either die or submit.
Choosing to not ride an elephant is a very, very easy ethical choice to make, because it involves absolutely no long-term commitment.
And there are excellent alternatives listed below, where you can still have a magical time getting to know elephants.
Don't worry if you rode elephants before in ignorance – if you didn't know it was unethical why would you choose not to? Seven years ago I knew nothing about the dark side of elephant tourism either, and rode an elephant. But now, you and I both know, so we can make an informed choice next time.
If you still choose to ride despite knowing the situation, perhaps because you've dreamed of riding an elephant through the tropical jungle for years or think it would be so romantic to do with your beau… please understand that, sadly, the real experience is not like your dreams. Just like flying Peter Pan style, this dream cannot come true. In fact, it can even become a nightmare.
Finally, more and more people are becoming aware of how unethical it is to ride elephants. In a few years everyone will be horrified by photographs of you riding an elephant or posing with one at a circus-style show.
Your friends will judge you. Potential Tinder matches will swipe left. Instagram followers will call you out and unfollow you.
When you bring it up in conversation because you don't care about people judging you, everyone will feel awkward and not know what to say. In time, your memory of the event will become a shameful secret and you'll want to delete all trace.
Go make some lovely memories at these ethical elephant parks instead!
Elephant Nature Park
Established in the 1990s and located 60 kilometers from the city, Elephant Nature Park is the most famous ethical elephant park in Chiang Mai. This elephant rescue and rehabilitation center takes in mistreated elephants and unwanted dogs, cats, and buffalo. The owner Lek is inspirational, small, and sings lullabies to her herd of over 70 elephants.
Visits to Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai range from one to two days and cost from 2500 to 6000 baht. Children are permitted on some programs and they get a 50% discount. One week volunteering with elephants at Elephant Nature Park costs 12000 to 15000 baht, or 5000 baht with dogs. Depending on which program you choose, volunteering gives you opportunities to care for elephants, bathe elephants, walk with elephants, learn about agriculture and community, plant trees, participate in a blessing ceremony, develop local school children learning experiences, and even live in a tribal village in the mountains of Chiang Mai. Elephant Nature Park's volunteer calendar gets booked up months in advance. If you want to go, book your visit as soon as you know your travel dates.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a less well-known, smaller, cheaper ethical elephant park in Chiang Mai. It's also smaller, with a herd of 30 elephants.
Visits to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai range from half a day to two days and cost from 1700 to 4900 baht with discounts for children. One week volunteering with elephants at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary costs 11,500 baht. Volunteering gives you the opportunity to care for elephants, bathe elephants, walk with elephants, build and maintain the camps, collect and prepare ingredients for elephant medicine, plant trees, and more depending on what's currently needed from you!
Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES)
Established in 2011 by Australian Emily and her Thai husband Burm, BEES is a much smaller, little-known sanctuary for old, injured, and retired elephants. They don't get hoards of visitors or benefit from a big internet presence, which means your visit matters a lot here.
Located two and a half hours from Chiang Mai, BEES "gives elephants a chance to live free and to just be elephants." Because it’s currently so little-known, it's possible that your volunteer group size will be very small.
One week volunteering with elephants at BEES runs from Monday to Sunday, and I'm waiting to hear back how much that costs. You can stay for a shorter period tailored to your needs; four days costs 10,200 baht. Volunteering gives you the opportunity to care for elephants, bathe elephants, walk with elephants, care for other rescued animals, plant elephant food, collect elephant food, learn how to cook Thai food, build shelters, visit a local steaming spa, learn about traditional Thai medicine, see traditional Thai weaving, teach English and more depending on what's currently needed from you.
Elephant Retirement Park
Located one hour from Chiang Mai, the sole focus of the Elephant Retirement Park is to promote the well-being of retired elephants.
Tours last from half a day to two days and costs 1700 to 5000 baht. Volunteering lasts from three to seven days and costs from 7500 to 14,000 baht. Volunteering gives you the opportunity to get involved in all aspects of elephant care such as harvesting elephant food, feeding elephants, bathing elephants, making herbal medicine, and maintaining the camp.
Accommodation at Elephant Parks in Chiang Mai
Generally, accommodation is in a stunning location that makes potential non-luxury worth it. You stay in basic or traditional Thai houses and sleep on mattresses or mats on the floor in a room with mosquito nets. WiFi is non-existent or bad. You eat what you're given, but most parks can accommodate dietary requirements - check the website or just ask. Often the sleeping room is shared other volunteers, real traditional Thai style – but some parks offer private rooms. Toilets are sometimes outside, shared, and are usually Western but not always. There are usually showers, but they’re often cold, and at the most basic accommodation you wash with buckets of water.
Bucket washing sounds pretty awful, but actually, I find it incredibly soothing and exciting to wash with your bucket, get dressed, and open the door to a beautiful day in the Thai countryside feeling clean and refreshed. Ahhh!
Did I miss out any ethical elephant parks in Chiang Mai that don't allow elephant riding? If so, let me know and I'll add them. If you've been to one of these parks, I'd love to hear about your experience there, and I know it would really help other readers doing research too!