Elephant Trekking in Chiang Mai: Tips and Review

If you come to Thailand, you gotta take a photo with an elephant, it's a must do. But here's the problem, the best elephant camps and tours get booked out weeks in advance so if you wait until you get here chances are you'll either miss out on an adventure of a lifetime or end up accidently supporting animal cruelty without even realizing it. I hate to admit that, especially to myself, but I had no idea how bad it really was until just this past weekend and wish that I would have known sooner. In this blog post I'm going to explain why riding elephants like a horse isn't a necessarily bad thing but usually ends up being way worse than you actually thought when you do it in Thailand.

I'm going to share the best places in Chiang Mai, Thailand to trek, bathe, wash, and hang out with elephants and the tours you should go on and the tours you need to avoid. I've been to various elephant camps all across Thailand and have been on multiple tours so trust me when I tell you that pictures don't do the experience justice and that it can truly be one of the most magical adventures of you life if done right. If done wrong, not only will it be a bad experience for you, with nothing more than a few photos saying you've done it, but it'll also be something you'll regret for the rest of your life. Keep reading for all of the details on the best elephant tours and some tips and tricks on how to get the most out of it.

What to Avoid

Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you that you can't take an elephant selfie or that you can't have an epic photo riding an elephant if that's something you really want. But I do need to warn you how bad most elephant tour companies really are. You may have heard things here and there about how it's not good to ride elephants, or how the mahouts use sharp hooks. But then you go on a tour and see it's not really that bad and since you're there anyways you end up riding them and taking some cool photos that then inspire your friends to do the same when they come.

But here's the dark secret. Even me, sitting on an elephant's back doesn't seem that bad considering adults can carry 3x that weight on their trunks alone. However, everything else around that is what is really terrifying starting with how they got the elephants in the first place and what they do the "break" the elephants in when they're young.

None of us would support human trafficking, especially of children, but that's exactly what happens with baby elephants in the wild as there are huge profits in elephant tourism. But then what happens next is even worse. Unlike breaking a horse where you use positive reinforcement to get a horse comfortable enough to let you ride it, with elephants the process is a week of torture to break its spirit.  Watch this video below and you'll understand what actually happens and why it's worth taking the time to properly research and reserve the best elephant tour in advance and not just booking something last minute when you get here.

Find the Best Tour

Elephants are amazing creatures and you shouldn't skip the chance to spend the day with them just because there are bad operators out there. So instead of me just supporting one tour company, I'm going to share what to look for as well as what to avoid.

First, even before you get to Chiang Mai, you're going to want to avoid giving money or buying bananas for elephants you see on the streets in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket or any other touristy areas. They shouldn't be there especially at night surrounded by loud cars and lights. When you do find an elephant tour, make sure they aren't using metal seats or chairs as that's an easy sign to see that those elephants are carrying too much weight on their back and are most likely being overworked in the hot sun carrying people around all day. If you really want to ride an elephant, do it bareback with solo or with two people maximum including the Mahout and without the metal chair.

The other thing to avoid are places that keep elephants tied or chained up. It may not seem like a big deal, but imagine being tied up to a post all day and not being able to roam around. If you accidently end up at one of these places as a part of another tour or package that sometimes includes elephant riding, just tell them you want to skip it. And if you really want to make a difference, show your group the video above so they can then make their own educated decision.

After doing a lot of research, I ended up going with Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai as they had the most ethical track record and small groups. But they get booked up weeks and sometimes months in advance. Check out this video of what it was like!

Choose Your Adventure

What's really cool about Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is the fact that they've opened up their tours to local villagers. This provides education and gives them an alternative way to make money through sustainable Elephant tourism. Being part of the Saddle Off project means ENP teaches, sets standards, and revenue shares with the local tour company by bringing them customers that normally would go with someone else. We went on what Harmony Project which is the newest tour and isn't even listed yet on the Elephant Tour Packages page yet. But that's where you would normally go to book an experience, we did it through a local tour operator since we were already living in Chiang Mai at the time, but I highly recomend you do it in advance.

Update: The new Saddle Off projects are now super easy to book and are widely available on ENP's website above. They are a lot more fun than the actual park itself which is just a wide open sanctuary that's honestly a bit boring to visit. The projects are much more fun as they are actually in the jungle itself.

A big reason why I want to support these guys is because they are actually making a difference especially since they give other companies an alternative. I truly believe that eco/sustainable tourism is the future, and it's worth the extra costs.  Anyone can take a quick selfie or photo while riding an elephant for 20 minutes, but I've done it and it's not only boring, but when you learn how bad these magnificent animals have been treated in the past you'll wish you had known these things before you went. So if you have any friends visiting Thailand anytime soon, link them to this blog post so they can make the best choice. If you want to visit the actual park, you'll need to book a project that specifically says they visit there (the ones in the north do) and even though it's cool to see, honestly it's just a big open area and nowhere as cool as the actual trekking and jungle experience itself.

johnny fd elephant

Choose "Eco" Wisely

As the term Eco Friendly becomes more and more popular, a lot of tourist attractions are starting to label themselves as sustainable eco tourism as their mission statement even if what they actually do in practice, at night, or behind the scenes is completely the opposite. The worst part is the breaking of young elephants that you'll never see as it happens off site in the jungle for "just" a week of the elephant's life but affects them permanently. Here is a post made by a tourist named Andrea Riley who stayed overnight at an elephant camp and saw what happened overnight when the other tourists were gone. You can see the whole post and videos here but here's what she wrote:


For my 50th birthday yesterday we booked what was supposed to be a memorable trip to an elephant sanctuary. Unfortunately it turned out to be memorable for all the wrong reasons. After extensive reseach i chose to visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, after all it stated on their website that they're an ethical & sustainable eco tourism project. As they also had glowing reviews on trip advisor, i like 100's of others was sold on the idea. I chose the 2 day one night package. Most visitors just choose a 1 day package and i have to state that had we have just done the daytime visit i would have left being non the wiser.

Alarms bells rang when we were told just before we got to our evening camp that elephants were shackled overnight for their own safety & so that their mahout could rest. We arrived at the overnight camp at 3.30pm, some day visitors were still there, however as soon as they left around 4.30pm the elephants were led away, i followed along. En route 1 elephant that obviously knew what was coming went off track. I witnessed the mahout prodding him with a small spike several times. I couldn't hold back & asked to see what was in his hand, he refused & put it in his pocket. The evidence was clear from the creatures marked hind though. The elephants were then shackled & left without any access to water or food. We were told earlier in the day that they are clean animals that will not defacate where they sleep. These animal had no choice!


Final Thoughts 

If you somehow didn't see this post until you've already ridden an elephant, you can still make a difference by letting others know before they come to Thailand. Also if you are booking a tour last minute and somehow all of the packages at Elephant Nature Park are full, do a bit of research and check if the other top companies on Tripadvisor are doing things ethically and go to the ones that do. Make sure they don't have groups later than 8 people, don't have elephant shows, painting, riding with chairs, or chains. 

The goal for all sanctuaries including Elephant Nature Park should be not just having rescued elephants fairly treated now, but to prevent the illegal elephant trade and breaking in torture from ever happening in the first place. If you want to make a difference and stop these barbaric and unnecessary traditions, here are three things you can do to actually make a difference.

1. Support elephant sanctuaries like Elephant Nature Park
2. Help educate future tourists by sharing this blog post.
3. Let the Thai government know you want this to stop by signing this petition

Remember, tourism is great for the county, and by voting with our dollars and showing that we are willing to pay more for more immersive experiences, smaller groups, and ethical treatment of animals, everyone involved will be better off. 

I hope everyone loves their experience and travels! Leave a comment below and let me know what you think and if you have any questions!

Warm Regards,

Johnny FD

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Post a Comment

  1. Are there any other ethical elephant sanctuaries outside of Chiang Mai and other northern Thai cities? I'm going to Thailand next month, and heard March is terrible time to visit the north.

    1. You'll want to avoid all northern Thai cities in March during the burning season. The rest of the year Chiang Mai is awesome.

      Here are some links to other ethical places, I'll add it to the blog post as well:



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