Lek Chailert continues to fight for ethical elephant tourism. — Photo courtesy of Save Elephant Foundation
Interacting with elephants is a signature experience of visiting Asia. What most tourists don't realize, though, is that every single elephant who gives rides, paints pictures or performs in a show has been physically and emotionally abused in ways you can never unsee once you've been shown.
To get a sense of what that entails – grab tissues because you're going to learn about the crush box – watch Love and Bananas, a powerful documentary that should be required viewing. It follows the rescue of a 70-year-old, partially blind trekking elephant by Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, who was named Time magazine's Hero of Asia, and who founded Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Lek has been a champion for these magnificent creatures for decades, and her Save Elephants Foundation has developed the 'Saddle Off!' initiative as part of its Asian Elephants Projects. Its goal is to transform trekking camps into ethical elephant tourism experiences where the elephants' welfare comes first.
These experiences do NOT involve rides or performances – and they are so much more meaningful. They are all about enjoying the elephants being elephants in their natural habitats, and making them comfortable by feeding them, walking with them and tending to their needs.
If you want to interact with elephants when you're in Asia, you should only support companies connected with Asian Elephants Projects. They provide meals for guests, as well, and take as good care of you as they do the elephants.
Here are 10 places offering experiences that are life-changing for both elephants and humans.
Elephant Nature Park
Lek Chailert with her beloved babies at Elephant Nature Park — Photo courtesy of Save Elephant Foundation
For more than 20 years, Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand has set the standard for the ethical treatment of elephants, and is now lovingly caring for 84 rescued elephants.
There are so many ways to come and help the elephants here – you can visit for a few hours or a whole day if your time is limited – but there's nothing like spending a week as a volunteer. Not only do you get to engage with and get to know these animals, you'll also be making a real difference in their quality of life. If you're really lucky, Lek herself will be there to share her stories with you and inspire you to become an advocate for the elephants.
Karen Elephant Experience
The Karen Elephant Experience is very moving — Photo courtesy of Save Elephant Foundation
For more than 20 years, Karen tribes have rented their elephants to camps but this group of owners is creating a new, honorable tradition by taking off the trekking chairs and committing to caring for these animals at their homes in Chiang Mai.
During this day-long experience, you will meet and feed the elephants, and learn about their history. You'll be given Karen style clothing to wear while walking with the elephants as they forage for food in the forest, play in their favorite mud pit, then bathe in the river.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is the only ethical elephant sanctuary on the island of Paklok — Photo courtesy of Save Elephant Foundation
The first and only ethical elephant sanctuary on the island of Paklok, Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is home to a herd of rescued elephants who you can get to know individually on the website – and, even better, in person.
Set on 30 acres of lush jungle bordering Khao Phra National Park, the sanctuary offers a variety of interactive programs designed for you to get up close and personal with the elephants. Sign up for 'In the Footsteps of Giants: One Day in the Life of an Asian Elephant' to go on a safari in the jungle, where you'll learn why these gorgeous animals are considered the gardeners of the forest.
Phuket Elephant Park
Phuket Elephant Park is set against the backdrop of a national park — Photo courtesy of Save Elephant Foundation
Set against the beautiful backdrop of a national park, this small sanctuary is home to three rescued elephants, each with their own delightful personality.
Take a morning eco-tour, where you get to feed and walk with the trio, observing them as they roam, forage and bathe. This half-day experience will fill your heart and soul.
Samui Elephant Sanctuary
See inside the soul of a rescued elephant at Samui Elephant Sanctuary — Photo courtesy of Save Elephant Foundation
Half a dozen rescued elephants call these 10 acres of forest – the first elephant sanctuary in Koh Samui, Thailand – home.
Spend a morning or afternoon with these beauties, feeding them bananas, walking with them and just enjoying their natural behavior.
Samui Elephant Haven
Elephants hang out together at Samui Elephant Haven — Photo courtesy of Save Elephant Foundation
The sister project of Samui Elephant Sanctuary, Samui Elephant Haven opened in August 2018 to make more room for rescued elephants.
During your half-day visit, you can watch the elephants play together in their custom-built pool and mud pit, and walk with them while they roam the tropical grounds, forage and communicate with their trunks and unique vocalizations.
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Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia
One of the magnificent creatures at Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia — Photo courtesy of Save Elephant Foundation
Located in one of the richest and largest remaining examples of Indochinese dry forest biome, this one-million-acre conservation project is committed to protecting and rehabilitating diminishing jungle habitat and wildlife, as well as employing and empowering the local community.
Volunteer to work with – and for – the elephants rescued from the logging industry. You'll help regenerate the jungle habitat of the endangered elephant by planting trees, collecting seeds and making trails. You'll also help feed these magnificent creatures.
Elephant Haven Thailand
It's a joy to watch the elephants bathe at Elephant Haven Thailand — Photo courtesy of Save Elephant Foundation
Located in Sai Yok, Kanchanaburi in southwest Thailand, Elephant Haven Thailand is featured in Love and Bananas, and is a shining example of the value of changing to a "No riding. No shows. JUST LOVE!" philosophy.
Whether you spend a day or stay overnight, you'll be so moved as you hang out with the seven rescued elephants who have retired here.
Barumun Nagari Wildlife Sanctuary
How cute are these mother and baby elephants at BNWS? — Photo courtesy of Save Elephant Foundation
Located in northern Sumatra, Barumun Nagari Wildlife Sanctuary (BNWS) was established in 2015 to provide a haven for rescued elephants from throughout Indonesia. It's the first program of its kind in the country, and will hopefully inspire others to open as well.
Six elephants currently live here, and you can visit them for the day, stay overnight or volunteer for a week. Sharing this hidden paradise with them gives you an opportunity to experience their lives firsthand.
Save Thai Elephant Park
Taking a mud bath is so much fun at Save Thai Elephant Park — Photo courtesy of Save Elephant Foundation
The owner of this project, which is located near Elephant Nature Park, accompanied three females rescued from elephant riding in Kanchanaburi in south Thailand as they made their way on the difficult journey to Mae Taeng in the north, and she has seen them become happier, healthier and more relaxed under her dedicated care.
You can spend the day with the trio, preparing and feeding them fruit, vegetables and banana-rice balls. You'll walk with them, watch them play and bathe, and you'll likely become happier, healthier and more relaxed by the end of the day, too.