12 Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand

Elephants in the water

When it comes to elephant tourism in Thailand, there is plenty to chew over. This industry has evolved a lot over recent years and the ethics of animal tourism are always changing. If you want to get up close to nature’s giants while you’re visiting the country, our list of ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand will provide you with plenty of options. 

All the sanctuaries on our shortlist prohibit riding and a few of them offer completely ‘hands-off’ experiences, allowing elephants to just be elephants. Before we dive into the recommendations, we’ll have a little look at why elephant tourism exists in Thailand and determine exactly what makes a sanctuary ethical so you can make responsible choices.  

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Choosing an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand

The History of Elephant Tourism in Thailand

Like horses in Europe, elephants were used historically in Thailand as working animals. In a world without machines, elephants were put to work in the logging and farming industries. They were also used as a mode of transport in daily life and even as a weapon of war. Elephants have been an important part of Thai culture dating back centuries, also being used in festivals, ceremonies and rituals.

During the 1990s, tourist numbers to Thailand rose rapidly and Thai people started to realise that elephants were a big tourist attraction. People from Western countries wanted to ride the elephants, as well as touch them and bathe with them. They were prepared to pay a lot of money to do this. Many mahouts turned to elephant tourism, in its myriad forms, as a way to provide an income for themselves and their families.

Watching an elephant show or riding an elephant through the jungles of Thailand was once an accepted practice. Nowadays, it is a big no-no! Over the last couple of decades, there has been increased media attention on the treatment of elephants in captivity and a push for higher welfare standards. 

As such, the consensus is that one of the most ethical ways to encounter elephants is to visit an elephant sanctuary. In the majority of these, you’ll find ex-working elephants who have been rescued from the trekking or logging industries. The sanctuaries are seen as a place where elephants have all of their basic needs met (food, water, enough space to roam around, and interaction with other elephants) and are exempt from having to partake in activities that are solely for the pleasure and entertainment of tourists (performances, riding, tricks etc.).

Elephant tourism once looked like this everywhere but it has become increasingly unpopular.

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. 

Responsible Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand

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.  

Chiang Mai – Northern Thailand

Elephant Nature Park

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

About: Perhaps the most notable of the elephant sanctuaries in Thailand is Elephant Nature Park, co-founded by Thai elephant rights champion Lek Chailert. EVP has been an influential voice in the industry and has massively changed the elephant tourism market in Thailand and wider Southeast Asia. 

Opened back in the 1990s, the park originally had elephants performing tricks for tourists. However, Lek had wanted to open it as a reserve. Eventually, she was able to end the performances and run the sanctuary as she wanted. 

There have been many changes at EVP over the years and now, tourists are only allowed to feed elephants. No riding or washing is allowed. Recently, a special hands-off section of the park opened, known as the SkyWalk. This may indicate a shift to more hands-off policies in the future as the elephant tourism industry continues to learn and evolve. 

How to visit: If you want to visit ENP, book in advance. A single-day visit costs approx. 2,500THB and an overnight stay will cost approx. 5,800THB. 

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.

BEES Elephant Sanctuary

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

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

About: Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary, also known as BEES, is one of the most popular ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. Known for their ‘hands-off’ approach, they offer a truly responsible experience and allow visitors to see elephants in their natural habitat without disturbance. 

BEES Elephant Sanctuary: A New Kind of Elephant Tourism
Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary offers a completely hands-off experience.

BEES have both rented and bought elephants for the sanctuary, both of which come with potential issues. For example, if they buy an elephant, will the owner use the money to purchase another? Renting elephants also comes with its own complications as you are at the whims of the elephant’s owners. 

The first elephant to join BEES, Mae Kam, was rented from a local mahout. She stayed at the sanctuary for three years before the owner decided he wanted to take her back and get her to ride again. Mae Kam resisted, throwing her mahout from her back and seriously injuring him. The family wanted rid of the elephant and told BEES to find the money to buy her or they would sell her to a trekking camp. With the help of their supporters, they secured the money and Mae Kam can now live out her days at BEES. 

How to visit: Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary runs a week-long visitor programme costing 17,00THB. Shorter programmes are also available (2 days/1 night approx. 6,800THB or 4 days/3 nights approx. 11,500).  

👉🐘 Book your visit to BEES here.

Lampang – Northern Thailand

Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital

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

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

About: Founded by Soraida Salwala, FAEH is not a traditional Thai elephant sanctuary. They primarily operate as an elephant hospital, treating injured and poorly elephants. The staff at Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital work tirelessly around the clock to ensure their giant friends stay fighting fit. 

Two of the elephants in their care will never be able to leave. They were injured by landmines and had to have limbs amputated. To give them the best quality of life possible, the team has commissioned prosthetic legs for them to use. There is an entire facility for prosthetics dedicated to elephants on-site. 

There is no touching, feeding or riding at this place, although visitors are permitted to take photos of the elephants. Short tours are offered to visitors. 

How to visit: Get here via scooter from Chiang Mai. There is no entrance fee to visit Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, however, donations are encouraged. Trust us, when you see the amazing work that the team does, you’ll definitely want to donate!

Mae Sot – Northern Thailand

Mahouts Elephant Foundation

About: Situated in Mae Sot, close to the Thai-Myanmar border, you’ll find the LIFE project, run by Mahouts Elephant Foundation. They are working to return formerly captive elephants back to a protected forest area in the wild. 

Elephant at BEES
While elephant welfare is hugely important, so is the welfare of mahouts.

A huge part of their work is finding alternative income sources for mahouts, to ensure that local people don’t get left behind in the mission to further animal welfare. They offer several options for visiting guests, from a 4-day mountain experience which involves staying with a member of the local Karen community and a 6-day volunteer programme. 

How to visit: All trips need to be booked in advance. Transfer to/from Chiang Mai can be arranged at an additional cost. All tours are cheaper with more people. For example, the mountain experience costs £320 per person, based on four people attending the tour. 

Petchaburi – Central Thailand

Wildlife Friends Foundation 

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

About: Home to an elephant refuge and education centre, Wildlife Friends Foundation allows visitors to encounter elephants in their natural environment. All the elephants at WFF have been rescued from the logging and tourism industries and a few were also made to beg on the streets of Bangkok. 

These elephants now roam freely in the forested land around the centre and are never chained up, not even at night. Each enclosure for the elephants is a minimum of 18 hectares each, complete with natural areas for them to graze. 

WFF aims to rescue and rehabilitate a range of animals, offering them care and safety. This sanctuary is not only home to elephants but also tigers, monkeys, bears and crocodiles. WFF is a great place to get informed about the plight of elephants and other endangered creatures in Thailand. 

How to visit: Day visits can be arranged at 1,600THB for a full day and 1,100THB for a half day. (Child prices are 1,100THB for a full day and 700THB for a half-day.) There is a limited number of guests so you must book in advance. For those who wish to spend more time at the centre, volunteer placements are available from €410 per week.  

Sukhothai – Central Thailand

Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary (BLES)

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

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

About: With over 750 acres of wildland, the elephants at the Boon Lott Sanctuary roam freely amongst trees and grasses. Located halfway between Bangkok and Thailand near the old historical city of Sukhothai, Boon Lott is a highly respected place to see elephants in their natural environment. 

Elephants trek through jungle
There is a limit on visitor numbers at Boon Lott.

They have a limit on visitor numbers to ensure that the elephants are not overwhelmed by tourists. Profits are channelled back into elephant conservation and the sanctuary also offers support and funding to the local community. 

There are currently 12 elephants at the sanctuary, all of whom were rescued from miserable conditions. The sanctuary was named after a brave baby elephant called Boon Lott and was founded in 2007 by Katherine Connor, originally from the UK.

How to visit: Rumour has it that visits to Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary are fully booked one year in advance so be sure to plan ahead if you want to visit this sanctuary! It costs 6,000THB per night (per person) to stay at Boon Lott which includes transport, meals and lots of quality time with the elephants.

Kanchanaburi – Central Thailand

Somboon Legacy Foundation

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

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

About: Proudly hands-off, Somboon Legacy Foundation is an ethical elephant sanctuary located in Kanchanaburi. Inspired by an elephant interaction and named after said elephant, Somboon Legacy Foundation aims to give elephants a comfortable and stress-free retirement. 

They are passionate about educating tourists about the risks of unwittingly participating in unethical practices at so-called sanctuaries. At Somboon, they believe in allowing elephants to behave as naturally as possible, allowing them to bathe without tourists and giving them free time away from people. 

They offer a range of packages from half-day visits to week-long experiences. Those with kids won’t want to miss the ranger packages which are tailor-made for children!

How to visit: Half-day experiences begin at approx. 2,200THB and go up to around 25,000THB for the week-long volunteer experience. 

Elephant Haven

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

About: One of the newest projects supported by Save Elephant Foundation is Elephant Haven. Located in Kanchanaburi, close to the River Kwai Bridge, it houses seven elephants. 

Once an elephant camp which permitted riding, this all changed back in 2015 when renowned conservationist, Lek Chailert of Save Elephant Foundation, encouraged the camp to become ‘saddle off’! 

The transformation was documented in the international film ‘Love & Bananas; An Elephant Story’. The camp is now a great place to see elephants in Thailand as they roam around the spacious grounds and play around in the River Kwai which runs right through the camp.

YouTube video

How to visit: Take a one-day visit which costs approx. 2,500 THB or do an overnight stay (2 days, 1 night) for approx. 5,800 per adult and 2,900 THB per child. Visits to the sanctuary take place all year round and include a pickup from Kanchanaburi bus or train station plus food and accommodation if doing an overnight stay. There are also volunteer opportunities lasting a week. 

Phuket  – Southern Thailand

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary 

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

About: This highly reputable and recommended ethical sanctuary inspired by Lek Chailert of Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park, is located in Paklok, in the northeast of Phuket. Visitors to this sanctuary should be warned that there are many other non-ethical camps pretending to be this one to attract visitors! 

Set in 30 acres of jungle land, ex-working elephants enjoy their retirement in relaxation here. There is an entire herd of elephants living at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, many of which were rescued during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

PES has been endorsed by both World Animal Protection and National Geographic. They have recently installed a 600 metre-long canopy walkway which allows visitors to watch the rescued elephants from above while maximising space for the animals. 

Feeding is allowed at the sanctuary, however, they have a strict no bathing or riding policy. Phuket Elephant Sanctuary was the first ever elephant sanctuary in Phuket to offer a hands-off experience for tourists (see below). 

How to visit: Morning and afternoon visits are available from 3,000THB per person. They also offer week-long volunteer programs which start at approx. 18,000THB per person. Hands-off experiences are also offered here and costs start from 3,000THB. 

Koh Samui – Southern Thailand

Samui Elephant Sanctuary

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

About: Samui Elephant Sanctuary is one of two ethical elephant sanctuaries on the island of Koh Samui. It is located in the northeast near Mae Nam and is associated with the Save Elephant Foundation. 

Elephant tourism
Samui Elephant Sanctuary is supported by Save Elephant Foundation.

The founder of the sanctuary is Thai native, Wittaya Sala-Ngam who has learnt from Lek Chailert in making the sanctuary an ethical and protected place for rescued elephants.

Elephant bathing by tourists is not allowed here, however, visitors are allowed to feed the animals and walk with them through the jungle. This sanctuary has received a ‘best elephant welfare award, endorsed by Amazing Thailand. 

How to visit: Both half-day morning and afternoon tours (three hours in total) cost 3,000THB per person and 1,500THB per child. (Children under four go free!) Like all of the other sanctuaries on this list, riding is strictly forbidden. Vegetarian buffet included.

Samui Elephant Haven

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

About: Samui Elephant Haven is another fairly new elephant sanctuary (opened in August 2018) that is associated with Save Elephant Foundation, the initiative founded by Lek Chailert. Spanning over 23 acres, this sanctuary sits on the north coast of Samui Island. 

The haven has rescued 14 elephants from terrible conditions in the tourism industry across the South of Thailand. No riding, performances or bathing is permitted but you can go with the elephants to their custom-built mud pool to take photos as the elephants splash around. 

There are two feeding sessions daily that visitors can get involved with. Perimeter fencing means that the elephant stays safely contained within the park without the need for coercion. There is also a large viewing platform where visitors can watch the elephants live out their freedom undisturbed by tourists. 

How to visit: Morning or afternoon visits can be arranged for approx. 3,000THB per person. (Child price is around 1,500THB and children under four go free. Week-long volunteer programmes are also offered and start around 20,000THB.

Khao Sok National Park – Southern Thailand

Elephant Hills

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

About: This chain-free elephant sanctuary is located in the beautiful Khao Sok National Park. Elephant Hills does not accept day trippers and the only way to experience its elephant sanctuary is by booking one of their tours. 

Khao Sok National Park - What are you waiting for?
A stay at Elephant Hills will make a visit to Khao Sok magical.

Elephant experiences are only available for guests, all of whom have to overnight in the park. It is an African-style safari set up, with luxury tents – don’t expect a visit here to be cheap! This setup means that the elephants get free time away from the guests of Elephant Hills. 

Elephant welfare comes first and the animals are not forced to interact with tourists. Elephant Hills does not allow tourists to ride or bathe with the elephants, however, feeding is allowed. Elephants that approach tourists are allowed to be touched respectfully.  

How to visit: An elephant experience here is only accessible to guests who book a package. All of these involve spending at least one night in the park. 2-day, 1-night Jungle Safari packages start at approx. 16,520THB per adult.  

Thailand’s Elephant Sanctuaries Need YOU!

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the face of tourism in Thailand. Many businesses, from hostels to tour companies and elephant sanctuaries, were forced to close.  Sadly, we lost some amazing sanctuaries including Elephant Valley in Chiang Rai and Tree Tops Elephant Reserve in Phuket. With fewer sanctuaries to help Thailand’s elephants, it has never been so important to support those doing ethical work! 
Cute elephants
It has never been more important to support ethical sanctuaries in Southeast Asia!

Getting up close to elephants in Thailand is sure to be an unforgettable part of any trip to Southeast Asia. However, there are plenty of bad actors, parading themselves as ethical sanctuaries when, in reality, they are anything but. 

Despite this, there are options for the responsible traveller. Plenty of Thailand’s elephant sanctuaries are ethical and they are doing great work to care for rescued elephants. By making an informed choice as to where you visit, you can rest easy knowing your money has gone to a good cause. 

Have you visited any of these Thai elephant sanctuaries? Share your experience with us in our Facebook community!

Read more about the ethics of elephant tourism, complete with opinions from the experts, here! And, if you’ve turned your back on animal tourism completely, check out where you can see wild elephants in Southeast Asia here.

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

2 thoughts on “12 Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand”

  1. I rode an elephant in Thailand back in 2016. In an effort to be more animal friendly, the tour provider didn’t use a saddle; all riding was done bare back. A few days after the tour, I visited the hospital with what I though were bed bugs. Turns out that I was infected with Mites from the bareback elephant ride. The bites ran the length of my legs, anywhere where my skin had contacted the elephant. Unfortunately, this issue is somewhat common. To this day, I still feel the experience of riding an elephant did NOT justify the pain and trouble caused by the mites.

    1. Suzana Ielcean

      Elephants are not yours to ride. With or without a saddle. It would have been wonderful if you could just sit back and observe them rather than sitting on their back. The mites seems to justify your behaviour.

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