How to Find Ethical Elephant Tourism in Thailand

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

With Lam Duan, a 57 year old blind elephant

Everyone who travels to Thailand wants to trek with the Asian elephants who are advertised for trekking, riding, and shows.  Elephants are highly revered in Thai and Buddhist traditions, and were used for warfare, much like horses in prior times.  Elephants, thankfully, are no longer used for the logging industry in Thailand, as the country has been overlogged.  At that time, the late 1980s, there were elephants and their “mahouts” (handlers, trainers, owners) who were suddenly without work.  These mahouts began using their elephants to beg on the streets, they turned their elephants into trekking elephants with a box on the elephant’s back for people to sit in (these are very harmful to elephants as their backs are the weakest parts of their body), or training the elephants to perform in shows.  The only safe way to ride an elephant (for the elephant) is to ride on their necks. There are still some mahouts who still work illegal logging camps on the border of Myanmar and Thailand, who give their elephants “speed” to make them work longer and faster, and who abuse their elephants with the tools of the mahout: chains, the thotti (hook),  the valiya kol (long pole), and the cheru kol (short pole).  These are the traditional tools used to “break” elephants, and to control them.  The hook is particularly horrible, and if you see an elephant with scars, open sores, wounds…you’ll know it is being abused with the hook.  Using the hook side of the tool is not necessary, regardless of what any mahout tells you, the elephant is hurt by it and it causes them pain and injury.  Period.

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

Ally and Lam Duan

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

Cutting pumpkins for the elephants

Where once there were nearly 100,000 wild Asian elephants roaming the jungles of Asia, there are now about 2000 wild elephants left in Thailand.  They are terribly endangered as their habitat has been so altered and destroyed; they migrate the same way they did for hundreds of years…only now there are farms in their way.  Farmers do not hesitate to take action against elephants who threaten their crops.  It is a tragedy that it is really not a question of IF the Asian elephant will go extinct, it is a question of WHEN.  With only 2000 left in the wild, and approximately 2000 “domesticated” elephants in Thailand (including those in sanctuaries), it won’t be long until they are gone.

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

Nice spray

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

Mud time

The elephant is a symbol of Thai Buddhism, and considered an animal who brings good luck.  When I planned my trip to Thailand I very badly wanted to see and spend time with elephants, but I didn’t want to harm them.  I did research, and among the excellent research I found Adore Animals blog on Ethical Elephant Tourism and another blog at Jdomb’s Travel which helped me understand what I needed to look for.  Most sanctuaries are located in the Chiang Mai area, quite north of Bangkok, but I did find Elephant’s World in Kanchanaburi City, 3 hours from Bangkok.  3 hours is not super close, especially when you only have 5 days, but Alexandra, my daughter, and I were determined to spend time volunteering with elephants, and it was a enriching, wonderful experience.

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

John taking his mud bath

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

John with a 78 year old female!

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

Using a stick to scratch! So very intelligent!

Elephant’s World was founded in 2008 by Dr. Samart Prasithpol (head of the Department of Livestock of Kanchanaburi province) to function as a ‘retirement home’ for elephants who were too old to work, too injured, or too ill.  Elephant’s World works FOR the elephants, to give them a peaceful, happy life.  The elephants at Elephant’s World are well cared for, and enjoy a day of feeding, dusting themselves, playing in the mud, being fed some more, and then, having a lovely wash and dip in the river.  (Meet the elephants here.)

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

Beautiful river

Our day began with a 3 hour drive to the sanctuary, then we met and talked with the volunteers about the elephants.  The volunteers were very like those I worked with in Mozambique, mostly young adults who want to see the world and make a real difference, so volunteer tourism is a great way for them to travel.  I wish more American young adults would do this type of traveling.  We started by learning the structure of the day, then we were given a huge basket of fruits to feed Lam Duan, a female elephant who is about 57 years old who was used in the logging industry, then as a trekking elephant.  She is completely blind, and likes to be fed directly in her mouth instead of using her trunk.  She also does not like to be stroked or touched.  Lam Duan has obviously been worked far too much, and because she is blind she is not readily accepted by the other elephants.  Elephants in the wild live in family groups and have deep emotional bonds…but elephants who are in sanctuaries lost their families long ago, and sometimes do not care for other elephants around them.  Lam Duan is kept away from most of the others.  A mahout would use a hook if Lam Duan was attacked by another elephant (which has happened) but mostly she just stays away from the group. She does like John, a small 7 year old bull who loves to play.  Poor John was separated from his mother far too young, and seems to think that he should be able to make little elephants with the 50 and 70 year old matriarchs around him!  They seem to just brush him off, but he does get excited!

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

Nicely submerged

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

Ally’s ride!

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

Ally taking a swim!

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet


During the volunteer day one feeds, makes sticky rice balls with protein powder and veggies for the elephants to eat (they eat A LOT).  Then you enjoy the show as the elephants have a mud bath, which they really enjoy.  After that, it is time for the river, and swimming with the elephants!  What an incredible privilege to swim around an elephant, and to climb up on its neck for a ride and a dunk.  The elephants really love their river swim and bath!  After their baths, once again we fed them baskets of fruit.  We fed an elephant who used her trunk, and it was so incredible!  The elephant trunk has more muscle in it than the human body does.  Isn’t that amazing?  They grab that food and stuff it in their mouths very quickly, and if you don’t stuff food in the trunk, the trunk comes looking for you!

Our day ended after feeding time, but there is one thing I want everyone to know:  the sanctuary is trying very hard to raise the money to build a fence to keep the elephants out of the sugar cane of neighboring farmers.  Until that fence can be built, the elephants have to be chained when they are not being active.  They need $20,000.00 to build that fence.  Here is the link to donate:  Be sure and let them know Travels with Tam sent you!  It really is a good cause…these poor elephants have suffered so terribly, and it would be such a gift to them to be able to roam instead of be chained.  I very much encourage you to give, even if it is just a few bucks!  You can also volunteer, whether for a day or a month or a year.  What a great experience!  Do check out Elephant’s World in Thailand!  It was one of the best days of my trip to Thailand, and Alexandra felt the same.

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

Tam feeding elephant

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet

elephant, ethical tourism, our planet


One final request: should you go to Asia, please avoid the touristy trekking and shows with elephants and choose Ethical elephant tourism.  We can all help make change in our world with just simple, good choices.  The “nellys” (nellyphants) will thank you!

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About the Author ()

I am an avid scuba diver, underwater photographer, amateur historian; interested in all people and cultures. For me, the unexpected is usually the norm! My motto? I am an Empty Nester who likes to Renew, Revamp, and Reinvent Life!
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Comments (28)

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  1. What a great post! I had no idea that the boxes on the elephant’s back for people to sit in were so dangerous — I saw many tourists being transported that way in India. The elephants looked so miserable I didn’t consider abusing them further by going for a ride myself but your experience volunteering and then going for a ride in the river seems a very good and ethical alternative.

    • Tam Warner says:

      Thanks, Michele! These poor elephants have spent miserable lives hauling, working, begging, transporting…the sanctuaries are a godsend to them. I think feeding them and swimming with them, including a little time up on the neck, which doesn’t hurt them, is much better. They are so happy during their mud bath and river time!

  2. I was just in India and the same questions came to mind for me. I wanted to interact with elephants, but not support any enterprise that was exploiting the elephants in a negative or abusive way. I was lucky to be able to interact with two elephants rescued by a hotel from a circus. “The girls” — as The Oberoi Vanyavilas hotel manager in Ranthambhore refereed to the two elephants — are given the best care under the watchful eye of the staff naturalist.

    Your article is excellent and hopefully with educate others to the plight of these beautiful animals!!

    • Tam Warner says:

      Thank you so much! I really believe that if people can learn that these practices are harmful to elephants, they would turn to the more ethical ways of interacting with them. I’m sure the girls are happy as can be!

  3. Tom Bartel says:

    Thanks for this, Tam. Next trip to Thailand, we’ll be there.

  4. LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS! Thank you! I think everyone should read this, even if they do not plan to travel to Thailand! I would love to experience this as well. Need to add this to the list. Thank you! I recently fed ostriches in Curacao… this does not come close to your experience!

    • Tam Warner says:

      Oh, I love ostriches! I fed some outside of Cape Town and couldn’t stop laughing! The elephants are awesome…I also swam with pigs in the Bahamas! Now THAT was an incredible thing! Swimming Pigs in the Exumas! you should look at that blog! Thanks for your comments, Suzanne!

  5. Michelle says:

    I love Thailand and now I have a reason to go back. These photos are incredible. I love the ones of you riding the elephant and the one with their heads together 🙂

  6. We heard quite a lot about the elephant situation when we were in India in November. Sounds like you had a wonderful experience and now you’ve given us all important info. Thank you for that. Oh, and a way to help!

  7. What terrific pics! It looks like you had an amazing time with the elephants, and that they had some fun, too! Thx for sharing.

  8. Josie says:

    Hi Tam,
    I very much appreciate your attitude and dedication to this noble cause. It’s obvious you feel deeply about saving the beautiful elephants! It must have been so hard to leave them after that wonderful day.
    I’ll remember your advice about finding the right people — and elephants — to patronize while in Asia.
    Wishing you safe and happy travels,

  9. Nancie says:

    Lovely shots of these beautiful creatures. I haven’t been to Elephant’s World, but have visited the Elephant Nature Park, which also does great work.

  10. That looks like an incredible experience—and to have the photos makes it even more wonderful!

  11. I was in Chiang Mai 10 years ago and didn’t know as much about elephants and the abuse of them as I do now. I went to a place where the elephants “paint” with their trunks which some of them seemed to really enjoy. It was a weird thing to have an elephant do but it didn’t seem abusive. But they did offer rides in cages on their backs and I didn’t do that and now I’m glad I didn’t. It’s so sad that they’re on the path to extinction! Thanks for such an interesting post.

  12. glad there are some ethical elephant destinations .. I will check them out when next in Thailand

  13. I’ve heard a lot lately about the elephant rescue camps in Thailand. I had no idea they were so endangered! What a great story!

    • Tam Warner says:

      I didn’t either, and I was very sad to realize it. It is doubtful they can be saved in the wild, but the poor working elephant deserves a break! Thanks, Patti!

  14. Wonderfully educational and entertaining post. I’m learning more about the ethical treatment of elephants. I, too, didn’t know the back was the weakest, most vulnerable part of the elephant’s body. Would love to visit this place one day.

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