The Truth About Elephants in Thailand

 Updated November 6, 2018

Two new countries, Laos and Nepal! 9 ethical elephant sanctuaries in 4 countries!

This post came about during my recent trip to Thailand. I had originally thought that maybe riding is okay. So many people do it, so how can it be bad? These animals are huge and strong. Boy was I wrong. Wrong on a huge level. As we traveled throughout Thailand we learned more and more about the torture these poor animals go through from either the first time they are captured or born to every single ride they provide. What surprised me is that most of the information we got were from tourists. I wanted to write something that truly educated people about this type of tourism, especially since I hear all the time that riding an elephant is on everyone’s bucket list, wish list or do before you die list.

This is how the elephants at most “sanctuaries” are contained. Chains. Elephants in the wild roam up to 30 miles a day, captured, they have about 8 ft. of chains with no social interaction. Would you like to be giving painful chair rides or chained up your entire life? This elephant was not happy. It’s not graphic.

Brief History

The elephant is considered a national symbol of Thailand. The Thai people have used elephants for generations and by generations I mean thousands of years. From using them in war, ceremonies for the king, logging and tourism. You can go to the Grand Palace and still see where they would mount the elephants as there are special buildings for it. In more recent years, the logging industry destroyed most of their natural habitat and thanks to the previous king it was made illegal to use them for logging, but without thinking of the repercussions that would come from that. Most Mahouts or elephant owners would use them to beg for money or sell fruit to tourists. This animal who is considered a national symbol is  now begging for food, that wasn’t enough. So modern day elephant tourism is born.


The elephants in Thailand are part of the Indian Elephants which is a subspecies of the Asian Elephant. These large animals can eat up to 330lbs of greens in their natural habitat and walk about 30 miles a day. They are also incredibly social elephants. They travel in groups, usually let by a female matriarch. Males are a little more independent, but still find groups to socialize and of course mate. Baby elephants highly depend on their mother for at least three years. They then stay with their group. A male might leave in their early teens, but females can live with their mothers for their entire life. Some elephants are born into slavery, their destiny could be 45 years of hell, the average age for an Indian elephant.

The Crush

The barbaric torture that these baby elephants have to go through for your enjoyment of riding is truly heart breaking. These elephants are stripped from their parents (who are most likely killed) and then they are mentally and physically tortured until their will is “crushed.” I urge you to read more here if you are seriously thinking of riding an elephant still: Of course if you just google “Elephant and The Crush” you will be provided with articles and videos regarding this.

I could not ride, in good conscious, after reading this and watching a video. I would not turn a blind eye.

Even after the crush, when elephants are deemed safe enough to ride, they continuously go through mental and physical torture. Mahouts yell, tug at their ears, jab them with bull hooks to get them to do what they want. They are in constant fear.

Long Term Effects of Riding

I always thought that such a large animal must be definitely made for riding. Smaller animals, camels and horses are ridden all the time. This is a myth, false fact. Elephants’ bodies were not meant for riding at all. Riding can cause long term effects, all negative and can be painful each ride they give. Read more here:


This is where you do really have to be careful. Companies here are able to use the term very loosely. Some will call themselves non profits as well. The reality is, that none of them actually qualify. It’s just that some are actually good companies and some are bad. Finding the ones that actually do use your money to care for the elephants and not just for a profit is the goal. Read testimonials of places below.

Saving, they just buy another

Unethical elephant tourism will not stop overnight. You will read stories after stories of people rescuing elephants from chair riding tour companies. The problem is it just starts the process all over again. They need an elephant so they go an buy or capture another. What we need to do is show these tour companies that they can still be profitable without riding. We can’t rewind history and make sure that these elephants’ natural habitat is brought back, so they do not have a place to go, but instead of continuing the cycle rapidly, we need to show them that if they care for these elephants and riding is not of interest, they will last much longer. These beautiful giants will live longer. The Crush will be unnecessary and capturing will not be necessary either. Some may say that I am being naive, but when we were in Thailand I felt the change starting. It just takes one to start a movement and I watched men and women who I thought would be all over taking selfies on top of an elephant turn it down. They paid to be there, to be with elephants and as soon as they saw the condition, treatment and there was no actual interaction with the elephant, they turned it down.

What you can do

I still think it is necessary to experience interaction with elephants. They do need your help with the cost of taking care of these creatures. Book your tours, but make sure that it is a tour that does not offer chair rides or any rides. If you are in Thailand or another country, tell the tour company that you will not book because they do offer them. They will try ever conniving trick in the book to make you think otherwise, that bareback is okay, but NO ride is okay.

Before I wrote this article I did numerous searches, requests on groups and searches of tourism boards for ethical elephant tours in SE Asia. To date, I have not found any in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, or Sri Lanka. (If you have been to one, where elephants are able to roam free and there are no chair rides, please let me know if you would like to contribute.)

We were unfortunate in that we did not do the proper research before we went to SE Asia. Because of that I asked other travel bloggers to provide their ethical interactions with these animals to provide you locations (Thailand and Cambodia) to book with on your travels and to understand how great a tour can be without riding. Read all 7 of their stories below.


1 Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Chiang Mai – Shannon Bassett 

We currently have friends in Thailand who just visited Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. She provided a picture and video of the freedom these elephants have and the care. No chains, no seclusion, just freedom.

This photo is of a young bull who was only 20 days into his freedom. His “companion” not “mahout” was walking with him and no bull hook.


Photo courtesy of Shannon Bassett at

This video made my heart melt and gave me hope that ethical elephant tourism is headed in the right direction. Again, no chains and no bull hooks.

Follow their journey at

2 Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai – Cassy Myers


Photo courtesy of Cassy Myers of

Elephant Nature Park is the most respected elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. You will have ample time to interact amicably with the rescue animals here. Most of the elephants are “golden girls”, elderly female elephants living out their remaining years in peace. After losing their value in the abusive industries, they were rescued by the founder, Lek Chailert, who makes sure they are hand-fed soft rice balls for their toothless mouths. There are a few baby elephants that have been “accidentally” born here at the sanctuary, despite the staff trying to keep breeding adults separate. Due to elephant herd culture, there aren’t many males, as they tend to live solo, nomadic lives separate from their mothers’ herd.
You will also have time to interact with the other rescue animals at this sanctuary, including cats, dogs, water buffalo, a giant hog, and a few horses.
The food here is completely vegan, (and delicious, by the way!) and you will learn a lot about the elephant-related tourism industry.
There is also a chance to volunteer at this park, but you must stay at least 1 week.

Read more here:

3 Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai – Stephanie Gardner


Photo courtesy of Stephanie Gardner of

Interacting with Elephants had always been a dream of mine. I wholeheartedly disagree with Elephant riding, so finding an ethical sanctuary in Thailand was extremely important to me and was something I did thorough research on prior to my trip. Elephant Nature Park in Chaing Mai provides many different volunteering options from day to week long in the remote areas of the jungle, or simply a single day trip entrance to the park.

I had opted for the ‘Hope for Elephants’ day volunteering in June (£140/6000 THB)- it was definitely the more intimate and adventurous experience that I was looking for, even though it could be deemed a little expensive, I knew my money was ultimately going towards the running of this amazing, ethical sanctuary.

Read more here:

4 Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Chiang Mai – Nam Cheah

Photo courtesy of Nam Cheah at

Before my friends and I went on our trip to Chiang Mai, we discovered that elephant tour is one of the many must-dos for visitors. However, on closer inspection, we realised that a lot of them mistreat the elephants. Tours that offer elephant riding might be fun for us but are harmful to the creatures.

So after looking around online and checking various reviews, we decided to opt for somewhere with the best price tag and most ethical practice. After all, we aren’t all made of money!

And that turns out to be Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.

About an hour and a half north of Chiang Mai, the Sanctuary allows us to play and bathe with the elephants, who look happy throughout our interaction. One of the signs I learn to check online is their ears, which are free from abuse. The staff there are kind and friendly, and we got more than enough selfies and interactions in the half day. We also learn that only the female and young remains, as the male like to roam around the forest and they are allowed to do so in Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.

Read more here:

5 Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Chiang Mai – Kassie Ricci


Photo courtesy of Kassie Ricci at

When I started planning my Southeast Asia adventure, my number one priority was to hang out with some elephants! While researching I came across a youtube video about the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and I knew it was the perfect one! I booked straight from their office in Chiang Mai and set off for the sanctuary the next morning. After a brief trek through the jungle, we were introduced to our new elephant friends. I had so much fun getting to feed and play with the elephants who had all been rescued from previous abusive situations. As we interacted with the elephants, the guides educated us on their efforts to rescue elephants from all over Thailand and their fight against animal cruelty. After feeding time, we got to join the elephants for a mud bath and a rinse in the river. My favorite part of the whole experience was that the guides treated the animals with love and respect, leading everyone to have a great time!

Read more here:

6 Lanna Kingdom Tour, Chiang Mai – Veronica Mezzetti


Photo courtesy of Veronica Mezzetti at

Just seeing, let alone interacting with elephants has always been a dream of mine. Naturally the item at the top of my Thailand to do list was a trip to an elephant sanctuary.

The only thing greater than my excitement and impatience for an encounter with these beautiful creatures, was my determination to find an ethical company which maintained the elephant’s welfare as the number one priority.

After some research, my partner and I came across Lanna Kingdom Tour. As with all new experiences, you are never 100% sure of what to expect and although online reviews are a great help, it is always somewhat of a gamble to find out if your expectations will be met.

Well, my expectations were not only met, but greatly exceeded and it is with the fondest memories that I am able to share with you one of the best days of my life.

Read more here:


7 Mondulkiri Project, Sen Monorom – Bianca


Photo courtesy of Bianca at

Situated about 5 hrs east of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh lies Sen Monorom, one of Cambodia’s last protected areas of forests. Sen Monorom is one of the few places in Cambodia where you can have an ethical encounter with an Elephant, no riding, just walking with these marvelous creatures in their natural habitat.

The Mondulkiri Project is not only a sanctuary for elephants but an organisation that aims to protect their habitat by providing alternative income to the local indigenous tribes through tourism. The project creates jobs in the community which allow whole Bunong families to improve their living standards, while also becoming educated about the importance of the elephants and their environment.

Your visit will contribute to the ongoing work that the project does for the community and the environment. You will get to walk with the elephants through the jungle and even get the chance to see them bathe in the nearby rivers. It’s truly a wonderful experience and the opportunity to contribute to the positive future of Cambodia’s elephants.

Visit their website for more information or read my interview with the lead guide of the project to find out more about the work they do.

This information applies to all elephants all over the world. Do not ride them, don’t let your kids ride them. Respect the animal, they were not created to be a playground.


8. Mandalao, Luang Prabang – Meg


Photo courtesy of Meg Atteberry of

It’s a widely-known fact that riding elephants promotes unethical treatment, but what about hiking with them? In Luang Prabang, Laos, there are several elephant establishments that claim to be ethical, however most of them market tricks, “training” and even rides. Don’t kid yourself, even though you aren’t riding on the two-person chair, you are still promoting mis-treatment of the animals if you pay for one of these experiences.

I was dis-heartened by my research and I had just about given up when I found Mandalao, a truly ethical elephant experience. Mandalao does not offer tricks, gimmicks, rides or training, but simply the opportunity to walk next to these amazing creatures, share some tasty bananas and go for a bath.

From start to finish, Mandalao takes sustainability seriously. First, they rescue elephants (all female) from logging operations in Laos. Then they seek to educate their employees and nearby villagers about the importance of ethical elephant treatment. They took this education one step further by only employing local villagers (the sanctuary is a bit outside of Luang Prabang). The elephant’s diet consists of plants found in the wild on the property. The subsidize the diet with organically grown fruits that local villagers farm, for pay on the property.

As you greet your new-found jungle friends, they are eager to eat the bananas you hauled up the big hill. Together you continue along the jungle hillside, slowly making your way down towards the river. The feeling of walking next to these gentle giants is truly indescribable. Instantly you feel a connection to these creatures. You can see their thoughts and feelings right in their eyes. I have hiked all over the world and nothing is quite like hiking with an elephant.

As we made our way down to the scenic riverfront for bath time, I felt more and more connected to these creatures. They seemed content with their new life of roaming the jungle hills. Overall, I would hike with elephants again in a heartbeat and I encourage everyone looking to spend time with these creatures to seek out an experience as mindful and caring as Mandalao.

Read more about this experience at: Mandalao


9. Chitwan Park, Chitwan – Madhurima


Photo courtesy of Madhurima Chakraborty of

As I was exploring the less treaded path of North East India, and exploring the wildlife of Kaziranga in Indian state of Assam, it jolted me more. The way a Mahut beats the elephant with his Ankush (a pointed iron rod), the way it is forced to carry 5 adults on its shoulder and venture into the wild of jungle land for couple of hours, it felt extremely cruel. I took an oath never to ride an elephant again and write against it wherever I can!

That said, the villagers, devoid of many modern amenities of lifestyle and living a rather less resourceful life, who owns these elephants and “employs” them for touristy activities or to get done with the daily chores of rural life, nonetheless share a strange relationship with the gentle creatures. From naming them as “Rupkali”, smearing the head with vermillion to treating them like a family member (and not trading the ivory), often donating them to local temples, it is difficult to gauge the local perspective towards a domesticated elephant.

Nepal’s Chitwan park was the first one where I found a rather ethical way to engage with the elephants. Instead of riding, you can actually go for a walk with the massive animals. They are domesticated “Kunki” elephants, hence not likely to attack you. Having an elephant walk by your side makes you less vulnerable in the wild of Himalayan foothills, where Royal Bengal Tigers lurk and prey. I asked the guard the logic behind having these elephants as domesticated. “These elephants are the reasons we could save the last remaining populace of one horned rhinos”, he said with pride.

The land in the region is rather uneven, with extreme weather, countless mountain streams and dense forest where roads are not built (for good, why would we want a concrete road in a jungle?)! In there, lives and thrives wildlife, vulnerable to poachers for there prized body parts. With Chinese government legalizing rhino horn and tiger skin trade, these animals are often at risk to fall prey to poachers, equipped with the latest technology of automatic weapons.

Forest guards are on alert and can only venture in these areas with an elephant. These elephants are often “government employees”, he states with glee. I understand the beaming pride in his voice. A government job is highly prized in the middle class population of the area. He also states, government has abandoned the practice of domesticating elephants from the wild. The lot employed at the moment are descendants of the Kunki elephants once procured to inhabit the area and bring in civilization in the extreme geographic condition. I ask if they still do “breaking the spirit” of these animals. He confirms the practice has been discontinued. Children of Kunki elephants are reared in close proximity to humans and quite comfortable that way. They do not need to go through the painful process of getting “tamed”!


The ultimate goal for elephant tourism would be a safe place for these creatures to live without any interaction with humans. To live like they would in the their natural habitat. But wait, you said these are places that we should go. Yes, I don’t think that elephant tourism will get to this point in a long time. We are working with thousands of years of tradition. We need to take baby steps and celebrate small victories. Let’s start with ending rides. Yes, the elephants are still abused to be able to interact with humans, but the more we can educate, the more we can do. If they are to go through this terrible lifestyle, then at least stop the most torturous part of it. But, yes, the Ultimate Goal is to stop all poaching, kidnapping of baby elephants, and to provide them with a natural habitat that they can live like…well…an ELEPHANT!!

I continue to try and spread the word about ethical elephant tourism. I have come to find that the United States, is almost just as bad. Elephant rides at festivals, circuses and confined zoos. What really baffles me is that someone can watch an elephant stand on their hind legs in the middle of a circle and say “they were saved and are treated well.” Don’t be naive. An elephant on their hind legs is not natural, transporting, training and showing them off is not natural. The stress, possible negative training techniques and the inability to roam naturally is not good for these animals. Just like keeping a polar bear in 70 degree weather or any confined animal, the life expectancy is not great.

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39 thoughts on “The Truth About Elephants in Thailand

      1. I recently visited Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai and I’m sorry to say it is not an ethical sanctuary. I witnessed mistreatment of elephants there. One of which was chained. There is also a video online of a woman who stayed overnight at elephants jungle sanctuary and saw many elephants chained up once the other tourists had left for the day.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. WOW! This is such an important topic! The first video is heartbreaking but ppl need to see it! I recently worked with a group based in Thailand to rescue “meat market” dogs! The company has created 2 “houses” they rehabilitate the dogs at before sending them to their new home. Their new home is ALWAYS out of Thailand via flight somewhere in Europe, UK, or USA.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sincerely, thank you for your concerning about my country. For me, I’m Thai people could let you know with there are low enforcement of law and regulation in Thailand. That means it still,have a huge number of issues in my country. It’s really hard to tell you in english. Forgive me with my poor english skill.


  3. This is really great information and I am eager to instill the values in our traveling children. We have tried our best to teach them about visiting animals in their natural environment rather than in zoos and circuses. I think an experience at a genuine elephant sanctuary would compliment these ideals very well!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I heard a girl talking about her mom going to Thailand with friends to ride elephants and it took everything in me to not go up to her and tell her how awful it is. I love that you shared the other options here and would still even research those before going.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Animal sanctuary are such a difficult topic : on the one hand you want to interact with them and on the other hand, it’s probably best if they get as little human contact as possible… Quite a dilemma ! And yes, you should always try to pick the most ethical solution 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m going to Myanmar in May and am planning on going to Green Hill Valley where they have a lot of retired logging elephants. They seem to be really good, they don’t do rides, they don’t make the elephants stay out in the heat of the day but you are still allowed to feed and wash them. I’ve been doing a bit of research and it seems to be a really good option, I’m super excited and will definitely write a blog post on it! This is a really great post and it’s so important to spread the word about how the animals are treated.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is truly awful! People are using animals for it’s own profits all over the world and only thinking about money. This is why I never visit any circus with animals. Thanks for this article!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. THIS!!! This is so important. Elephants are treated very poorly in many parts of Thailand and so many tourists are unknowing. I will be the first to admit that I have rode an elephant in Thailand before I knew how poorly they were treated. I am so happy you wrote this and hope it gets out to many other unknowing tourists, like I once was.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I absolutely love this and elephants!! Interacting with elephants on our trip to Southeast Asia is a dream of mine. Thank you so much for sharing.


  10. So glad someone is talking about this. I hate how the term “sanctuary” is thrown around, and it’s even more disappointing that people who should know better are doing more research before visiting places like this.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Reblogged this on and commented:
    An absolutely important piece on ethical tourism; it’s a topic I would shout from the rooftops.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. The situation has been bad in the past because of the sheer number of logging elephants that were left over and their mahouts need to make money. As you say, the capture and domestication of elephants should stop because of the pain it causes, and we need to find alternatives to the pure tourist camps where they are overworked and badly treated. However, there is a human element too. Mahouts usually come from a long line of mahouts. The elephants provide their only source of income – to support their whole family, to send their children to school, pay for doctors fees etc. These are not rich people, they live in bamboo huts which they construct when they move to a new place. What else can they do if their elephants are suddenly taken away from them? How will they support their children? Ideally, if the children are educated, they can go into a different profession and this can start to die out naturally. And they do love their animals, genuinely. Some of them have been together for many years. Any solution needs to take all this into account. The sanctuaries that employ the mahouts to help take care of the elephants are doing that well. I think this is what we need to promote, but to also be careful not to totally condemn the mahouts that work in camps or in profit-making places. There are almost always two or more sides to every story.


  13. Love this post! I recently visited the elephant nature park in Chiang Mai and also feel passionately about protecting and saving these amazing animals. I wrote a similar piece myself about my experience. I have begun leaving reviews on trip asvisor where I see companies promoting shows and rides and calling them out on it, also trying to encourage people to research the rides when they post photos on instagram etc. It will be a slow process but needs to start somewhere!


  14. Great post! I regretfully rode an elephant while in India over 5 years ago. I should have known better and still feel bad about it to this day.

    While in Cambodia last year we spent the day at the Wildlife Alliance ( It was a completely different experience that I will always cherish. I will NEVER ride an elephant again. They are the kindest creatures and deserve love, not torture.

    Liked by 1 person

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