Photo: Visiting elephants: It is complicated.

Elephant camps: Should you go?

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Elephants are central to Thai culture, and if you’re coming to Chiang Mai hoping to encounter the beautiful Asian elephant, then perhaps you’ve come to the right place.

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Thailand has more than 70 elephant camps, with most located in the north of the country. You’ll soon find that every guesthouse, travel agent and tuk tuk driver seems to be peddling a different elephant experience. The abundance of choice however doesn’t guarantee a positive experience for the visitor—nor, importantly, for the elephant. Here is a little background information to keep in mind when making your decision on whether to see elephants, and where to see them.

What a magnificent beast a wild elephant is. This one near Pala-U, southern Thailand. Photo taken in or around Elephant camps: Should you go?, Chiang Mai, Thailand by David Luekens.

What a magnificent beast a wild elephant is. This one near Pala-U, southern Thailand. Photo: David Luekens

When Thailand banned logging in 1989, more than 2,000 elephants and their mahouts (elephant trainers) were left unemployed. This prompted the Thai government to encourage ways of incorporating elephants into the growing tourist industry. Cue the baan chang, or elephant camps, where you could trek with elephants, watch them play soccer, ride them, see them paint, bathe them, feed them and participate in a variety of activities with them. Many of these activities are now considered to be harmful to the elephant.

According to media reports, most of the elephants from Thailand’s logging period have died out, yet there are more elephants than ever in captivity—indeed more in captivity than in the wild. In a two-year study by World Animal Protection completed in 2017, of the 2,923 documented elephants working in the trade in Southeast Asia, 2,198 were in Thailand (though there are thought to be more than 4,400 captive elephants in Thailand). Of the camps in Thailand, around three-quarters were described as “poor or ... Travelfish members only (Around 800 more words) ... please log in to read the rest of this story.

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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Chiang Mai.
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