Walking With Elephants: Ethical Encounters With Thailand’s Gentle Giants

Most travelers who want to see Thailand have one thing in common in their bucket lists: elephant encounters. This is a dream that you can realize in ethical parks and sanctuaries, where most elephants are rescued, orphaned, or injured. By getting up close and interacting with these gentle giants in these destinations, you can take part in their care, protection, and rehabilitation.

When choosing which park or sanctuary to go to, it is recommended that you do some research and fact-checking on potential destinations, especially those that market themselves as “ethical.” If you’re working with a tour operator, you can also let them know about your preference for places that genuinely care for elephants.

Caring For Elephants

Most destinations for ethical elephant encounters are situated in lush, green landscapes, where you can have overnight stays or weeklong volunteer vacations. Observing elephants in their natural habitat is one of the most common activities in these destinations, where you can also appreciate the beauty of Thai landscapes. Some destinations, for example, let you track elephants as they forage freely in the forest.

Watching elephants bathe in an extensive mud pool is also a heartwarming experience you can have during these visits. After their mud baths, you can scrub them clean with coconut fibers and feed them one of their meals, which you could also help prepare. Other activities you can do in these parks is the building of elephant shelters, the cleaning of elephants’ areas, and the planting of grass and crops for their consumption.

Aside from caring for these pachyderms, visits to elephant sanctuaries also allow you to support the people that care for them, including the mahouts. Some sanctuaries also allow you stay with local tribes like Karen communities. By interacting with these communities, you can learn about their crafts, culture, and way of life. In some communities, you will even learn to prepare your own Thai desserts.

Should you plan to have close encounters with elephants, one of the best places to start is Chiang Mai. One of those nearest to Chiang Mai is the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), home to 50 elephants living in a forest setting. TECC is also home to a hospital that cares for elephants needing treatment. If you’re lucky, you can even encounter baby elephants.

Patara Elephant Farm, also located in Chiang Mai, offers two programs: Elephant Owner for A Day and Elephant Day Care. The Elephant Owner for A Day program helps you learn the right way to approach elephants, check their temperament, give them a bath, and guide them in a visit to the forest, a nearby waterfall, or local temples. The Elephant Day Care program, on the other hand, lets you care for pregnant elephants and mothers with small babies. Under this program, you will be involved in health inspection, feeding, and walking with the pachyderms.

Another destination near Chiang Mai is Baan Chang Elephant Park, where you take on the role of a mahout. You will learn to guide an elephant through the forest and the river, where you get to wash and bathe your charge.

Spread The Word

After visiting an elephant sanctuary or rehabilitation center, it pays to spread the word about how you made unforgettable encounters with Thailand’s gentle giants. This will help strengthen support for centers that truly adhere to ethical practices. If by chance, you visited a place that mistreats elephants and other animals, sharing about your experience through word of mouth or reviews can help spread awareness about wildlife protection and conservation.