One of the top activities on travellers lists when visiting Thailand is seeing elephants. We were the same way. It’s important though that when participating in animal tourism, you visit a reputable place with ethical practices. Unsure how to do this? No problem. This post covers the most ethical way of seeing elephants in Thailand.
- The Rise of Elephant Sanctuaries
- Why NOT to Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
- Wild Elephants as an Alternative
- Going on Safari and an Elephant Encounter
- How to Visit Khao Yai National Park
The Rise of Elephant Sanctuaries
From circus acts, to logging, or giving tourists rides through the jungle, elephants have been forced throughout history into performing parlor tricks and feats of strength for mankind. This was no different in Thailand. Thankfully though, many travellers in recent years have taken a stand against this type of treatment by refusing to participate. With all these elephants now out of a job (so to speak), sanctuaries have risen in their wake.
What’s an elephant sanctuary you may ask? Generally speaking, they’re organizations that claim to rescue elephants from abusive conditions, by relocating them to a reserve where the animal can live out their days in peace. The sanctuary then offers tourists a paid opportunity to experience a day with the elephants with the proceeds going toward the program and elephant’s upkeep. Tours often involve walking, feeding and sometimes bathing the elephants.
Why NOT to Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
Honestly, I had planned to participate in a sanctuary tour from the moment we stepped foot into Thailand. The idea of getting to touch and play with these grey giants just sounds so cool! Plus I wanted to give to a good cause.
Tom had other ideas. He asserted that although a sanctuary tour may be more humane, the elephants are still required to perform. This is because the sanctuary sells an interactive experience, where the elephants are expected to put on a good show for the paying guests. Sure, the care they receive is likely better than before, but the fact remains that the elephants aren’t given a choice. As one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet, Tom could only surmise that this forced interaction with humans may be detrimental to their well being and possible rehabilitation.
Tom’s arguments aside, I wasn’t ready to give up on the sanctuary idea until doing some research of my own. That’s when I came across articles such as this one by Aydin Adnan, which sheds light on how even the best sounding sanctuaries may not have ethical practices. While I can only hope that not all the sanctuaries out there act like this, I didn’t feel I could properly identify an ethical operator from the resources available to me, and so opted to play it safe by finding an alternative way of seeing elephants.
Responsible Travel Tip: If you still decide to visit a sanctuary over the alternative I offer below, then do your best to make sure it’s an ethical one. Resources such as South East Asia Backpacker give a nice set of guidelines on what to consider before selecting a sanctuary.
Wild Elephants as an Alternative
Thankfully there’s a way to see elephants in Thailand without any strings attached: visit a national park. By visiting a national park you not only support the upkeep of our planet’s green spaces, but you’ll get the chance to see elephants fully unfettered and roaming free.
The best park in Thailand to get an elephant encounter is Khao Yai National Park. It’s the oldest in the country, and home to approximately 300 elephants.
There are a few tour options for visiting the park and a chance to see elephants. The first is a multi-day safari put on by the national park itself. Costs are quite high though for an individual or couple. The quicker, and more budget friendly option, is to book a day trip through Green Leaf Tours. They cover a range of sites, from visiting the famous waterfall in “The Beach”, to trekking through the jungle and taking a car safari in hopes of spotting elephants. It’s truly a full jungle experience.
Going on Safari and an Elephant Encounter
I was honestly a bit unsure on what to expect when signing up for the day safari. Since we were going with a large group, I was concerned everyone would frighten the animals away and ruin any chance we had of seeing elephants. Thankfully I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, it was a large group, but the company does a fantastic job of breaking people into smaller teams, allowing for an intimate experience.
Our day started off bright an early with a drive through the park. I was expecting to just head straight to the area where we’d trek for a few hours. Little did I know the safari had already begun. Slowly driving down the road, I enjoyed the scenery and kept my eyes peeled for an elusive elephant. Suddenly our guide pulled over and leaped from the cabin with a childish gleam in his eye, declaring “I’ve spotted something”.
Quickly climbing out of the truck with the others, we walked to the side of the road. Low and behold, he had spotted a family of gibbons in the trees. Watching them swing from branch to branch, our guide quietly explained their habits, mating practices and other differences to the more common monkeys seen throughout Thailand.
This happened many times throughout the day, both while in the car and later while hiking through the jungle. From sleeping pythons, to camouflaged insects, I can honestly say neither of us would have spotted these creatures if we had done this trip on our own. Paying for the guide whose knows what to listen and look for is worth every penny.
The hours passed quickly, but the piece de resistance came as we were approaching the waterfall parking lot. Pulling around the corner, there he was, a majestic bull elephant meandering through the brush while eating his weight in leaves. That moment was my dream come true regarding everything I hoped for from this excursion. We got to witness how he acted without human interface, and even though it was fleeting, it was raw and real. I stood there in amazement, grinning from ear to ear. Sauntering across the road, he disappeared into the brush just as quickly as he had come.
Sadly no other elephants made an appearance that day. Even so, I’m forever grateful to have seen the one we did. Not only did we get to see a true wild elephant, but our money helped fund both the local tour guides and national park maintenance which keeps them safe. Sure, we took a risk in possibly not seeing any animals that day. Sometimes though, with great risk comes great reward, and I can honestly say that seeing that elephant unchained and untamed made the memory so much more vivid than if I had paid for an enclosed encounter.
How to Visit Khao Yai National Park
- To get to Khao Yai National Park we took the train from Bangkok to Pak Chong, which is the closest town nearest to the nature reserve. It also happens to be where Green Leaf Tours operates out of. There are buses that run to Pak Chong, which is faster than the train, but prices were higher to match. You can book transit via either method through 12Go.
- For those looking to book a safari, you can make arrangements with Green Leaf through their webpage. As of February 2019 we paid 1800 THB (approximately $57 USD) per person for the tour. This price also included a second half day tour to a cave system where you get to see a swarm of bats and other eerie creatures (highly recommended). Both the full day jungle safari and half day cave tours are also available for booking separately.
- Green Leaf also offers budget accommodation on site which made accessing the tours extremely easy. The rooms were basic but the bed was comfortable and the food onsite delicious (which is extra but sold at a fair price). The only downside was that they didn’t have heated showers. For additional money you can upgrade to a nicer room with heated water at an neighboring hotel. We took the plunge though (pun intended) and dealt with the cold for a few days. It wasn’t ideal, but tolerable for the savings.
- Should you opt to stay at Green Leaf, they’ll provide pickup and drop off at the train station free of charge. Just connect with them to make arrangements.
- If you want to fully DIY your visit to the park, I suggest reading this blog post by Alex in Wanderland. She gives a nice breakdown on how to piece together the trip independently.
- And remember, tip your tour guide if they do a good job. We really appreciated how knowledgeable they were and the amount of care they put into the program. From ensuring we picked up our garbage, to shooing away creatures that got too close, they really did their best to minimize our impact on the wild creatures and their habitat.