With some hindsight on our time spent in Thailand a few years ago, there really is only one experience that we think of with regret…
We found ourselves in Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, having heard so many good things from so many people. Of course, we were excited to get straight to some exploring as soon as we got there, but it’s not exactly the sightseeing that draws thousands of tourists to the area…
That would be the chance to see elephants!
A quick disclaimer: because of elephant tourism’s ties to “traditional” cultural practises, it can be a controversial issue. We are not experts on those cultural practises, the natural behaviour of elephants, and what may or may not be “necessary” for the welfare of them. This post is not a criticism of culture, but a look at why elephant tourism exists, why elephants need better treatment and how exactly we can help as tourists.
What Is Elephant Tourism? And Why Is It A Thing?
Being traditionally considered a working animal, elephants have been a massive part of many cultures across Asia for centuries. For a long time, elephants were used for transport and farming amongst many other things including religious ceremonies. Most notably though, elephants were used in the logging industry.
After logging was officially banned in 1989, thousands of elephants and their owners were without work. The now-captive elephants couldn’t exactly be returned to the wild, and many elephant owners had to turn to begging with their elephants on city streets.
Around the same sort of time, tourism in Thailand was on the rise. Western tourists had taken a liking to the incredible animals - wanting to see, feed and touch the elephants, and willing to do so for a fee. Elephant tourism had not only become a source of income for communities, but a bucket-list activity for tourists.
What’s The Issue With Elephant Tourism?
When it became clear that elephants could be a tourist attraction, it didn’t stop at picture taking and feeding the animals, and even if it did, there were issues with those things alone. What came were circus-like shows with the elephants being forced to entertain for our amusement. Even more popular, and still seen fairly frequently today, were elephants in tight, heavy chains carrying a family of four tourists on it’s back, all for that new and exciting experience.
The issue here is that, whilst “the elephant looked happy and healthy”, stress and past-trauma aren’t always so easy to see.
To make the elephants obedient to the commands of their keepers (otherwise known as Mahouts), they usually go through a process called Phajaan, or “breaking the elephants’ spirit”. This process is incredibly brutal, and for the rest of the elephants’ lives, it’s not uncommon for them to be over-worked to exhaustion for nothing but pain and misery in return.
In many ways, this exploitation of elephants does still exist today, and elephants can still be seen as tourist attractions.
Elephant Tourism Today!
There really is no question that elephant tourism has changed for the better in recent years. Most tourists are aware of the harmful practises associated with elephant tourism and don’t want to support the mistreatment of animals.
Tourists are actually quite likely avoid elephant rides and going to shows. Instead, a lot of tourists will seek out ethical wildlife experiences or sanctuary visits. But the sad news is that sanctuary visits don’t always mean an ethical wildlife experience… And I guess that's how we got ourselves into our very own unethical elephant sanctuary experience…
Admittedly, we got a bit overexcited when booking our visit to the elephant sanctuary… Our top pics (see below) were all fully booked, so we were really only going off a quick flick through some promotional leaflets left on display at our hostel and the advice of the hostel staff.
That meant no looking at reviews, and no further research…
I would have liked to think that we knew better than that… It was a risky recommendation and we knew it, so we were a little apprehensive when handing over the fee.
But still, we were excited, and we thought that we had picked the best of the bunch...
On the morning of the visit, we were picked up from our hostel at 7am. The journey took about an hour and a half, driving amongst incredible mountain peaks and through some stunning untouched forests!
Before we knew it, the mini van stopped and we had already arrived. From what we saw, they were growing a lot of the elephants’ food nearby - there wasn’t much of an entrance to the sanctuary, rather a sugarcane plantation that were instructed to walk through. This was followed by a few sketchy bamboo bridges that allowed us to cross over some rushing rivers, with us finally arriving at the sanctuary.
The first ‘activity’ of the day was feeding the elephants… Elephants can eat up to 10% of their body weight in food everyday and would ideally have access to food as when they feel like eating. Maybe they did have this when the tourists weren’t around, but our experience feeding them was quite the contrary.
For us, they lined up behind a bamboo barrier extending out there trunk for the sugarcane and bananas that we could give to them. As well as kissing us on the cheeks, the mahouts would get the elephants to ‘open wide’ so that we could place the sugarcane and bananas directly into their mouths too.
After the feeding then came the mud bath… Now a largely contested issue, bathing with elephants is (in some people’s view) unsafe and dangerous. It’s even debated whether bull hooks and chains are necessary when elephants and tourists bathe together - we didn’t see either measures in place, which did seem more ethical for the elephants.
Our role here was to scoop up mud from beneath the water and rub it over the elephant, followed by us splashing water around over the elephants and each other. With all of the splashing, I guess I can see why accidents may happen and stress can be caused… Perhaps interaction with tourists in this way is not necessary at all, and the elephants should be bathed as and when they please by the mahouts alone. After all, it did feel like we were playing around in mud mixed with the elephant’s poo and almost felt quite gross!
After the mud bath, the elephants were taken to the nearby river to clean the mud off them properly. We did the same and then it was time for lunch. Finally, we got back in the mini van and were taken to a pretty impressive waterfall, which was a nice end to the day out…. But is that all it was? A fun day out?
What Did We Expect?
The truth is that elephants are most likely much better off in a sanctuary than a brutal work camp or a gruelling day of offering rides to tourists. At the sanctuary we visited, the elephants were most likely cared for, fed well and had their veterinary needs met. There were no rides, hooks or chains that we can see, so what’s the issue?
Well, there was still what you might consider ‘light’ performances such as kissing, spraying and splashing us. The other issue we have with the visit was that it felt so regimented… What we were expecting was more of an elephant utopia of sorts. A place where they could be not only free of harm and distress, but a place where they were completely free to be themselves and do as they please… Perhaps that was naive…
Yes, bathing is something that elephants should be able to experience in their day, but was the experience more for the elephants or more for us tourists? It certainly felt like more of an experience for us to tick off the bucket list and get some cool Instagram shots…
Sanctuaries like this beg the question, is ‘better off’ as good as ‘the best they can be’? Are elephants still seen as tourist attractions, and do sanctuaries still need to offer experiences for tourists to attract visitors and an income to support the care of the elephants? Would you prefer a truly natural experience and a chance to simply observe the animals living out their lives they way that they want to? We know that we would… And we’ve even found a few sanctuaries that offer this kind of experience. We’ve listed a few of them below!
How To See Elephants Ethically In Thailand!
With more and more sanctuaries popping up around Thailand, it’s getting trickier and trickier to tell which are ethical and which aren’t… But, the good news is that there are some great sanctuaries for you to choose from, and we think that it’s these types of sanctuary that deserve your support!
But what makes those sanctuaries stand out from the rest?
And what should you look for when trying to find an ethical elephant sanctuary?
A Regimented Routine - will the elephants be free to move away if doesn’t want to interact with tourists? Will the elephants be free to bathe when it wants, or only at a dictated time with tourists? Will the elephants have fresh water and food freely available to them, or only what the tourists offer them?
What About Walks - we know that riding elephants and having them perform is a no-go! And bathing with them is questionable at best (we don’t recommend it). But what if a sanctuary you like is offering walking with the elephants? Is it done in the midday heat? Is it done just for the tourists and a photo-op? How much interaction will there be with the tourists?
Staff Can Mis-Sell - don’t trust the travel agent. Do your own research.
Read Reviews - don’t rely on an overall average. Look at the bad reviews and listen to the concerns that other tourists had. If you’re unsure about it, look at another sanctuary. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Sanctuaries’ Social Media - look at photos from previous visits. Are there any chains that you can see? Are there elephant rides, performances and bathing? How much interaction is there from tourists? And how much space do the elephants have to roam?
The Best Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries In (Northern) Thailand!
Elephant Nature Park is one of the oldest and most famous elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, having really led the way since the ‘90s. The founder, Lek Chailert, has since set up the Save Elephant Foundation, working with sanctuaries all over Thailand and educating hundreds of elephant owners on better practises. As well as elephants (which it does actually allow bathing with) the sanctuary rescues buffalos, cows, cats, dogs and birds too. Elephant Nature Park offers day visits, over-night visits and even week long volunteering opportunities, and includes food and transport. Just be sure to book far in advance.
Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES) is a completely hand’s off sanctuary. Having offered bathing with elephants, touching elephants and hand feeding elephants in the past, they made the switch in 2018 to become a true sanctuary FOR the elephants. Visiting BEES is much more of a volunteer programme allowing you to gain a true insight into how to care for the animals, whilst gaining incredible new skills and experiences and not just a photo for Instagram. They also offer tree planting projects, cooking classes and the chance to help benefit the whole local community in many different ways. BEES offer week long or multiple night stays, and includes food and transport. Accommodation is no-luxury, basic-style living.
Never Forget Elephant Foundation (NFEF) is a relatively new sanctuary, opening up just outside of Chiang Mai in early 2019. Since it’s opening, NFEF adopted a ‘free roaming’ sanctuary style, allowing the elephants to truly enjoy their newfound freedom from being overworked and abused. NFEF also like to work closely with local villages, with an emphasis on trying to benefit the nearby Karen Hill Tribe. NFEF also offer volunteer style, one-week long visits, as well as yoga retreats.
Elephant Valley Thailand is modelled after their first sanctuary in Cambodia, bringing with it their high ethical standards. Their 500 acres of amazing elephant habitat allows them to strike a great balance between freedom for the elephants and interaction with tourists. You’re able to feed the elephants, but they are completely free to forage for their own food and walk away form the tourists if they want to. There’s also no bathing, riding or shows. Elephant Valley offers half day, full day, multiple day and even over two-week stays, and food and transport is included. Elephant Valley is located closer to Chiang Rai, but is well worth the journey a little further north. Note: Elephant Valley Thailand has sadly had to close down due to the current global lockdown and lack of tourism. Their sanctuary in Cambodia will continue to run, but is in need of desperate help. Find out how you can help down below.
Can You Help These Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries From Home?
The world is experiencing something crazy right now. All travel is cancelled for the foreseeable future, which means those that rely on tourism are really struggling - for example, Elephant Valley Thailand having to close down! Not only is it people and communities that are struggling, but animals in need of care and food too. But, there are a few ways that we can actually help them.