While Thailand is the main destination for tourists wanting a close encounter with elephants, neighbouring Cambodia has several elephant sanctuaries that are well worth a visit too.
When it comes to choosing between elephant sanctuaries in Cambodia, there is a lot to consider. Many places use buzzwords like ‘ethical’ or ‘sanctuary’ so that tourists think they are doing a good job when it comes to the elephants’ welfare. However, this is not always the case.
If you want the quintessentially Southeast Asian bucket list elephant experience, you must do your research. To take the stress out of finding an ethical elephant sanctuary in Cambodia, we’ve listed some great options below to help you pick.
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What is an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary?
There is a lot of debate as to what constitutes an ‘ethical’ elephant sanctuary. Simply put, an ethical elephant sanctuary places the elephants’ needs above profit. Ethical sanctuaries (mostly) allow elephants to roam freely within the grounds. The land will likely be hundreds of hectares, allowing them a fairly expansive territory.
At a truly ethical sanctuary, the elephants’ autonomy will be respected, meaning the animal will be allowed to do what it wants inside the confines of the sanctuary. They will not give rides or perform in shows. Both of these activities are a big red flag. Neither are natural and no truly ethical elephant sanctuary would endorse them.
Some sanctuaries allow tourists to feed and bathe the elephants. This is controversial, with some arguing that it takes autonomy away from the elephants. After all, if the elephants were living in the wild, they wouldn’t be washed several times a day by groups of tourists.
Many animal activists believe the only way to have a truly ethical experience is to observe the elephants in the sanctuary without touching or influencing them.
The need for sanctuary breeding programmes has caused division within animal activism circles too. In Defence of Animals say that no real sanctuary will ever breed elephants. However, other groups accept that elephant breeding is necessary to boost numbers – on the condition that there is a plan in place to release babies into protected wild areas when they are old enough.
👉View our list of ‘hands-off’ elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia here. You can now book your visit via our website! 🐘
Popular Elephant Sanctuaries in Cambodia
Disclaimer: In Southeast Asia, things change quickly, especially in the animal tourism world. If you have updates or personal experiences to share about the sanctuaries listed here, please do so in the comments.
1. Elephant Valley Project – Mondulkiri, Cambodia
- Riding: No
- Feeding: No
- Bathing: No
HANDS-OFF! 🚫✋🐘 This elephant sanctuary does not allow tourists to touch the elephants.
About: Founded in 2006, Elephant Valley Project was the original and first elephant sanctuary in Cambodia. Located in over 1,500 hectares of forest, it is dedicated to providing a safe home for the ex-working elephants of Cambodia. Their sanctuary echoes their motto: “Let them roam free.”
The Elephant Valley Project runs under the NGO, the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (ELIE), which began by providing veterinarian care to elephants and education to the mahout families in the far east Mondulkiri province of Cambodia. They aim not only to care for the elephants but support the families that used to rely on elephants for their livelihood in this part of the world.
As well as supporting the welfare of their 11 elephants, EVP pride themselves on their charity work. They claim to be the most charitable elephant sanctuary in Asia and donate a huge portion of funds to local causes, to improve education, healthcare, job security and reduce poverty. Elephant Valley Project also works in conjunction with the Ministry of the Environment and the Wildlife Conservation Society to help protect the Seima Protection Forest, a nearby hub of biodiversity.
Elephant Valley Project does not allow riding, feeding or bathing of elephants by tourists and the sanctuary closes on weekends to allow the elephants time to relax in private. They do employ foreigners at the sanctuary but say that this is because there are not enough trained experts from the local area to effectively manage the elephants.
How to visit: If you want to visit the Elephant Valley Project, there are a variety of ways to do so, from a day visit to an overnight stay and a five-day volunteering program. A day’s visit will cost around $95USD while a 2-day visit (in a shared room) will cost $140USD. There are discounted rates for group bookings and school groups. Pick up is from Sen Monorom.
2. Mondulkiri Project – Mondulkiri, Cambodia
- Riding: No
- Feeding: Yes
- Bathing: Yes
About: Not to be confused with Mondulkiri Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary, this sanctuary is owned by Cambodian, Mr Tree. They don’t employ foreigners or allow international volunteers to take jobs away from the local population. Mr Tree believes that by empowering the local community through work opportunities in his sanctuary, he can help the indigenous Bunong People and improve their quality of life. It also means that he can offer lower tour prices to visitors.
In partnership with Mr Tree, the Mondulkiri Project is managed by the Cambodia Elephant Rescue Organization, a locally registered NGO. They have agreed with the elders of the nearby Bunong community to stop logging in the Mondulkiri Forest.
There are four elephants at Mondulkiri Project, Princess, Happy, Comvine and Sophie. All of them are rescued elephants, either from the logging or elephant riding industries. Those who choose to visit Mondulkiri Project can walk with the elephants, prepare their food for feeding time (administered by the visitors) and wash them in the river. Elephant riding is not allowed at the sanctuary.
As well as offering tours to visitors, the Mondulkiri Project also supports elephants through its donation and adoption schemes (not literally – you won’t be taking an elephant home!). These give people the opportunity to donate money directly to the sanctuary and their elephant of choice, ensuring that the staff get paid and the elephants get looked after.
How to visit: Mondulkiri Project offer three types of tours for visitors. A full-day visit (approx. $50USD) and a two-day visit (approx. $80USD). 1.5-day visits (leaving at lunchtime) can be arranged directly with the project. These tours include a jungle trek with the elephants, the opportunity to learn more about the sanctuary and the mahouts, feeding time and the chance to bathe the elephants (not offered on the 1.5-day visit).
3. Kulen Elephant Forest – Siem Reap, Cambodia
- Riding: No
- Feeding: Yes
- Bathing: Yes
About: Founded in 2018, Kulen Elephant Forest (KEF) covers 400 hectares of land in the foothills of Kulen Mountain, around an hour from Siem Reap. The sanctuary is dedicated to housing retired elephants, all of which were previously used to give tourists rides around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat.
They have 12 elephants, making them the largest herd of privately owned elephants in the country. There are two bull elephants, Thong Kham and Kham Song who are a little wary of strangers. As a result, they tend to spend their time in the forest with their respective mahouts. All of the other elephants are female and these are usually the ones that visitors interact with.
Kulen Elephant Forest has plans to pioneer a breeding programme for Cambodia’s elephants. There isn’t that much information about this on their website, so it is unclear whether they would work with charities and NGOs to help breed wild elephants in Southeast Asia or use their own captive elephants. The only reason given for the implementation of a breeding programme is to ‘protect genetic diversity in an attempt to combat inbreeding’. It is unknown whether KEF has plans to introduce new baby elephants into the wild.
Washing and feeding are allowed at this sanctuary but riding (for tourists) is prohibited. Their website features photos of mahouts riding elephants and the words sanctuary and elephant camp are used interchangeably.
How to visit: All tours to KEF depart from Siem Reap daily. Two different tours are offered; morning and afternoon. Both cost approx. $80USD per person and lasts around six hours. There is a maximum of 12 visitors per group. They also offer overnight camping in their campsite, however, visitors will need to enquire directly for prices. A volunteer scheme is believed to be coming soon.
4. Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia/Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary – Siem Reap, Cambodia
- Riding: No
- Feeding: Yes
- Bathing: No
About: Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia is a joint venture with Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. It’s best known for being the home of Kaavan, rescued from a zoo in Pakistan and dubbed the “world’s loneliest elephant”. His arrival in 2020 was facilitated by charities including Four Paws, Free the Wild and bizarrely, the singer Cher.
Sitting in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, the sanctuary is based in one of the largest protected forest areas in the entire country. There are three elephants at Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia. Kavaan is the only bull elephant and there are two females who were rescued from the logging industry, Di-Ploh and Sarai Mia.
Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia operates a hugely popular volunteer scheme which involves preparing food for the elephants, gibbons and domestic animals, cleaning shelters, accompanying elephants on jungle treks, teaching English at local schools and helping with sustainable farming.
Endorsed by Save Elephant Foundation, set up by Lek of Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, the elephants can roam freely during the day giving them time to forage and interact with each other. Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia do not allow tourists to wash elephants and only practice protected feeding (through a fence).
How to visit: Volunteering comes with a minimum of a one-week commitment and costs around $400USD per person. Accommodation is provided on-site and vegetarian meals, drinking water and return transport from Siem Reap are also included.
If you don’t have enough time or money to commit to a volunteer experience, you can also visit Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia for a day (approx. $120USD) or on an overnight visit (approx. $160USD).
Choosing an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia is a hugely important decision which you should not take lightly. We all have a responsibility to ensure that we only support organisations that put the welfare of the animals before profit.
While all of the above elephant sanctuaries are very popular with visitors, only you can decide how much contact you feel is fair for tourists to have with elephants. If you do have direct experience with any of the sanctuaries listed in this article, please help other travellers by sharing your experiences in the comments below.