The Ethical Way to Encounter Elephants in Chiang Mai

As a travel *influencer* I feel a degree of social responsibility when it comes to topics about ethical and eco-friendly tourism. I only want to promote activities and organisations that are ethical, so the topic of elephants in Chiang Mai is very close to my heart.

Elephants are a deep-rooted part of the Thai culture and they have a special spiritual significance to Buddhism, as well as Hinduism. They have played a big part in the country’s manual labour for centuries, so they’ve always been seen as working animals in Thailand. But it wasn’t until the tourists began to arrive that they suddenly became an attraction. Getting to visit elephants in Chiang Mai is now one of the city’s biggest draws but this has left the elephants vulnerable to mistreatment, all for the sake of profit margins. If you hope to encounter these gentle giants whilst in Thailand, the good news is that you still can. But it’s important that you do your research to find an ethical and cruelty-free organisation to visit them with. I hope you all agree with me that…

Elephants should not be ridden or made to perform in any way

Just like dancing bears and animals at the circus, I think elephant rides should now be regarded as out-dated and cruel. But sadly, there are still some places in Thailand that offer them. If you’re weighing up your options about where to visit elephants in Chiang Mai, let this be the first warning sign.

Fortunately, there are some wonderful places in Chiang Mai (and wider Thailand) that make it possible to visit elephants in a non-invasive way. I was lucky enough to visit one of them during my recent trip to Thailand. The Thai Elephant Care Centre is located in Mae Rim, about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. It’s a sanctuary for elderly elephants to relax and enjoy life without having to work, either by carrying tourists or in manual labour. Sadly, a life of captivity means that they’re no longer able to look after themselves in the wild. But the Thai Elephant Care Centre does everything it can to ensure the elephants have the best possible quality of life in their later years.

There are 12 resident elephants at the centre in total, who are cared for by an impressive team of 27 staff, including the mahoots (elephant owners) who have with the elephants for much of their lives. The sanctuary provides work for the mahoots so that they can still earn a living and be with their elephants even though the elephants are elderly. There is also a veterinary team who are always on hand to provide the best health care to the elephants.

The Thai Elephant Care centre welcomes a small number of visitors each day, who are taught how the elephants are cared for and what the work force do on a daily basis. We did the full day programme at the Thai Elephant Care Centre which included feeding the elephants, preparing grinded grass elephant feed and making herbal medicine to aid good digestion. These are all things that the team at the care centre have to do on a daily basis so it felt great to help out in caring for these beautiful creatures.

The day ended by watching two of the elephants take a mudbath and helping them to bathe in the river. The elephants don’t get to do this every day so for them it’s a real treat and it was so heart-warming to see how much they were enjoying themselves. Whatever treatment their captivity may have brought in their earlier life, these elephants are now cared for and at peace.

The whole experience was both humbling and enriching and seeing the great work that the Thai Elephant Care Centre does really restored my faith in Thailand’s elephant tourism. If all organisations were like this then the future for elephants in Thailand would be happy, stress-free and sustainable.

Please be sure to do your research before choosing where to visit Elephants in Chiang Mai. The Thai Elephant Care Centre is a great option if you’re visiting Chiang Mai, but there are also other reputable organisations.

What is your experience of visiting or interacting with Elephants in Chiang Mai? I’d love you to help me spread the word about ethical elephant tourism in Thailand. If you’ve enjoyed this post or have any thoughts, please leave a comment in the box below x

My trip to Thailand was part of a press trip with Qatar Airways and Birmingham Airport to celebrate the new flight path from Birmingham Airport to Chiang Mai Airport. All images, opinions and words are my own.

Jessica Ruth Gibson is the Founder and Editor of Travelista and an award-winning travel content creator of 10 years. She lives in York, UK with her son and has travelled to over 50 countries; her favourites being Italy, Canada and Vietnam.


  • Great post! I also myself went to Thailand recently. I went with an ethical company as well as helping locals but I feel like I have had to explain myself to a lot of people that GOOD places do exist.

    • Thanks Kirstin!It’s a very sensitive subject and one that has got lots of bad press over the years. I think this place can restore people’s faith that there ARE places in Chiang Mai that are doing good for the elephants. x

  • It’s wonderful that you got to experience the elephants in such an ethical way.

  • Great article Jess. We will be going to Chiang Mai later in the year and we will definitely be visiting this sanctuary.

    • Thanks Nick! I am so pleased to hear you’ll visit this sanctuary. It’s definitely the place to encounter elephants but making sure their welfare is the most important thing. I hope you love it! Have a great time in Chiang Mai.

  • Such a beautiful post Jess. So glad you got this beautiful experience. I am a huge animal lover and when I travel seeing the way some cultures and tourists treat anilmals is somethig I really struggle with so I absolutely loved reading about this beautiful sanctuary xxx

    • Thank you for yet another lovely comment Mrs B! I really do appreciate it. Glad that you are a fellow animal lover. I hope this posts makes people make a good choice about where they visit elephants. They are so vulnerable as it’s such a popular activity in Thailand. x x

  • I really loved this post because I’m actually planning a trip to Thailand and definitely wanted to see the elephants but after seeing them ridden and lifting people up on trunks in photos I was horrified so I crossed elephant encounter off my list but now I can add it back on there! I’m thrilled that you take these things into consideration so I can get trustworthy tips on visiting animal sanctuaries 🙂

    • Hi Ashley. Oh I am so pleased this post has come in handy. There will always be horror stories and there are some bad establishments but you can trust that this one is above board and puts the elephant’s welfare first. There is no riding or performing here. The elephants are well cared for and have a lot of time to roam free. I think you’ll really enjoy it 🙂 x

  • I did volunteer work at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and I’m so glad to see other travel bloggers who want to be ecofriendly and kind to these poor abused animals!

    • Thanks for your comment Tam! I think it’s a very important topic to spread the word about, especially as I have an audience. I hope it makes people make positive choices, not just when visiting elephants but for all animal tourism x

  • Thanks so much for writing about this, Jess! It’s something I feel really passionate about so it’s great to see bloggers addressing this issue head-on

    • Thanks for your comment Katie! I am glad that you feel equally as passionate about the subject. As travel bloggers we need to spread the message. x

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