Elephant Sanctuaries in Chiang Mai, Thailand – 7 Ethical Choices

Elephants Covered in Mud at BEES, Near Chiang Mai, Thailand

Do you want to visit an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand? First of all, WELL DONE YOU for doing your research and being responsible when it comes to animal welfare! You have come to the right place.

Our aim with this guide is to point you towards an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. Although elephant sanctuaries exist across all of Thailand, the lush area around Chiang Mai is by far the most popular place to see them. 

Despite being sanctuaries in name, not all of these elephant experiences are actually ethical. To help you make a responsible decision that will be kjoyable for both you and the animals, we’ve shortlisted the very best elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai below! 

Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuaries Map & Resources

MORE INFO: (links open in a new tab)

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. 

BEES Elephants
An ethical sanctuary should allow elephants to be elephants!

7 Recommended Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuaries 

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.  

BEES Elephant Sanctuary - Chiang Mai
  • Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary is a safe, natural home for elephants to just BE elephants.
  • A place for elephants to rest in a natural environment free from exploitation and abuse.
  • BEES is a place where humans work FOR elephants.
  • Visit and Volunteer programs available.

1. BEES – Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary 

  • Riding: No 
  • Feeding: No
  • Bathing: No

HANDS-OFF! 🚫✋🐘 This elephant sanctuary does not allow tourists to touch the elephants. 

About: This Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary was founded in 2011 by partners, Burm and Emily. During a backpacking trip to Thailand as a teenager, Emily (originally from Australia) saw the suffering caused by elephant tourism firsthand. 

The Manager's Hut at BEES
BEES is a leader in the hands-off elephant tourism movement.

She was appalled at the living conditions of elephants (especially older elephants) who were forced to give rides to tourists and perform tricks. Feeling saddened and impassioned by what she had seen, Emily decided she was going to try and do something about it. 

A year later, Emily met her future partner and Thai native, Burm. Brought up in the Mae Chaem district of Chiang Mai, this area had a high number of elephants in captivity working in the logging industry. Together, the couple planned to create an elephant rescue centre and retirement home. This dream eventually became a reality and transformed into what we know as BEES. 

Their number one aim is to allow elephants to be elephants and engage in natural behaviour. There is no bathing, riding, or performances here. BEES is a safe and free place where elephants have humans working for them and not the other way around!

How to visit: BEES runs a visitor’s program where travellers can come and see how elephants behave in their natural environment. The main program runs Monday to Sunday (cost approx. 17,000 THB all-inclusive) and there are shorter programs consisting of 2 days/1 night (approx. 6,800 THB) or 4 days/3 nights (approx. 11,500 THB). 

During your stay, you will be able to observe the elephants in the forest, help prepare their food and learn more about how to care for them. There are also several cats and dogs at BEES that have also been rescued. 

You can also get involved in some community projects such as planting trees, cooking and weaving classes, as well as adventure and sightseeing activities, such as visits to nearby temples and tubing down the river. Read one backpacker’s experience of visiting BEES Elephant Sanctuary and book your visit to BEES here.

2. Elephant Nature Park 

  • Riding: No 
  • Feeding: Yes
  • Bathing: No

About: Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai has been running since the 1990s, offering once-working elephants the chance to rehabilitate and relax in a safe and supportive environment of over 250 acres in Northern Thailand. 

YouTube video

This is the most famous elephant sanctuary in the whole of Thailand, founded by local heroine, Lek Chailert. Once voted as one of Time Magazine’s ‘Heroes of Asia’ for her conservation work with elephants, Lek is a well-respected voice when it comes to the welfare of Asian elephants. Lek runs a foundation called Save Elephant Foundation which has several projects across Southeast Asia.

Elephant Nature Park was an early pioneer of the ever-changing elephant tourism industry in Thailand and their evolution has not stopped over the years. Elephant riding is not allowed at this sanctuary, and since 2018, tourists are no longer allowed to bathe with the elephants. This decision has been taken to allow the elephants to behave as naturally as possible. Feeding by tourists is still allowed.

How to visit: Elephant Nature Park is extremely popular so it is wise to book as far in advance as possible. The cost for a single-day visit is approx. 2,500 THB per person and for a 2-day, 1-night (overnight stay) the cost is around 5,800 THB per person. (In both instances, children can enter for half price.) 

Visitors to the park get to meet the elephants (but not ride or bathe them) and learn about their history. ENP also has a ‘hands-off’ project where visitors can observe the elephants from the dedicated SkyWalk. This project is visited alongside Elephant Nature Park and costs from 3,500 THB for a single-day trip. 

3. Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary

  • Riding: No
  • Feeding: No
  • Bathing: No 

HANDS-OFF! 🚫✋🐘 This elephant sanctuary does not allow tourists to touch the elephants. 

About: Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary is a non-profit foundation that aims to bring elephants back to the forest. As well as helping the elephants thrive in their natural environment, the NGO aims to provide an alternative living for the mahouts and elephant owners who are often a forgotten side effect in the push for ethical elephant tourism. 

Karen tribal girls dressed in traditional costumes performing national dance near Mae Hong Son, Thailand, Chiang Rai.
Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary work closely with the Karen people.

The sanctuary is located in the Mae Chaem District of Chiang Mai and was founded by Irish/Thai couple Kerri and Sombat. The pair of them are hugely passionate about elephant welfare and providing opportunities for minority groups. 

Sombat is from the Karen Tribe and the sanctuary works very closely with the local communities. Homestays are offered to guests and visitors have the opportunity to learn about hill tribe culture. If you are looking for more than just an elephant experience, Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary is a great choice. 

Kerri and Somat believe that elephants should be allowed to be elephants. Therefore, there are no performances and no riding at the sanctuary. Tourists are not permitted to bathe with elephants and feeding by tourists is also not allowed. At KSES, they practice a hands-off policy. 

How to visit: The sanctuary offers two types of visitor packages; a 2-day/1-night package for approx. 10,000 THB per person or approx. 5,300 THB for two people, and a 3-day/2-night package for around 11,500 THB per person or around 7,500 THB for two people. The price includes pick up and drop off in Chiang Mai, accommodation and food during your stay. 

You will stay in a hill tribe village overnight and hike in the forest to see the elephants. Learn how to care for them and observe these amazing creatures in their natural habitat for an experience you’ll never forget. 

4. Never Forget Elephant Foundation 

  • Riding: No 
  • Feeding: No
  • Bathing: No 

HANDS-OFF! 🚫✋🐘 This elephant sanctuary does not allow tourists to touch the elephants. 

About: Never Forget Elephant Foundation is located on a hillside near a local Karen ethnic community 400km from Chiang Mai. It’s an amazing place to see the elephants in their natural habitat and learn more about the history of elephants in captivity in Thailand. 

Never Forget Elephant Foundation
The aim of the Never Forget Elephant Foundation is to put elephants back in the wild!

This project was founded in January 2019 and aims to return captive elephants to their natural habitat in the jungles of Northern Thailand where they will remain protected. There are currently 13 elephants in the programme at Never Forget, all of whom were taken out of the tourist industry or circus trade. These days, they live at the sanctuary where they are free to do as they wish, no longer performing for tourists. 

American founder, Ava Lalancette and her team of passionate elephant lovers work closely with the Karen Hill Tribe from the mountains of the north, to inspire solutions towards elephant and environmental progress.

How to visit: Never Forget Elephant Foundation offers week-long immersive programmes costing approx. $875USD. This includes bamboo hut accommodation for the duration of the stay, three plant-based meals every day, daily hikes alongside the elephants and the opportunity to work with the local Karen community. Reserve your space here. 

5. Happy Elephant Home  

  • Riding: No 
  • Feeding: Yes
  • Bathing: Yes 

About: Nestled in the Mae Taeng District, around an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai City, lies Happy Elephant Home. Home to four rescued elephants, mainly from riding camps and the logging industry, this sanctuary aims to offer these animals a happy and peaceful retirement. As well as elephants, there are also rescued dogs here too. 

Elephants in sanctuary
Tourists are allowed to wash and feed the elephants at Happy Elephant Home.

Happy Elephant Home allows tourists to wash and feed the elephants, however, riding is off-limits. The elephant called Tong Bai was used in the tourist industry to give rides and still has the howdah (riding seat) imprint on her back. 

A range of tour options is available for those who want to visit, from half-day trips to overnight stays. Minibuses operate from Chiang Mai to the rescue centre. Please note, upon arrival at the sanctuary, visitors will be required to change into traditional Karen Hill Tribe clothing. 

How to visit: Half-day visits to Happy Elephant Home start at 1,800 THB per person. One-day trips cost approx. 2,400 THB and overnight stays cost around 5,000 THB per person. 

6. Into The Wild Elephant Camp

  • Riding: No 
  • Feeding: Yes
  • Bathing: Yes 

About: Situated in the south of the Chiang Mai province, Into The Wild Elephant Camp was established in 2016. In an area surrounded by jungle, these elephants are allowed to wander freely within the confines of the sanctuary.

Elephants walk wild in the jungle.
Into The Wild Elephant Camp opened in 2016.

All the elephants housed at Into the Wild Elephant Camp were previously used within the logging industry. These days, they spend their days trekking through the jungle, being fed by tourists, enjoying mud baths and getting washed in the river. 

As well as working to provide a safe environment for their elephants, Into the Wild Elephant Camp also wants to give back to the local community. They do this by offering employment opportunities and by supporting the well-being of the local hill tribes. 

How to visit: Half-day visits cost approx. 1,700 THB per person and full-day trips start at approx. 2,400 THB per person. All tours allow visitors the opportunity to feed and bathe the elephants. 

7. Elephant Freedom Project

  • Riding: No 
  • Feeding: Yes
  • Bathing: Yes 

About: Located just an hour from Chiang Mai City, Elephant Freedom Project is a sanctuary which aims to rescue abused elephants. They have operated since 2016 and hope to one day see a world where all elephants are cared for with love and respect. 

Back of elephants
Elephant Sanctuaries often play a vital role in local communities.

According to their website, there are usually between four and six elephants at Elephant Freedom Project at any one time. They strive to make sure that the elephants are not crowded by tourists and try to keep the ratio to three or four people per elephant. No forced performances or riding is allowed but visitors are permitted to bathe with the elephants and feed them by hand.

As well as giving back to the local community through employment opportunities, Elephant Freedom Project also donates a portion of the money from each tour to climate projects – a very important cause! 

How to visit: Elephant Freedom Project runs several types of tours; half-day (morning or afternoon), full-day and a feeding experience. Return transport from Chiang Mai is included with the full-day tour only. All other tour transport will incur a small surcharge. Prices for the half-day experience are approx. 1,225 THB and the full day is around 3,000 THB. 

Chiang Mai is undoubtedly one of the best places to get up close to elephants. While Thailand used to be a hub for elephant riding and unnatural performances, recent changes within the animal tourism industry have seen movement towards more ethical practices and hands-off policies. 

The above elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai all come with good reviews and almost certainly provide elephants with a better quality of life than they would have previously had, either in the tourism or logging industries. The issue of how much tourists should be interacting with elephants is controversial and ultimately, it is up to you to make your own decision. 

Have you visited any of these elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai? Please share your experience with our readers in the comments!

Read more about what makes an elephant sanctuary truly ethical here. If sanctuaries aren’t for you, you can also see wild elephants in these places.

Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind Winging The World, a blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.

Find her on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

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