Chiang Mai Elephant Nature Park
From the moment I decided to go to Thailand, I knew I wanted to visit the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Visiting a Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary was one of the reasons I even chose to visit Thailand for three weeks, and was one of the highlights of my trip to Thailand. If you are looking for the best things to do in Chiang Mai, or the best elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, read on about my wonderful experience at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In this post you’ll find information about why you should never ride an elephant, what you can expect at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, and where to stay in Chiang Mai.
Looking for more Thailand travel tips? Check out these posts:
- Adventures in beautiful Krabi: what to do in Ao Nang
- What you need to know before backpacking Thailand
- Where to stay in Koh Samui: The hipster hotel on the ocean
Why you should never ride an elephant
Are you asking “where can I ride an elephant in Thailand?”
Or maybe you want a photo of yourself bathing an elephant to post on Instagram? I have to admit, I was once impressed by those photos and thought about getting one taken of me in Thailand – but that was before I learned about the cruel conditions elephants are kept in in many camps in Thailand. Too many tourists visit Thailand and remain clueless about the treatment of elephants, which only fuels the industry of cruelty.
According to World Animal Protection, 40% of tourists visiting Thailand said they were planning to ride an elephant, and in 2016, 13 million people rode an elephant in Thailand.
So, why should you be worried about the riding an elephant in Thailand?
Asian elephants are on the endangered species list, and there are few places left where you can find them in the wild. Elephants are typically captured in the wild, and brutal methods are used to train the elephants to give humans rides – this is called crushing the elephants. In this process, mahouts (elephant handlers), beat and terrorize elephants, crushing their spirit until they succumb to working with humans.
If you spend just a few moments googling riding elephants, you’ll find numerous articles about how elephants are often worked to death – literally until the point that they collapse. In 2016, TripAdvisor stopped selling tickets to tours where tourists come into direct contact with animals, including elephant riding, and many other companies have followed suit.
Need more evidence that you shouldn’t ride an elephant? Have a look at some of these articles – meanwhile, I’ll get on with telling you why you should visit Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. The treatment of animals is one of the things you should know ahead of time before visiting Thailand.
Here’s why you should never ride an elephant in Thailand
Elephant tourism is fueling cruelty
(Video) The shocking truth behind Thailand’s elephant tourism industry
Visiting Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is the most well-known elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and maybe even in the world. You’ll see the Elephant Nature Park and the founder, Lek, in the video link above. Elephant Nature Park has been recognized in loads of documentaries, and Lek was even named Asian Hero of the year in 2005. Hopefully you’ve been convinced by this point to visit the Elephant Nature Park instead of riding an elephant, so let’s dive in to what you can expect – get excited this is one of the best places to see elephants in Thailand! Looking for more incredible things to do in Thailand? Don’t miss this post on 50 things to do in Thailand.
When to book your visit to Elephant Nature Park
Depending on what season you plan on visiting, you might want to plan your visit to the Elephant Nature Park between a few weeks and a few months in advance. I booked my visit 2 months prior to visiting in May, and there were plenty of spots available at that point. I’ve seen a lot of people miss out by planning their visit to Elephant Nature Park too late, so I’d recommend to book as soon as you know you’ll be visiting Chiang Mai.
What to expect at Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park will pick you up from your hotel in Chiang Mai and drive you to the elephant sanctuary, so you won’t have to worry about how to get there.
After picking up the guests from their hotels in Chiang Mai, you’ll drive about 60km to the Elephant Nature Park, and the drivers will show you a video about elephant conservation along the way. Once you arrive to Elephant Nature Park, you might be surprised to not only find elephants there, but also buffaloes, dogs, cats and other various animals who have been rescued and now live with Lek at the Elephant Nature Park.
You and the other visitors who were picked up in your car will form a group for the day, and you’ll be assigned a guide who will tour you through the park, and educate you about the elephants and how to treat them. The day will kick off with a short briefing of how to behave around the elephants (i.e. get out of the way if an elephant is coming your way!), and from there you’ll begin.
First, you’ll have a chance to feed the elephants. There are buckets of fresh fruits and veggies for you to give them for their morning snack.
From there you’ll spend the rest of the day on a guided tour visiting the various elephants and learning about their story. Some of them have endured terrible injuries, like Pornsawan, whose foot was partially blown off by a land mine. You’ll see graphic scenes of before and after images of what the elephants endured before being rescued by the park. A visit to the park is uplifting – you see how peacefully these elephants are living and how they have formed familial bonds with each other at Elephant Nature Park. Honestly, it might make you pretty emotional to hear their stories and all that they have overcome before being rescued by Lek and her team.
You might be wondering if you’ll have a chance to bathe the elephants. This used to be part of the tour with Elephant Nature Park, but they recently stopped allowing tourists to bath elephants in order to create more distance between visitors and the animals. Although I was initially a bit disappointed about not getting a chance to do this (I’d seen it all over Instagram), I was actually glad I had chosen an elephant conservation center that didn’t allow humans to get too close to the animals after all.
One thing that is a bit weird about visiting the Elephant Nature Park, is that there is an elephant camp just across the river where you can see people riding elephants. It is a bit shocking to see this so close by to Elephant Nature Park, especially after you’ve spent the entire day learning about the mistreatment of elephants in Thailand.
Want to spend more than just one day at Elephant Nature Park?
You can overnight in Elephant Nature Park and spend two full days there, OR if you have enough time, you can volunteer there for a week! I wish I would have had enough time to do this, but I had to catch a flight to Bali. The experience looks great, and our tour group met some volunteers while we were there who seemed like they were having the experience of a lifetime.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
When I visited Chiang Mai I stayed at the Vieng Mantra hotel, located just within the city walls of Chiang Mai. This was a great location to stay since it was walking distance to all the main temples within the city walls, and also walking distance to shopping and great dining options. Plus, it is walking distance from the Chiang Mai night market, so you can go there and get your shop on.
Vieng Mantra is located on a side street within the city walls of Chiang Mai so it stays nice and quiet there, but you’re still located close enough to the main attractions so you can do everything you want to within Chiang Mai. Like nearly every accommodation in Thailand, Vieng Mantra is available for a very decent price of $33/night, at least at the time of my booking.
Check out this post for more ethical elephant experiences in Thailand.
Disclosure: some of the links on this page are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Gabby is a native (Northern) Californian who spent the majority of her 20’s living the expat life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, exploring Europe and beyond. 27 countries later, she’s relocated back to her home base in California where she explores her passions for the travel and the outdoors.
Thanks for this post, Gabby. I too visited one of the sanctuaries in Chiang Mai where we can walk the elephants through the jungle….but along the path, we would see other operators whose guests were riding the backs of the elephants with heavy “chairs” tied to their back…it was terrible. I think continued education and spreading information like this is so important!
Gabby, thank you for writing this. I love elephants, and although I’ve always wanted to have an “up close” experience with them, I know that we humans have a sad history of exploiting and mistreating these amazing creatures. Thank you for speaking up for the elephants while giving tourists a review of a humane way to visit them.
Thanks for the kind words Carrie Ann. There are definitely ethical ways to see them, so I hope you get to have an up close experience one day!
I haven’t been to Thailand yet, but I have heard about the cruelty of riding elephants before, and decided long ago never to participate in that act. I’m glad you wrote this to help inform your audience about elephant rides. Elephants seem like such wonderful animals, and the Elephant Sanctuary seems like the best option for people to interact with them in a way that’s healthy for all.
Hi Alouise, it was the same for me before visiting Thailand! I had heard of the treatment of elephants way in advance of going. Great that you support ethical encounters 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing your experience at the Elephant Nature Park. I, regretfully, rode an elephant on my first visit to Thailand in 2009, not realizing at the time why it was not good to do. Elephants are incredible creatures, and respecting them is of the utmost importance if we are lucky enough to come in contact with them. The Elephant Nature Park sounds like a great way to interact and learn about elephants, and much more meaningful too!
Hi Jen, you can’t go back and change anything now, so it is great that you support ethical treatment now. So few tourists realize how the elephants are treated, I can hardly blame you, but it is great to raise more awareness of this!
I learnt only recently how delicate a spine and a back elephants have, and it is not meant for riding (unlike the back of say, a horse). But this sanctuary looks like a great place for a personal, close experience with these gentle animals.
Yes, it is something that so few people know about, and it is common to assume it doesn’t do the elephants any harm. Thanks for stopping by!
I love seeing elephants in their natural habitat, although I do prefer the bigger African elephant. And now I must admit that I did once ride on an elephant in Zambia as part of a media trip. And although they were in a refuge where they were treated very well, I guessed they weren’t treated that well where they were originally trained. Thanks for your very educational article about Elephant Nature Park in Thailand and why one shouldn’t be riding on elephants.
Hi Linda, thanks for your thoughts on the post. African elephants are indeed even more impressive than Asian elephants, both are amazing to see in real life
This is a great post. A handful of years ago on my first trip to Thailand, I rode an elephant, bareback, but still. If I could take anything back from that trip, it’s that and since I’ve tried to advocate for these gorgeous animals ever since learning what went into breaking these beauties. Great post giving an alternative way to spend time with elephants without harming them.
Thanks for the kind words, and great that you learned from your experience. I think few people really know the impact, so I can’t blame you for that decision – great that you are advocating for their good care now!
Travel is such a learning experience and visiting the elephant sanctuary is certainly that. It’s horrible what some of the elephants went through before they got there – I’m so glad that there are places such as this where they can find a peaceful home.
I am so glad as well! Thanks for stopping by
I am so glad you put that upfront about the Elephant rides. I was given that opportunity and I did refuse it on the same grounds as you explained. In fact, the insistence to take the ride put me off anything to do with elephants in my itinerary. , Glad that this place does not promote all that.
Thank you for your kind words, I’m glad that you decided not to go on an elephant ride! Hopefully more people will make that same decision
I guess its a growing concern about the treatment of animals and especially tigers and elephants in South-east Asia so I am glad you did your research about this before you went to the elepgant nature park in Chiang Mai. I went to a similar one in Sri Lanka after reading about the ethical treatment of elephants there and was intrigued to also see that they made paper out of their poop! I am glad to know that the elephant Nature Park doesn’t have just elephants but also other animals there.
That is so funny to hear that they make paper out of the poop! I strangely appreciate that. In Sri Lanka I believe there is the same problem as in Thailand, so it is great you found an ethical place!
I also visited ENP and it was one of the highlights of my trip to Thailand. It’s actually the only thing I planned ahead of time lol! It’s a wonderful place and I’m so glad they’re able to take care of so many elephants and other animals as well. Hopefully more people learn about it and the ethical way to see elephants.
It is the only thing I planned ahead of time too! I hope more people learn about it as well.. hopefully this blog post is one small move in that direction!
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