Though visitors to Thailand love to watch elephants kicking balls and playing with other props and are even more excited about the prospect of riding on top of these amazing creatures, most elephant "villages" in Thailand rely on harsh training tactics to get elephants to cooperate. And there are reports of abuse and neglect that come out every year, which is pretty awful considering that most tourists are visiting these places because they love elephants and they'd probably be horrified if they learned about what went on behind the scenes!
Thailand's Elephant Nature Park just outside of Chiang Mai is the only place in the country where you can visit elephants in an environment guaranteed to be free from exploitation and abuse. And, if that doesn't make you feel good enough to go, it's beautiful, a lot of fun and one of the highest rated day trips from Chiang Mai on Trip Advisor.
What to Expect:
Founded in 1995 by Sangduen "Lek" Chailert, the Elephant Nature Park was opened as a sanctuary for elephants. Currently there are 30 elephants at 250 acre the park, and though visitors can't ride on top of them or watch them play soccer, they get to have more meaningful interactions with the animals -- feeding, bathing, and observing them in their beautiful jungle sanctuary.
Full Day Visits:
The Elephant Nature Park will pick you up at your hotel in Chiang Mai by 8:30 a.m. and bring you to the park. Once you arrive, you'll take a brief tour of the main platform in the jungle, or go straight to the 10:30 a.m. feeding to help feed different members of the herd.
After feeding, you'll go with a guide out into the park to walk around and visit some of the elephants in their environment. You'll also get to give the elephants some snacks. For lunch for people, the park provides a Thai vegetarian buffet. After lunch, visitors get to bathe the elephants in the river (make sure to wear clothes you don't mind getting wet!).
In the afternoon, visitors get to watch a documentary about the park and elephants in Thailand, then talk with members of the staff. After that, the park arranges transport back to Chiang Mai and visitors can expect to be back in their hotels by 6 p.m.
Extending Your Time:
For visitors who are really passionate about elephants, who have more than a few days to visit, or want a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Elephant Nature Park has a volunteer program where you get to work with the elephants and assist staff. If you don't want to do too any work on your vacation, you can also arrange to stay in the park as a guest at one of their simple cabins.
You can't just drop into the park for an hour, you'll need to visit for a full day, so though it's a little more expensive than the elephant villages you'll see advertised everywhere, it's a better value when you consider how much time you get to spend with the animals.
Day Visits: 2,500 baht for adults, 1,250 baht for children 5-11 (children under 5 are free)
Overnight Visits: 5,800 baht for adults, 2,900 baht for children 5-11. This includes all meals and basic accommodations.