Asia | Bucket List | Reviews | Thailand

Best Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai

April 27, 2018
Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai | Don’t ride an elephant. Instead, volunteer at ethical elephant sanctuary. | #Thailand #ChiangMai #elephantsanctuary #EthicalAnimalExperience #elephantbathing

Thailand Elephant Sanctuary Volunteer Experience

Do you love animals? If you are like me and love to interact with animals up close and personal, an opportunity to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary is a good enough reason to head to Chiang Mai, Thailand. This was THE reason I had the city on my bucket list before I decided to celebrate Songkran in Chiang Mai (might as well!).

I really, really, really enjoyed the opportunity to spend a whole day with elephants and get to know more about them. I felt a special connection with them. It was a life-changing experience that I highly recommend to anyone visiting Chiang Mai.

Update: It was brought to my attention that some travelers were allowed to ride an elephant for a photo opportunity at Elephant Retirement Park in the Phuket location. I do NOT endorse an elephant riding in any form, and I’m sad to learn about this incident. My experience at ERP’s Chiang Mai location was different. No one offered an elephant riding. This review is solely based on my personal experience. I did not receive any compensation from any of the elephant sanctuaries mentioned here, nor will be paid through affiliate links. I’d love to hear from anyone whose experience at Elephant Retirement Park was different from mine. 

READ: The Ultimate Guide to Songkran 

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai | Don’t ride an elephant. Volunteer at ethical elephant sanctuary. | #Thailand #ChiangMai #elephantsanctuary #EthicalAnimalExperience #elephantbathing


Finding Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand

Unfortunately, Southeast Asia is not the best place for animal welfare. Most notoriously, tigers and elephants get abused for tourism. Have you seen a photo of tourists posing with a tiger in Thailand? That tiger is most likely drugged, declawed and chained up for Instagram likes. How about the elephant riding? Baby elephants are taken away from the mom, chained and beat up with hooks until their spirit is completely broken. Because their body is not created to support human weights, they often get injured; consequently, they get killed after being used.

I wanted to make sure that my elephant experience was nothing of that nature. After some research, I found a couple of ethical elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai that help retired elephants live a better life after long years of abuse.

I tried to book with Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Jungle Sanctuary based on their reputation and reviews. However, they were completely booked. Then, I learned about Elephant Retirement Park and was able to book one-day elephant care program (2,600 BHT/person = about USD 82).

Pro Tip: Book the elephant volunteer program well in advance. As you can tell from my experience, the registration at an ethical sanctuary in Thailand get filled up pretty quickly.

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai | Don’t ride an elephant. Instead, volunteer at ethical elephant sanctuary. | #Thailand #ChiangMai #elephantsanctuary #EthicalAnimalExperience #elephantbathing

Elephant Retirement Park: One Day Elephant Care Program

Elephant Retirement Park sent a van to pick up volunteers from the Chiang Mai Hotels around 8:30 a.m. After about an hour drive through Mae Tang countryside, we arrived at the park with two other vans.

The program started with a brief introduction to Elephant Retirement Park and their elephants. We learned about elephants in general, including their lifespan, behaviors, likes and dislikes, diet and the difference between Asian and African elephants, etc. It was interesting to hear from one of their long-term volunteers how she extended her stay in Thailand to help rescue elephants after her initial visit to the park.

READ: Best Place to Stay in Chiang Mai – Boutique Hotel Review

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai | Don’t ride an elephant. Instead, volunteer at ethical elephant sanctuary. | #Thailand #ChiangMai #elephantsanctuary #EthicalAnimalExperience #elephantbathing

Feeding Elephants Breakfast

We went to the pantry hut, where we prepared bananas and sugar canes. We chopped up sugar canes into bite size. We carried these in a burlap bag to feed elephants. Each elephant seemed to have a preference and was picky about which one they want to eat. When I offered bananas and sugar canes, elephants would reach out with their trunks to sniff and grab the food. Their noses were wet and had a unique smell. When they inhaled, it felt as if I put my hand on the head of a vacuum cleaner.

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai | Don’t ride an elephant. Instead, volunteer at ethical elephant sanctuary. | #Thailand #ChiangMai #elephantsanctuary #EthicalAnimalExperience #elephantbathing

Playing with Elephants

The elephants in the sanctuary had a strong bond with their caretakers. In particular, a baby elephant just followed this one guy, who looked like Mowgli from the Jungle Book, and wanted to play with him all the time.

Some elephants jumped into the water to swim. The others ran across the area, chasing after their caretakers. Adult elephants are bigger than I thought. When they charged and ran, it was a bit scary. Not that they would intentionally harm me, but I was afraid they would accidentally step on me. 

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai | Don’t ride an elephant. Instead, volunteer at ethical elephant sanctuary. | #Thailand #ChiangMai #elephantsanctuary #EthicalAnimalExperience #elephantbathing

Lunch for Volunteers

After the play time, it was time for us volunteers to eat lunch. The sanctuary provided a vegetarian buffet, which was simple yet delicious.

Elephant Retirement Park also provided the clothes for mud bathing and towels. I brought my bathing suit to wear underneath the clothes. We changed our clothes and got ready to bathe the elephants.

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai | Don’t ride an elephant. Instead, volunteer at ethical elephant sanctuary. | #Thailand #ChiangMai #elephantsanctuary #EthicalAnimalExperience #elephantbathing

Elephant Bathing

Elephant bathing was the highlight of the day. Elephants like to bathe in mud to protect their skins from the Sun. They rolled over their huge bodies and rubbed against mud. It reminded me of my dog who loves to rub-dry himself against the blanket right after a bath. How cute!

Volunteers also jumped into the mud bath. We helped rub mud against the elephant’s skin. We had as much fun as the elephants just playing in the mud. After the mud bath, the elephants knew precisely what they needed to do next: take a plunge into the water to wash off mud!

ERP had a photographer who captured this precious moment for all of us. We had many individual and group photo opportunities with the elephants. And the best part was that we didn’t have to worry about getting the camera wet or dirty; we just needed to have fun! These photos were up on their facebook page the next day. Regardless, I decided to purchase a CD to secure the high-quality images and support the elephant rescue efforts. 

Pro Tip: Elephants get excited during the mud bath. So be careful not to get stomped accidentally. They can unintentionally break your bone.

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai | Don’t ride an elephant. Instead, volunteer at ethical elephant sanctuary. | #Thailand #ChiangMai #elephantsanctuary #EthicalAnimalExperience #elephantbathing

Taking a Shower & Nap

Once the elephants got bathed, we needed to take a shower, too. Their shower facility was not the fanciest but clean. The shower included basic toiletry and towel. The mud got into every nook and cranny you can imagine. I was glad ERP provided a set of clothes as I wouldn’t want to bring muddy clothes back to the hotel.

After a shower, volunteers gathered on the stilted deck overlooking the park to take a nap. Although I didn’t fell asleep, it was nice and relaxing.

The van took us back to the hotel around 5:30 p.m. We also received two green T-shirts. If I remember correctly, only those directly booked on their website got the shirts. 

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai | Don’t ride an elephant. Instead, volunteer at ethical elephant sanctuary. | #Thailand #ChiangMai #elephantsanctuary #EthicalAnimalExperience #elephantbathing


Final Thoughts

Volunteering at the Elephant Retirement Park was the best wild animal experience I’ve ever had in my life. Elephants are darn CUTE! They are very affectionate and super intelligent. They love to play. When I looked into their eyes, I felt like I could see their soul. I felt a sense of connection with them.

I don’t know how much of difference I made to their lives, but it made the difference in mine. It is a special memory I will always cherish.   

Have you had a similar experience? I’d love to hear from you!

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Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai | Don’t ride an elephant. Instead, volunteer at ethical elephant sanctuary. | #Thailand #ChiangMai #elephantsanctuary #EthicalAnimalExperience #elephantbathing

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai | Don’t ride an elephant. Instead, volunteer at ethical elephant sanctuary. | #Thailand #ChiangMai #elephantsanctuary #EthicalAnimalExperience #elephantbathing

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai | Don’t ride an elephant. Instead, volunteer at ethical elephant sanctuary. | #Thailand #ChiangMai #elephantsanctuary #EthicalAnimalExperience #elephantbathing

  1. This is such an important topic to spread awareness on so thank you for taking the time to do that as a travel blogger! These elephants are such beautiful animals. It warms my heart to see them being treated as they deserve 🙂

    1. Hi Kristen – It was really good to see how much passion and love caretakers had for these elephants. Hanging out with elephants all day was very special, too.

  2. it’s true that in Asia we don’t care much about Animal welfare. But through your pictures it’s nice to see that in Thailand things are changing and even nicer to see volunteers pitching it
    Great job! Thanks for spreading the love!

    1. Hi Mayuri – Too many tourists support wild animal tourism without understanding how these animals are treated. Supporting these elephant sanctuaries is really a small thing we as tourists can do. I’m glad I went and able to spread words about it. 🙂

  3. I pinned this! Thank you for sharing- I have been looking for ethical sanctuaries in Thailand as my husband and I would love to go to one…however, I was hearing mixed reviews from a lot of friends and family on whether or not they have any. I am so excited to check more into this!

    1. Hi Lindsay – I hear ya. I was nervous, too, because I didn’t want to support anyone whose interests lie in making money out of animals. ERP was lesser known compared to other two I mentioned above at the time of research. But after visiting the park, I was so happy I made the right decision. Yes, you can fake how the elephants there are treated while they have visitors. But I also saw how happy these elephants were there and how affectionate they are towards their caretakers, which can’t be faked. Please do your research to confirm your choice of the sanctuary is ethical. When confirmed, do it without hesitation! I had the best time of my life.

  4. What a beautiful thing to have experienced. I get very worried about doing things that are not ethical and I think sometimes I even get worried the sanctuaries market themselves as being ethical but are not really. But by all of your accounts it looks legit. So glad you had a wonderful time.

    1. Hi Amy – I also heard some sanctuaries are not ethical. I think it’s really important to research to check the background and history of the sanctuary and see what the people who visited/volunteered at the park are saying.

  5. Wow, this seems to be like an awesome experience. I would love to visit Thailand for this sanctuary. It’s great to see how they are protecting wildlife. I love the pictures, it seems you had a great time there 🙂

  6. A friend of mine had an experience volunteering in an elephant sanctuary, but she never really told me about how it worked. For this reason, it was interesting reading about your experience and getting to know the organization from a volunteer point of view.
    Nice post and photos 🙂

    1. As I said in the post, this experience probably impacted me more than the elephants there. I felt like it was more of an interaction, rather than volunteering. Regardless, it was a great educational opportunity for us “volunteers” to better understand elephants and the social issues. Now we can be the advocates for these beauties!

  7. Awe! It looks like you had so much fun here playing with the elephants. I’m happy to see more people are being more aware of visiting proper sanctuaries. It was interesting to learn about your volunteer experience.

    1. Hi Candy – It was the most memorable experience from my Thailand trip. After seeing and hearing about animal neglect and abuse in SEA, I felt good about contributing to their well-being although very little effort to what they need. Plus, I had fun playing with the elephants 🙂

  8. What a fantastic experience, Chloe! I’m totally sold on this ethical volunteer experience. We’ve been dying to go to Thailand and I absolutely love elephants so this is a must-do for me!! How fun that you get to feed and bathe the elepehants. That is such a great idea that they provide the clothes for volunteers to wear during the mud bath and showers afterwards.
    I can’t wait to do this one day! Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

    1. Hi Louise – I’m glad I got you interested in this. Should you have any questions, please feel free to drop me a line.

  9. We did a similar program in Zimbabwe with a cheetah. We wanted to make sure that it was ethical and not just an instagram trap. That seems like a truly incredible and insightful experience. It is not just about photos but about learning how they are and how to help them. We love these kinds of experiences.

  10. It seems you had such an amazing day, it’s something I would love to experience. Love all the pictures 🙂 Also, thank you for spreading the awareness about animal cruelty that’s happening for the tourism purposes. That’s why the research and education is so vital. <3

    1. Hi Mateja – You’re right! I wanted to have a good experience for myself, but animal welfare comes first. I wouldn’t want to hurt them for a photo opp. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to check the credentials of sanctuaries before booking. And obviously, no elephant riding!

  11. It’s good to know that there are sanctuaries like this that gives opportunity to visitors to volunteer and gives awareness to everyone. You really did a good in spending time taking care of these gentle giants. Given the chance I would also volunteer and help all the animals that are in need.

    1. Hi Joy – I’m excited to hear that you are interested in volunteering at elephant sanctuaries! Please do when you get a chance. I’m happy to answer any questions. Thanks!

  12. I’m often apprehensive about animal tourism – way too many people think they are doing something good when in fact, they are unknowingly fueling an unethical industry. But you’ve clearly made a conscious effort in making sure that your experience was nothing of the sort and I would like to applaud you for it.

    Hopefully, more people become aware of the impact they leave on the lives around them.

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