Vegan food, culture, and elephants are probably the top three reasons Marissa and I had Thailand at the top of our list for this trip. Our trip to Thailand wouldn’t have been complete without spending time with elephants, but if we couldn’t find a sanctuary that promotes and practices ethical tourism, we would have gladly left Thailand without ever seeing an elephant. With elephant tourism on the rise, it became more important to us than anything to make sure our money, time, and promotion was going into the right hands- so we began researching.
Some sanctuaries we had previously heard amazing things about had taken turns for the unethical worse. It became our mission to find a place that we felt good about going to and that we felt good about telling you to go to as well!
In our research, we came across a fairly new sanctuary by the name of Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, and we booked our visit.
We were so excited to go, but I can promise we were in alert-mode to try and make sure there wasn’t anything going on that a tourist wouldn’t take the time to pay attention to or call out.
Early in the morning, the truck picked us up to start the journey to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. We picked up a group of people along the way and eventually made it to the sanctuary. Driving in, we could spot elephants wandering around the jungle- completely different from the ones in the riding camps we also passed along the way.
We unloaded and met the other visitors and before we ever had any interaction with the elephants, we learned about these beautiful creatures and an easy do’s and don’ts, which I found very important. We also were told that they just opened a location in Phuket, Thailand (AKA, the most touristy part of Thailand)… First red flag.
The reason I am going into such detail is because I am torn…
Before I go any further, it is probably best to explain why I am so upset writing this post and even getting you excited about the ethical experience we had at the Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary feels wrong. Why? Because I also visited the Phuket location and my heart was racing nonstop while trying to keep my mouth closed as red flags were flying through the sky. If one of their locations is completely unethical, does that mean the company as a whole is unethical and the Chiang Mai location just happens to be great at hiding what they’re doing? I think so, or they don’t know what is going on at their Phuket location, and that is messed up- so this is why I’m torn.
Lets compare and contrast, shall we?
A lesson on how to interact with elephants BEFORE the clueless humans try and decide how to do it themselves.
Dump the humans off 5 meters away from giant elephants and let them do whatever they want right off the bat.
Why it Matters:
We are a swarm of unfamiliar, ignorant, uneducated humans who are stepping into the presence of mentally fragile, yet gentle beasts. These aren’t small house dogs, these are wild 12,000 pound animals who were mentally abused. Tell us what to do.
Wait for the elephants to wander into the area from the acres of open and natural habitat.
Have the elephants barricaded in wooden “cages” and tied at the ankle waiting for said humans to arrive to petting zoo.
*cue fuming Shaedyn immediately upon entry*
Why it Matters:
What was the point of saving them from captivity just to put them into captivity once again?
Elephants were constantly feeding, whether it was from us by hand or them having an abundance of food lying around for them to graze on.
No food in the cage while they were locked up, we hand-fed them bananas and some sugar cane, then they went back into their cages with nothing to graze on.
Why it Matters:
Elephants need to eat almost every hour of the day because of their size and the way they digest their food. To keep the animals out of reach of food is a horrible thing to do, do I really need to explain why this matters?
There are eight different camps with ~60 elephants. Each volunteer group is rotated between the camps so the elephants aren’t continuously having excessive human interaction.
There is one single camp with no gate around the border, so instead they resort to cages and tying up the elephants. There are two loads of humans every single day. No breaks for the elephants except the glamorized hour break they get between the groups.
Why it Matters:
They are in performance mode every single day, all day long. They need limited human interaction, if any. They are a source of income. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is just another tourist attraction to come to Phuket.
Mahouts knew how to handle each elephant without (visibly…) hurting or forcing them anywhere and you could see how much they cared about the wellbeing of the elephants.
Mahouts were in constant play/joke/entertaining mode. They put on a lady-boy performance. They knew the commands to use to make the elephants perform for us. Examples- Mahout held on to Natalie’s (biggest elephant) trunk as he shouted something so that she would lift him from the ground, hovering in the air. I was standing next to Natalie (with the wooden cage separating us) observing her as she swayed back and forth *red flag*, and the mahout shouted another command to Natalie so that she would kiss me on the cheek.
Why it Matters:
This one has so many awful and crucial things that made me boil over with frustration. Firstly, elephants sway back and forth as a form of psychosis whilst they are held in captivity out of their natural habitat and their needs are not being met… Natalie was held in a very small cage with another elephant. Secondly, I didn’t need a kiss from Natalie. Natalie would not have kissed me if I came face to face with her in her natural habitat. Natalie would have stomped my face into the ground if she weren’t absolutely terrified out of her mind about what the humans would do to her because this sanctuary may have freed her from a much worse environment, but they have not freed her mentally and they take complete advantage of that control. If I wanted to come to a tourist attraction that included a man running around with water balloons in his shirt, maybe I would have booked it. But then again, maybe I unknowingly did, and that is actually where my money is going and that could be why the Phuket location costs almost twice as much than the Chiang Mai location.
The sanctuary served a completely vegetarian menu and when we let them know we were vegan, they went into the kitchen and prepared us two completely vegan dishes without hesitation.
We let them know we were vegan because I saw them preparing lunch and I thought it’d be easier to let them know beforehand so they could possibly prepare something while they were already in the process. He let me know there would be vegetarian options and some vegan stuff. Then he made a hilarious “joke” about how there were elephant meat options as well… *cue speciesist outcries* as they laughed it off assuring everyone that they were juuuuuust kidding. HA, so hilarious. The joke was on me, however. They weren’t juuuuust kidding about having animals in the food, just that it was a different animal than elephant. It was only chickens that they put in our food this time! What a relief!
Why it Matters:
This is the most important flag in my opinion. Can someone explain to me how they run a sanctuary for one kind of animal, to do so much to protect the life of this animal that it would be so absurd to eat it as food. That they decided this animal was okay to love and spend time with, but that they could turn around and kill a different kind of animal, and feed it to the volunteers. How is this justified? It just isn’t. I don’t pay sanctuaries to kill animals not lucky enough to have sanctuaries of their own. I would not have given Elephant Jungle Sanctuary a single Thai Baht if I knew this was what I was paying for.
So, how am I supposed to tell you how amazing the Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was if I know their name represents so many things I don’t?
I was going to continue this blog post explaining my experience, but I really don’t think that is the direction this post needs to go in. More than anything, the elephants in the hands of this sanctuary need to be taken care of and awareness needs to be brought to this situation. Something needs to change and it needs to happen fast. Until then, I will gladly remain torn until I can proudly support everything that is happening to the elephants in Phuket and Chiang Mai.
Came across this article recently, and thought I’d add a comment based on my experience at the Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary location in 2022. It was MUCH more like the Phuket version described in this article. So, it may have changed for the worse. Hope that helps any future readers.
[…] Here is a useful article that I found that compares the two “elephant sanctuaries.” […]
I had booked this place. Have just asked for my deposit. Anyone know of any truly ethical sancturarys in Phuket?
Thanks for your question and for wanting to make an ethical choice. These are beautiful majestic animals that desperately need our help and protection, but are too often abused so that tourists can feel like they had a “wildlife experience” or post selfies on social.
Giselle of MindfulWanderlust has an excellent post on our site entitled “What not to do in Thailand” where she gives some warnings but also offers a couple of recommendations:
Natasha Daly has an excellent article in on this topic in Nat Geo called “Suffering unseen: The dark truth behind wildlife tourism“.
I’m going to Phuket next week, I found “Phuket Elephant Sanctuary” to be a good option and one I think I can support.
The owner of the business focuses on old and injured elephants, they do not allow bathing with the elephants, and limit interaction with them. I doubted why this would be necessary, but letting them really be free after so many years of abuse is important; you stay on the trails and the elephants free roam to you (Having them staged in “Not Cages” that are fenced in and constant visitors seems harsh and “better” than what they used to but that is still not true sanctum.).
Regardless of how friendly and nice people are; that does not detract from the essence of keeping the elephants always “on” for show especially with the bathing. If they wanted to bathe and kiss and lift people up, why would they need cues from Mahouts? They wouldn’t!
Visit the elephant nature park in chaing mai. It is a true elephant sanctuary supported by save the elephant foundation.
Has a more solidly ethical sanctuary near Chang Mai been found? I’d love to find such a one where I can volunteer for up to a week, but that provides vegan food and doesn’t have the sense of intruding into Karen village life.
I look forward to hearing from you all,
Hi Ella, thanks for your question. It is a bit hard to know for sure. But here is a link to some other reviews from vegan travelers who have been to Chiang Mai: https://www.vegantravel.com/chiang-mai/
Completely different experience!!!
The word “cage” seems to be thrown around pretty loosely here. There are NO cages here. There ARE however, several large enclosures that the elephants are kept in overnight. The sanctuary is not fenced-in (yet) so when the caretakers are not with the elephants, I can see why an enclosure would be necessary. There were NO chains or ropes anywhere to be found, tied to the elephants or otherwise. Each of these enclosures had PILES of food. In fact the elephants ate so much food while we were there that I even asked one of the caretakers about it. He said they eat all day. They literally don’t stop eating unless they are in the mud pit, or in their pens for the night. They ate watermelon, bananas, mangos, and sugarcane while we were there. The staff brought wheelbarrows full and dumped the food out in three huge piles that we chose from to give to the elephants. They finished all of the food and then ate some more after we swam around with them. Referring back to the elephants coming back from the jungle: The caretakers walk around with them during the day to make sure they can graze appropriately. People did NOT just do whatever they wanted when we were dropped off. We DID wait about 15feet from the elephant enclosures for instruction, and were then encouraged by the caretakers to come interact with the animals. The elephants were let out of the enclosures after everyone had arrived. There was a group of about four adults that one caretaker was bringing back from the jungle, no ropes or commands necessary. Natalie the mom was perfectly comfortable being in her enclosure with her baby. There was only one elephant who displayed the “rocking” motion. It was one of the older elephants. She was 70years old and had spent her entire life chained in a cement stall when she wasn’t worked. Elephants often exhibit this “rocking” for many years after abuse. It is not necessarily symptomatic of the Sanctuary, but rather as a comfort mechanism that they developed from being chained in one place for hours at a time. When said elephant was rocking back and forth, one of the caretakers went under the fence and calmed her down then led her out to us. It was very sweet. I do agree on one point: The commands. While most of the time the commands were harmless, like saying “bon” to the elephants so they would open their mouths wide and you could feed them, or the caretakers commanding the elephants to spray you or kiss you with their trunks, the lifting did irk me a little bit. The mamma elephant, Natalie, lifted me over her back while in the pond at one point because a caretaker instructed her to do so. I fell clumsily down her back into the water, and one kid face-planted pretty hard on her. I didn’t ask to be lifted up, and I would have rather not had that in our experience had I chosen.
Over all this is the best place you can go if you’re looking for kind animal tourism. I consider myself a tough critic and I would go back in a heartbeat. The people who wrote this post are grossly misinformed, and in my opinion, a little too sensitive to Thai culture. This sucks because the staff at EJS were nothing but kind and hospitable. A lot of joking, yes, but we also learned a lot about the mistreatment of elephants, and we experienced an afternoon that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. Please go!
THANK YOU RACHAEL! I 100% agree with you! I was there in March 2017 and thought it was such a great experience. I did my research beforehand. I don’t like the use of the word “cages” because that is absolutely FALSE. There is wooden fenced in areas where they stay until they get used to us and we get used to them. Also EJS did mention that the sanctuary does not have a fence to keep them from leaving the compound so if there isn’t a caretaker that can stay and watch them then they have to go in there. We were even told how one elephant was left out one night and she walked down the road and ate a whole crop of the neighbors bananas! So THAT is why they need enclosures (NOT cages!). I honestly can’t wait to go back. To see those babies running free and so happy just really was life changing for me. That Naughty Boy was so joyful! My group actually went and got elephant tattoos after this experience (my first and ONLY lol!)!!
I recommend you GO!! ❤️????
It’s not ethical. Look at the photos elephants tied up. Kept in cages/enclosures. Being lifted on to the elephants back, making the elephants kiss you, bathing with them. Come on this is still exploiting them for tourists like you who think it’s fun
The elephants dont. Judy
The part about the phuket elephant sanctuary is just so wrong. The only elephant in a “cage”, had ample space and was with its child they immediately brought her out because she was a newly rescue and they try to let her adapt to humans. You could approach the newly saved mother and baby slowly to feed her and in small groups of people so she wouldnt feel threatened. If the handlers felt she was stressed in any way they made us go away. When you visit the sanctuary elephants come first people second, its truly a beautiful and magnificent experience. All the elpgants could come and go at their leisure. Please spend some more time here instead of just putting down people who work so hard to save endagered species. The jungle elephant sanctuaries are definitely tue thical place to go and all proceeds go to the elephants food as well as purchasing other elephants to bring them into the sanctuary and save them from the logging and entertainment businesses. You dont realize how bad these animals need help until youre educated, all toursists in phuket should go here, no where else. You can see the love and adoration the volounteers have for these animals.
But I want to know where there is a good one
Jon shared the positive experience he had with an Elephant Sanctuary here: https://www.vegantravel.com/first-ethical-elephant-sanctuary-phuket/
Thank you so much for sharing your experience.
As animal lovers and vegetarians my wife and I were were considering attending the “sanctuary” in Phuket.
Thanks to your blog we have opted not to support this institution and will continue researching other alternatives that practice ethical treatment of their animals.
Animal sanctuary is https://www.facebook.com/Thaielephantrefuge/
Thanks for sharing. breaks my heart to read of your experience. I am blessed to have visited a TREMENDOUS elephant focused – animal sanctuary in Thailand. I was in Thailand 2 weeks on tour – too many temples, not enough animals;)
Founder, Edwin, is a Dutch expat who has lived in Thailand for 20 years and is fluent in Thai and works tirelessly to help the animals. We volunteered for a few hours and got to have fun with animals. There are volunteer positions to stay on property.