I have always thought of elephants as being truly amazing creatures. They are intelligent, enormous and undeniably majestic. When I was a kid, my father used to give me little elephant knick knacks every birthday, and they have remained some of my favourite figurines.
I have always wanted to see an Asian elephant in real life, but in recent years I have become much more conscious of the ethical treatment of animals – especially in tourism – and as a result, had been incredibly hesitant to book myself in to visit any elephant ‘sanctuaries’.
The reality is, most of these ‘sanctuaries’ are just giant enclosures which appear to be ethical – but really are not. A good way to be certain that you are not supporting the mistreatment of elephants (especially in South East Asia where this is most prominent) is to thoroughly research the facility and see if it has received any legitimate awards for eco friendly practices.
In Thailand, one of the very few places offering ethical elephant experiences is Elephant Hills Tented Camp in Khao Sok. Winner of many prestigious awards – including the Pacific Asia Travel Association’s gold award in the category ‘environment/ecotourism’ and the Thailand Green Excellence Award for animal welfare; as well as being a finalist in the National Geographic Traveler World Legacy Awards in the category ‘conserving the natural world’ – Elephant Hills is arguably one of the most ethical and eco-friendly places to interact with Asian Elephants in all of South East Asia.
So what is it that Elephant Hills does to make its elephant encounters so eco friendly?
Well, first and foremost – it absolutely, undoubtedly and unwaveringly does NOT offer elephant rides.
Instead, Elephant Hills offers its guests the chance to wash, watch and interact with these animals – in an environment which ensures their comfort.
There are no chains. There is no torture.
There are just enormous open areas for these majestic animals to roam and explore, it is so incredibly lovely to watch.
So, without further ado, let me take you with me on a truly wonderful elephant encounter!
After a glorious kayak down one of the many rivers in Khao Sok National Park, we finally arrived at the large open areas that are the home for a small handful of Asian Elephants.
Growing up to 2.75m tall and weighing up to 4 tonnes, when you first catch a glimpse of these lovely ellies, the sight will most definitely take your breath away.
This elephant was considered a rather small one, but it still towered over everybody with ease!
The elephants also appeared to love frolicking around in the water, and it was so heartwarming to watch them interact with one another.
After going over some basic safety rules (more so for the elephants than for us) it was time to get closer to some of these ellies and see if they were up for a play!
As it turned out, they seemed to be really quite amenable to meeting us!
We were lucky enough to spend over 30 minutes patting, washing and observing these animals from up close, but that 30 minutes felt like it was over in just 30 seconds!
Whenever we stopped washing this elephant she would take over and start cleaning herself! What amazed me was that no matter how much any of us washed (elephant or otherwise) she was never fully clean – there would always be leftover dirt coming off!
I loved being able to feel their tough but kinda furry skin. I loved watching them throw their trunks all around. I loved watching their bug ears flap in the wind. I just loved everything about it really!
All too soon, my elephant experience was over. I left the ellies that day feeling comfortable that they were being treated in an ethical way and ecstatic that I had been able to meet them – if only for a little while.
If you find yourself in SEA and want to have an elephant encounter, please please please do your research first. You really do want to be certain that you are only supporting companies that place a big emphasis on the ethical treatment of elephants.
As always, happy solo (and ethical) travelling! xx
Getting to Khao Sok: From Phuket, Khao Sok is about a 2 hour drive north
Elephant Hills: 3 day all inclusive adventures start at 19,399 THB (approx $730 AUD), click here for more
Camera: Images captured with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 in conjunction with M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2/8 lens
Remember: Don’t just rock up to any place labelled a ‘sanctuary’ – often these are the worst offenders
34 thoughts on “An Ethical Elephant Experience in Khao Sok”
This establishment is exactly the sort of place that I would find heartwarming to visit.
I agree – it was a lovely place to visit 🙂
Glad you were able to find this place. I’ve been having an argument on Fodors with an idiot who thinks it is OK to ride elephants just because his favorite Thai tour guide is running the so-called sanctuary.
Oh god, this is why I avoid internet threads – they just make me want to bang my head against my desk!
Absolutely beautiful and heart warming post. Loved it <3
Thanks so much Phoenix <3
I was hoping to see you with a long-handled brush. That’s a wonderful elephant eye photo. You sound like you had a great time.
I don’t know if I have mentioned this before (sorry if I have) but on a similar theme if you’re looking for destination ideas my friend Caroline volunteered for a bit in a Costa Rican sloth sanctuary near Cahuita. She runs a film company and even made a film about it. Maybe I’m just trying to connect you with more small furry animals.
Haha never stop trying to connect me with small furry animals! I shall definitely keep that in mind when I eventually get to Costa Rica 🙂
These photos are incredibly beautiful and makes me want to go to a place like this asap. It’s so great that you’re raising awareness about the fact that ‘ethical’ can be quite a dubious term when it comes to sanctuaries. Loved this post a lot! <3
Thanks so much Maria! I am glad you enjoyed this post – hopefully more and more travellers continue to question the ethics of some tourist attractions.
Beautiful photos and beautiful elephants. Only question I have is why are the elephants there instead of roaming free in the wild? Have they been rescued from exploitation or injury?
Elephants in Thailand used to be used to log their own habitat and this was banned in the 90s. The natural habitat of Asian elephants (forest) which once covered 80% of Thailand was down to just 15% – then many people who owned these elephants and used them for logging could not sustain the cost of feeding them anymore and were forced to sell them off – some to better homes than others! In an ideal world they could have released them into the wild, but I am guessing that financially that would have been quite crippling, so most people would not have done so 🙁
Stunning photos and great post! We just saw 80 elephants and a water whole in Etosha National Park in Namibia. Same animal, completely different experience, but both memorable. Thanks for sharing! Marcus
Amazing! Namibia is very high on my travel wishlist – I have heard nothing but positive things!
Thanks for commenting, Namibia is an awesome travel destination! Marcus
Lovely post. Love those elephants. I have seen them now in the wild in Namibia and Sri Lanka. Incredible experiences.
Thanks Marie! I hope to see them in Namibia one day too.
After seeing the donkeys from the previous post, it is so heartwarming to see a sanctuary that treats the animals well instead of just exploiting them for tourist dollars. Such a great experience.
This is a lovely comment – I definitely agree with you!
I LOVE everything about this – thank you for sharing! I will have to put this on my wishlist of must see places!!
Thanks Dana! That is awesome to hear! <3
Elephants are one of my favourite animals, it’s the one animal I always insist on watching whenever I get to the zoo…being able to do something like this is also one of my goals but I was also worried about the ethics of the so-called sanctuary as you can’t really always trust each one so thanks for the story! 🙂
I remember going to Elephant Nature Parks a few years ago and doing a similar experience (no riding, chains, or forced interactions with the Ellies). Planning to hit up this coast of Thailand next year so will add this to my must see list!
Awesome! Where did you have your ellie experience last time?
At Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Chiang Mai 🙂 It was great back then and I’m still hearing good things about it!
Love this! We did the exact same thing in Thailand, but we ended up at a rescue sanctuary – I was so nervous that it would be a horrible place, but it was lovely. They had rescue elephants from tourism and logging – some they still did interactions with, others were “retired”. They just wanted to give them a peaceful experience after such a tough life.
That’s lovely Monique! Where was this sanctuary?
Love it, we visited a similar camp in chiang Mai, such a good experience
I would love to go to Chiang Mai one day!
This looks amazing. I’ve also been hesitant to take an elephant tour, due to unsavory groups who take advantage of the poor creatures. It’s great to hear that ecofriendly businesses still exist
They are few and far between – but they definitely are out there!
I never really gave much thought before to whether a ‘sanctuary’ is actually ethical! I’ll be sure to pay very close attention to that on our future travels. Also, forgive my ignorance, but why are rides unethical? I don’t view horseback riding as unethical. Do they not handle that type of interaction well?
Elephants that are made to carry around humans all day are manhandled, mistreated, trained, beaten and chained up when they aren’t working – if a ride is offered it is pretty much always more sinister than it looks. Also – elephants may be big, but their backs are not designed to carry large weights.
Good information to know. Thank you for educating me!