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.



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 unacceptable”.

Wild elephant with infant, Sabah, Malaysia. Photo taken in or around Elephant camps: Should you go?, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Sally Arnold.

Wild elephant with infant, Sabah, Malaysia. Photo: Sally Arnold

What many tourists never learn or realise is that as illustrated in the full World Animal Protection report, many of the elephant camps around Chiang Mai have spotty welfare and smuggling records. Because of elephants’ low breeding rates in captivity, they may be captured in Burma and smuggled into Thailand to work in the camps. And because elephants are expected to “earn their keep”, many aren’t well fed or are trained with cruel hooks in order to perform glitzy shows that provide a profit for camp owners.

There is a simple way of considering what an elephant camp is doing. Would you consider what the elephant is doing to be “natural”? Painting, playing football or basketball (yes really), balancing on one foot, or indeed, carrying two tourists day in, day out, are not native activities for elephants. This means some degree of coercion has been applied in order to train the elephant to perform the task. Some people are comfortable with this—an increasing number however, are not.

There are ways to see these majestic animals while contributing to centres that prioritise their welfare. When choosing a camp to visit, avoid centres offering “elephant shows”, as the training required for elephants to, say, play soccer can be quite cruel. If possible, avoid riding elephants altogether, since often they are forced to carry tourists despite injuries or inadequate welfare conditions.

Washing elephants, Mae Wang. Note the scars on the back from carrying a litter for tourists. Photo taken in or around Elephant camps: Should you go?, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Washing elephants, Mae Wang. Note the scars on the back from carrying a litter for tourists. Photo: Mark Ord

If you care about elephant welfare but would still like to visit an elephant camp, it is imperative that you choose a camp with care. Two recommended options accessible from Chiang Mai include:

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
BLES is a couple of hours south of Chiang Mai (it’s closer to Sukhothai than to Chiang Mai), but it’s worth making the effort to get to. There are no shows of any kind and the sanctuary does everything it can to prioritise the well-being of the animals; the centre does not do “drop ins”, but rather visitors stay overnight in one of three traditional teak guesthouses, so numbers are kept very low. Elephants are free to roam around the expansive property and visitors can shadow them from a distance and watch what it’s like for elephants to be more or less elephants in the wild. Your experience will be hands on, as you learn to gather food and bathe the elephants. Founder Katherine Connor is passionate about sharing her wealth of knowledge. Meals are served overlooking a lake, and elephants may pop in and try to steal a rambutan or two. The fee of 6,000 baht per night, per guest, is pricey but worth the splurge.

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary: 304 Mu 5, Baan Na Ton Jan, Tambon Baan Tuek, Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai; www.blesele.org).

Elephant Nature Park
The most respected elephant camp near Chiang Mai, Elephant Nature Park is great for a day trip that’s both educational and fun, as you get to watch elephants roam freely in the countryside and learn each of their rescue stories. There are plenty of photo opportunities and chances to interact with the elephants, namely to feed and help scrub them during their daily bath. Starting at 2,500 baht, this is a midrange option that nonetheless allows you to contribute to a number of ENP’s rescue and conservation initiatives. If you end up loving it, they offer weekly volunteering opportunities.

Elephant Nature Park: 1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing (Chiang Mai office); T: (053) 272 855; www.elephantnaturepark.org.


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