Asian elephants are the largest land mammals on the continent and are inextricably linked with the history and culture of Southeast Asia. For many travellers, seeing elephants is one of the highlights of a trip to the region.
While many sanctuaries offer the chance to see these amazing animals up close, nothing compares to the thrill of seeing elephants in the wild in Southeast Asia – trust me! My visit to an ethical elephant sanctuary was wonderful but the sightings of wild elephants in Sri Lanka and Malaysia were truly awe-inspiring.
In various parts of Southeast Asia, spotting wild elephants is not only possible but often probable! Keep reading to discover the best locations for wild sightings in the region.
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7 Top Places to See Wild Elephants in Southeast Asia
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1. Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Established in 1962, Khao Yai is Thailand’s oldest national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the best places in Thailand to spot elephants in the wild. Around 200 Asian elephants live in the park and can often be seen at night.
There is also a wealth of other wildlife, including gibbons, civets and sambar deer. Khao Yai is also home to four species of hornbills, making it one of the best places in Southeast Asia to observe these birds.
There are several hiking trails in the park beginning near the visitor centre and park headquarters. It is possible to trek some trails independently but it is worth taking a tour as some of the park’s best natural features are up to 20km apart. There is also a much better chance of spotting wildlife on a tour as the guides know where to look. Night safaris run every evening and offer the best chances of seeing elephants.
How to visit: Khao Yai National Park sits about 120km northeast of Bangkok. The main entrance is in the north of the park near the town of Pak Chong. There is a second entrance in the south in Nakhon Nayok province.
Trains (3.5-4.5 hours) and buses (2-3 hours) run from Bangkok to Pak Chong, from where you can take a songthaew to the park entrance (30 minutes away). There are both budget and luxury accommodation options in Pak Chong, and also camping and basic accommodation options within the park itself.
2. Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka offers excellent opportunities for seeing wild elephants and it’s not unusual to see them simply strolling along the road. For a better (and safer!) chance of observing them in the wild, a visit to one of Sri Lanka’s national parks will not disappoint.
Udawalawe is home to around 600-700 elephants and is the best place in the country to see them in the wild. Other common sightings include crocodiles, buffaloes, langur monkeys and many species of bird.
Udawalawe comprises grassland and low scrub, making it easy to spy elephants on a tour of the park. The mountains that rise dramatically out of the earth to the north mark the start of hill country and provide a scenic backdrop to the flat landscape of the park. Dawn and dusk are the best time to take a safari, when elephants can be seen gathering in herds.
How to visit: The only way to visit the park is by jeep safari which can work out fairly costly depending on the number of people in your group. However, the experience and high probability of excellent elephant sightings make it well worth the money.
Udawalawe is centrally located and therefore possible to visit on a (long) day trip from many towns in the south of the island, including Ratnapura, Tissamaharama and Unawatuna. The closest town though is Embilipitiya (2.5 hours by bus from Matara or Ratnapura; 1.5 hours from Tangalla).
“Seeing wild elephants in Sri Lanka was one of the highlights of my travels in Southeast Asia. Not only did I see them in a national park, but also from a tuk tuk as they walked near the roads, and even grazing in a lagoon near the beach!”Lisa Barham, Writer at South East Backpacker
3. Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia
The East Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo offers perhaps the best wildlife spotting opportunities in Southeast Asia. The tropical rainforest here is one of the planet’s most biologically diverse ecosystems.
The Kinabatangan River winds through the jungle, and its banks are home to a rich variety of animals, many endemic to Borneo, including the Bornean pygmy elephant. Pygmy elephants are the smallest of the Asian elephant subspecies, with long tails, relatively large ears and straighter tusks than their mainland Asian elephant cousins. The pygmy elephant is endangered, with an estimated 1,500 left on the island.
River cruises provide the chance to witness wild elephants as they graze in the long riverside grasses or swim in the water. There is also the possibility of seeing the other four animals that comprise Borneo’s Big Five: crocodiles, rhinoceros hornbills, proboscis monkeys and orangutans.
How to visit: There are very popular 2-day/1-night or 3-day/2-night tours that include river cruises at dawn and dusk. This is the easiest way to visit as a tour will include transfers from the town of Sandakan, or nearby Sepilok.
They also offer very good value for money and are a much more convenient option than travelling to Kinabatangan independently and booking a cruise through your accommodation on arrival. Check out Nature Lodge Kinabatangan or Sandakan Backpackers Hostel for decent accommodation and recommended tours.
“Cruising along the Kinabatangan River was a trip-defining moment for me. Our group was lucky enough to see elephants swimming along the river, as well as all of Borneo’s Big Five!”Lisa Barham, Writer at South East Backpacker
4. Virachey National Park, Cambodia
Cambodia’s wild elephant population is thought to number as little as around 400 to 600. Most are concentrated in the Cardamom Mountains, in the southwest of the country, and in the eastern Mondulkiri Province.
There are many elephant sanctuaries in Cambodia, but for a chance to see elephants in the wild, travellers should head further north to Rattanakiri Province and the Virachey National Park, which borders Laos and Vietnam. The park covers more than 3,000 sq km and is rich in wildlife, much of which is yet to be fully explored.
Multi-day treks in the national park provide the opportunity to explore this remote, and little-visited area of Cambodia.
Along with wild elephants, the elusive clouded leopard and sun bear also call the park home. Sadly, the chances of spotting these mammals are relatively slim, but the experience of trekking through dense tropical rainforest in search of rare wildlife is an exhilarating experience – that also requires a certain level of fitness. More commonly sighted are gibbons, with both yellow-cheeked and black gibbons resident in the park.
How to visit: Guided treks need to be arranged through the Virachey National Park Eco-Tourism Information Centre, located in Banlung (9 hours by minibus from Phnom Penh, 8 hours from Siem Reap or 3 hours from Sen Monorom). The most popular option is the week-long Phnom Veal Thom Wilderness Trek.
5. Kaudulla & Minneriya National Parks, Sri Lanka
The national parks of Kaudulla and Minneriya are located close together in the heart of Sri Lanka and are home to several hundred Asian elephants.
Together with nearby Wasgamuwa National Park, the parks form an elephant corridor along which the giants migrate throughout the year. Visits can only be made by jeep safari and the guide will know which park is best to visit depending on the time of year.
Kaudulla and Minneriya are remarkable not only for the high chances of seeing wild elephants but also for the sheer number that can be spotted on one tour. In the dry months, between July and October, hundreds of elephants congregate around the Minneriya Tank reservoir in an annual event known as The Gathering, the largest coming-together of Asian elephants in the world.
How to visit: The nearby towns of Habarana and Sigiriya both make a convenient base for visiting the parks, each of which is around a four-hour drive from Colombo. The parks can only be visited by jeep safari on organised tours.
6. Taman Negara, Malaysia
Taman Negara means National Park in Malay. It is Peninsular Malaysia’s largest area of jungle and, at over 130 million years old, it’s the third-oldest rainforest in the world! The park covers 4,343 square kilometres and is home to monkeys, gibbons, hundreds of species of birds, rare panthers and sun bears, as well as elephants.
There are a variety of hiking trails crisscrossing the park, many of which are multi-day and involve overnight camping in the park. However, the best vantage point for seeing wild elephants is from one of the five hides dotted around the park.
Spending the night in a hide is a thrilling experience, and while wildlife sightings aren’t guaranteed, it is certainly an adventure never to be forgotten. Sightings are more likely during the wet season when large mammals, including elephants, leopards and tapir come to the salt licks close to which the hides are located.
How to visit: Taman Negara is easy and cheap to visit independently and bunks in the hides can be reserved at the national park office. The most popular is Tahan Hide, just a five-minute walk from the park headquarters. You may have to hire a guide if you wish to stay at one of the more remote hides.
“Trekking in the jungle of Taman Negara was an exhilarating (and sweaty!) experience. Coming across fresh elephant tracks and dung the size of bowling balls was both thrilling and terrifying in equal measure!”Lisa Barham, Writer at South East Backpacker
7. Kui Buri National Park, Thailand
One of the few places to see elephants in the wild in Thailand is Kui Buri National Park. Here, elephants (believed to be 320 of them) roam completely free in the national park, which lies between Hua Hin and Prachuap Khiri Khan in the South of Thailand.
Many people claim that this is the best place in Thailand to encounter elephants as they are 100% in their natural habitat and visitors are not allowed to bathe, ride or touch them. In this way, people claim that the experience is more ‘real’ than the experiences on offer in Thaiand’s elephant sanctuaries.
How to visit: The entrance fee to visit the national park is 200THB and to hire a private driver with jeep it is 850THB per person (mandatory). To visit, you must make your way to the park headquarters to buy a ticket or book a tour from a nearby town.
“My boyfriend and I visited Kui Buri National Park but felt that it was somehow ‘unreal’. We were put in jeeps and the driver simply chased the elephants around the park to allow tourists to take photos of them. I’m sure the elephants don’t really want to be chased like this so it’s not that ‘wild’ in my opinion. The elephants have a lot of space in the park and look healthy and there’s no riding or bathing of course. When we left the paid part of the park, we were riding a motorbike and spotted a family of elephants in the bushes at the side of the road, which was amazing! Two local guys stopped and pointed them out to us. This felt like a much wilder experience and was a brilliant way to end the day!”Nikki Scott, Founder of South East Asia Backpacker
Seeing elephants in Southeast Asia is a must-do activity and spotting them in the wild is a bucket list experience you will never forget.
There are a variety of places and ways to see these beautiful beasts, from jeep safaris to trekking, to river cruises, or even spending the night in a hide. Whatever your preferred method, or available budget, there is an option that offers the very real possibility of seeing elephants roaming free – a truly wild experience!
Have you seen wild elephants in Southeast Asia yet? Share your memories in the comments below to help other travellers!