If you’re travelling to Chiang Mai, a visit to an elephant park should be high on your must do list.
But how to find an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai? What if you’ve done a little research but you’re still bewildered? Congrats, you are totally normal! It’s a jungle out there in elephant tourism land.
The crazy thing is that there are over 150 elephant parks near Chiang Mai, and they all have very different levels of care and standards. Many have websites, buuuuut in typical Thai style, most don’t! It’s almost a sport to make figure out exactly who offers what… a bit confusing to say the least.
But fear not – we’ve done some ground work for you. We did loads of research online, then went to Chiang Mai and did loads of asking around “on the ground”, THEN, we went to four sanctuaries ourselves.
Every tourist stand in Chiang Mai has piles of brochures advertising different elephant tourism experiences. Almost ALL of them *say* the right things.. “no riding” “no bullhook” “elephant sanctuary”… but how many truly live up to being ethical places for elephants?
Sadly, there’s still a lot of shady treatment going on behind-the-scenes in Chiang Mai elephant sanctuaries today. You won’t find nearly as many ‘elephant riding’ operations advertised in Chiang Mai nowadays; the mistreatment is simply better hidden now.
In fact, a recent two-year study by World Animal Protection investigating 3,000 elephants at tourist locations across SE Asia found that 77% of the elephants live in inadequate conditions that are “severely cruel” and “deeply concerning”.
That said, with a little research, it’s totally possible to find an INCREDIBLE ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai (I’m relieved to say there are some gems!) that puts the animals first. We introduce you to some great ones here. In 2020 Josh and I travelled to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and visited many of these elephant sanctuaries in person, so we could suss them out and share our impressions.
Feel free to jump ahead to the topic that interests you most. Without further ado:
Here We Cover:
Happy Elephant Home
Maeklang Elephant Conservation Community
BEES: Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
Mae Rim Elephant Sanctuary
Elephant Sanctuary In Chiang Mai Prices
Can I Visit An Elephant Sanctuary Without Booking A Tour?
Elephant POOPOOPAPER PARK
What to Wear to an Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
Packing List: Elephant Sanctuary Must Brings
Happy Elephant Home: A Laid Back Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary
1 Day Trip: 2,400 TBH ($79 USD)
Half Day Trip: 1,800 TBH ($59 USD)
Volunteering: No cost other than your accommodation, which you arrange separately
Happy Elephant Home is a small very intimate elephant sanctuary near Chiang Mai. It’s a special place that’s quite relaxed; things happen at a leisurely pace and the vibe is laid back.
When you book a tour, the folks from Happy Elephant Home will pick you up in Chiang Mai and take you to their sanctuary, which is in the Mae Taeng Valley, located about an hour and a half away.
When you arrive you’ll change into traditional Karen clothing, which the elephant are familiar with, and then go meet the elephants, feed them and bathe them in the river.
You’ll also learn about the elephants from the knowledgeable staff (shout out to Apple and Ek!) who have an obvious bond with them that’s quite amazing to witness.
The elephants at Happy Elephant Home have all been rescued from hard labour or circuses. Now they’re free to roam unchained and come and go as they please. Full day tours or morning or afternoon tours are all available.
And they don’t just offer tours—you can also volunteer here! The minimum timespan to stay on as a volunteer is five days. There’s no cost to volunteer other than the cost of your accommodation in the area, which you must arrange yourself.
As a volunteer for Happy Elephant Home you get to feed the elephants, bathe the elephants and help with cooking Thai food. I think it’s pretty cool that this camp allows you to volunteer for no cost, as most camps do charge even for volunteering.
Maeklang Elephant Conservation Community: Eco Project for Elephants in Chiang Mai
Half Day 1800 THB ($59 USD)
Full Day 2400 THB ($79 USD)
2 Day 1 Night 3900 THB ($129 USD)
Maeklang Elephant Conservation Community is an elephant sanctuary about an hour south of Chiang Mai, located in the picturesque Mae Wang district.
They’re all about sustainable ecotourism and promoting organic farming in the area and on keeping mother elephants with their babies. Staff is super loving and caring toward the elephants and the camp receives rave reviews.
The staff at the Maeklang Elephant Conservation Community give specialist medical care, food and shelter to sick, handicapped and formerly abused elephants.
For example, one of their elephants was severely abused by her former owner because she has a mental disability and could not understand commands. (Sniffle.) (Don’t worry, she’s more than okay now.)
The camp itself is stunning and offers a sprawling natural environment for their elephants—jungle, rice fields, banana plantations and corn fields, all fed by a fresh mountain river.
There are two distinct areas; the main camp and Sky Camp, located up the hill. Sky Camp is the eco project area.
Pick up from Chiang Mai is included with your tour and you have the choice of morning visit, afternoon tour, full day tour or a 2 day 1 night tour (accommodation is in a basic but very cool hut at the Sky Camp).
Many reviewers say a full day tour is preferable to a half day at Maeklang Elephant Conservation since the half day feels a bit too short.
Included in all packages is the chance to feed and bathe the elephants. Full and multi-day packages also include the chance to visit the Sky Camp as well as all your food.
BEES: Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary: A Hands-Off Elephant Sanctuary in Maechaem, Thailand
1 Day: 2500 THB ($82 USD) – Note that you must arrange your own transportation for the 1 day program
Overnight Program: 6,000 THB ($198 USD)
3 Night 4 Day Stay: 10,200 THB ($337 USD)
Week Long Program: 15,000 THB ($496 USD)
This is a small family run venture that’s a permanent home for old, retired and injured elephants, offering feeding and walking alongside the animals.
The sanctuary is run by a Thai husband and Australian wife team.
BEES is located in a stunning area of rural Thailand, South-West Chiang Mai in the district of Maechaem.
Their main programs are multi-day visits. They do offer a one day visit but for this you must arrange your own transportation.
The main differentiator at BEES is their hands-off policy, which they explain as such:
“When we adopted a Hands-Off policy, we lost a lot of bookings and a huge amount of support, but we feel it was right for the elephants. For tourists to have close contact with the elephants the mahout needs to have more control and this leads to less freedom of choice for the elephant. We thought the elephants deserved better.”
Today three elephants live at BEES: Mae Kam, Mae Dok and Thong Dee.
They sleep in spacious night enclosures and spend their days roaming the local forested area and grass fields, with their wonderful caretakers (the mahouts) who keep them safe.
Since Burm and Emily started BEES they have been working to preserve and protect the local forest area and with the help of visitors to BEES and local village kids, BEES have planted approximately 10,000 trees since 2012.
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary : A Multi-Day Elephant Experience in Sukhothai
1 Day/ 1 Night: $6,000 THB ($198USD) – Multi day stays encouraged. It’s recommended to stay 7 days to get the full experience. Cost includes elephant interaction, lodging, transportation and food.
If you’re wondering how many people per tour will be on your elephant sanctuary visit and would prefer a more private experience, Boon Lott’s May be just the place for you. It’s a little more expensive, but there are far fewer people.
At this special elephant sanctuary located in Sukhothai, Thailand (about 4 hours south of Chiang Mai), guest numbers are intentionally kept low and profits are reinvested into elephant conservation. Prices are a bit higher, but you get a very customized experience and a real chance to be with the elephants in a natural, non-rushed way.
The 12 elephants that live here are allowed to interact freely within 750+ acres of forested land.
“Each of our elephants came to us as a shadow of their potential self,” explains Katherine, BLES founder.
“It is impossible to relate just how traumatized and devastated each elephant was upon arrival.”
Here you share in all aspects of the elephants’ world from gathering their food, walking with them and watching them relearn their natural instincts in a beautiful environment that promotes their welfare. There is also a cat and dog shelter on site.
The BLES Elephant Sanctuary offers pick-up and drop-off services to and from the Sukhothai Airport and surrounding hotels.
Elephant Nature Park : The Most Famous Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
Single day trip: A variety of tour options, 2500 THB ($83 USD)
2 Day 1 Night: 5800 THB ($192 USD)
7 Days: A variety of 7 day volunteer packages from 12,000-15,000 THB ($396-$496 USD)
This one is the big Kahuna.
Elephant Nature Park is a huge, world famous retirement home for over 80 rescued elephants. The park was founded by Lek Chailert who is a renowned elephant conservationist.
This special facility is by far the biggest elephant park in the region (hello 250 sprawling acres of elephant paradise!) and is a reputable pioneer in the treatment of elephants in captivity.
Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai has received armloads of awards from institutions including the Smithsonian.
Founder Lek was named Asian Hero of the Year by Time magazine in 2005. Her story was told in the award winning documentary movie, Love & Bananas. Elephant Nature Park has been featured in National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, BBC, CNN, and many more films and publications.
This elephant paradise is just 60km from Chiang Mai, and has dozens of elephants onsite, as well as cats, dogs, buffaloes and other rescued critters. They also have a large and lovely office in the old town area of Chiang Mai proper, where you can go in and learn about which trips and tours are available.
We went into the office (and got a yummy free coffee and cookie!) and to be honest we were overwhelmed at first with all the options. In a nutshell, you can go to the main large camp, which has many elephants and sprawling acres and acres of land, OR you can go to a “Saddle-Off” Project camp, of which there are many to choose from. The Saddle Off projects are smaller (think 1-5 elephants) but offer more elephant interaction than the main park, and the number of tourists is a lot smaller than the at the main park.
Not to sway you, but for our Elephant Nature Park experience we went to the saddle off project called Elephant Green Hill project and it was basically THE BEST THING EVER. Check out their Facebook Page here. The lunch buffet they provide is a delicious vegan spread, so bring an appetite.
For all of Elephant Nature Park’s offered elephant experiences, pickup from Chiang Mai is included.
If you’re going to the main park, passenger vans take approximately 90 minutes to travel the 65 km from Chiang Mai. On the drive you get to watch an educational video about the elephants and the park.
Overnight tour guests at the Elephant Nature park stay in private huts with mosquito net bedding and an attached bathroom.
Volunteers stay in shared twin rooms that have mosquito nets and shared bathrooms. There is no air conditioning, so airy clothing will be your friend here.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary : An Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai Where You Can Overnight in a Karen Family Home
Half Day: 1,700 THB ($56 USD)
Full Day: 2,400 THB ($79 USD) (includes lunch and a free Karen shirt)
Exclusive One Day Walk with Elephants: (Full day trekking package) 3,500 THB ($115 USD)
Overnight Stay: 4,900 THB ($162 USD) (Overnight stay in Karen family home, food and two days with elephants included)
Volunteer 7 Days: (Live within a Karen Community): 12,500 THB ($413 USD)
Founded in July 2014, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical eco-tourism project that’s a joint initiative between members of the Karen hill-tribes and Chiang Mai locals who are concerned for the welfare of elephants in Thailand.
There are locations in Chiang Mai, Phuket, Samui, and Pattaya. There are no elephant rides or tricks here, and all Chaing Mai packages include pick up from Chiang Mai hotels.
At Elephant Jungle Sanctuary you get interact directly with the elephants. Here you will spend time feeding, petting and bathing the elephants. The moms and babes are especially adorable. 🙂
Here’s your schedule for a half day visit: After arriving at the sanctuary, you’ll get bananas and sugar cane to feed to the elephants. Your guide will walk you through the sanctuary to meet up with free-roaming elephants and hear their individual stories.
You can touch, feed, photograph, and interact with the elephants while learning about their personalities, lifestyle and behavior. Then it’s time to head over to a nearby mud spa.
In the mud spa you’ll get muddy with the elephants as you apply a healthy cosmetic mud treatment to their skin. Next, you walk with the elephants to a river and join them in the water for a refreshing bath.
After the bath, you get to bath and groom the elephants while they wade through and play in the water (be sure to bring a change of clothes – you’re gonna get messy!).
As an added bonus, there is a photographer at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary taking photos all day at no extra cost, and the photos of you paying with elephants will be uploaded to a dropbox for you to peruse and download to your heart’s content.
And seriously.. who does NOT want an awesome picture of themselves with an elephant?
No one, that’s who.
Mae Rim Elephant Sanctuary: A Sanctuary Where No Chains are Ever Used
Half Day: 1,600 THB ($53 USD)
Full Day: (includes lunch and a Thai coking class): 2,000 THB ($66 USD)
2 Day 1 Night: 5,500 THB (Includes food and lodging) ($182)
This lovely elephant sanctuary is home to 7 elephants and located about 45 minutes from Chiang Mai proper.
Mae Rim Elephant Sanctuary offers pick up and drop off from your hotel and all packages include feeding the elephants, walking them and giving them a delicious cooling mud bath.
Mae Rim also offers professional photography for an additional fee of 500 TBH ($16 USD).
All their elephants were rescued from hard labor, riding camps and circus performances.
One thing that’s really cool?
Here the elephants are never chained and are rather guided using rope collars, but spend most of their time free to roam and explore as they wish.
Bye bye chains, been nice knowin’ ya!
There is currently a unique long term volunteer opportunity available at MaeRim:
Elephant Sanctuary In Chiang Mai Prices
If you’re travelling to Chiang Mai, you’ll definitely want to set aside at least a day (or hey, maybe a week or more if you’re as animal obsessed as me!) to see elephants. But how much should you expect to pay? And is it worth it?
Prices at elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai vary, but a baseline of around $59-65 USD for a half day and $86-98 for a full day is fairly average.
When doing overnight visits, prices vary widely and are dependant on your accomodation level and food provided, but a range around $192-249 per evening (which generally includes two days with the elephants) is close to the going rate.
Volunteering is another option, and usually requires you commit a minimum of 5 days. Most elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai do charge to volunteer (your money goes toward the elephants, your accommodation and your food). For those that don’t charge, you will generally be expected you to cover your own lodging and food.
We were a bit leery of how much we knew we’d need to pay for our elephant experiences, but after the first one, even Josh who is less into elephants than me and, let’s just say, ahem, a tad more frugal, said “That was TOTALLY worth the money.”
Can I Visit An Elephant Sanctuary Without Booking A Tour?
Want to do a day trip to an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai without booking a tour? Well, you can, but be aware it might not save you any money.
Some parks will allow you to buy tickets at the door, but in this industry you’ll rarely save money that way.
In fact, you’ll almost always have a better chance of a deal by going through a booking agent in Chiang Mai as they can often do group buys and offer special discounts.
Elephant POOPOOPAPER PARK Chiang Mai: Want Something A Little Different But Still Elephant Related?
Elephant dung anyone? If you want to do a fun educational and eco-friendly tour but don’t feel like being up close and personal with elephants themselves, what about canoodling with their poo?
Chiang Mai is known as a traditional papermaking and handicraft mecca. But did you know that elephant poop makes some fine paper?
Yep poop to beautiful paper is a thing.
Elephant POOPOOPAPER PARK is an outdoor museum where you get a thorough history lesson and some hands-on experience in the poo-to-paper process.
Get ready to roll up your sleeves and get way closer to elephant poo than you probably ever dreamed you would!
Cost is just 100 THB, (or $3.60 USD per person). For that princely sum, you get an awesome 45-60 minute adventure and tour. You can also wander the cafe, gift shop and lush gardens. This is a very family friendly activity.
What to Wear to an Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
If you’re anything like me, one of your first questions will be what to bring to an elephant sanctuary in general, and also what wear to the sanctuary to a) not look like a total tourist dork and b) be comfortable. And rather importantly, what kind of SHOES does one wear to an elephant nature park anyway, amirite?
Well, wardrobe does bear thinking about. You’ll want to be comfortable and also ready for any walking or trekking involved in your elephant visit.
First off, you’re going to want loose comfortable clothing. Go with materials like rayon or nylon for maximum breathability. Cotton is NOT your friend. I recommend shorts over pants, since you’re going to be walking in areas where you may get wet up to your knees.
Bring runners for your feet that you’re comfortable walking in, and flip flops that can get wet for any elephant bathing and you may want to bring a bathing suit.
A change of clothes and a towel is definitely recommended because you’re apt to get pretty dirty! Some sanctuaries ask that out of respect you not bring skimpy bikinis or short shorts, others don’t seem to mind, so check with the facility you’re visiting if you have concerns.
And of course, anywhere you go in Thailand there are a few staples to have in your daypack (well, at least I personally always have these on hand): Mosquito repellent, BiteAway Stick (my god this thing is a lifesaver), sunscreen, a bottle of water, your camera and sunglasses. I also always bring some kind of light airy scarf, because it doubles as a shoulder wrap and emergency blanket in case you get stuck in some kind of ice cold air conditioned van situation (it happens!).
Packing List: Elephant Sanctuary Must Brings
Go for a loose fitting rayon material t-shirt top or tank top. If you prefer a tank top it’s nice to also have a shirt that can cover your shoulders out of respect, for some areas you’ll visit, just in case.
Wear not-too-short shorts that you can get wet. Good material is rayon or stretchy nylon. I love my Columbia Sandy Rivers. Bring a spare pair to change into in case you get soaked.
You’ll want lightweight runners you’re comfortable hiking in AND a pair of flip flops that can get wet. I am always a fan of Havanias.
Well there, you have it – our list of the top 7 ethical elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai. Have you visited any of these sanctuaries? We’d love to hear about your elephant experiences! Leave a comment below 🙂