If you are looking for an ethical elephant sanctuary, Chiang Mai has many on offer. But are they all as they seem?

When visiting Chiang Mai in North Thailand, one of the “must do” activities for most tourists is to experience the Asian elephants that inhabit the region. However, recently the veil has been lifted on the industry. 

Thanks to the internet, and the information we now all have at our fingertips, tourists are far more conscious of the unethical treatment of animals. For example, the infamous tiger temple that allowed tourists to come face to face with apex predators was closed down in 2017. 

However, as we discovered on our recent trip to Chiang Mai, elephant tourist attractions are still widely promoted among hostels and tour offices spread throughout the Northern city. 

Elephants spend 22 hours of the day eating to maintain a healthy body weight.

Rather than advertising elephant rides, most leaflets promise an ethical sanctuary with “strictly no riding”. Enough to attract those still curious by these fantastic animals. The chance to come up close with them is hard to turn down. 

Matt bonding with the elephants at Bamboo Elephant Family Care

We conducted research before taking part in such an activity as we were concerned about the treatment of the elephants. 

There seemed to be lots of information out there. Many companies claiming their only intentions are the wellbeing and rehabilitation of these animals. 

We decided to go with Bamboo Elephant Family Care upon recommendation from a friend. 

Our elephant sanctuary experience

The journey to the sanctuary took around one hour and thirty minutes. Out of the city and into the surrounding countryside. Once off the main road, I was a little taken aback at the frequency of different sanctuaries that seemed to be dotted all around us. They were everywhere. Were all of these “ethical”? 

Two older elephants looking for bananas

Once we arrived, the itinerary for the day was explained to us. Firstly, we would feed the elephants, then create “medicine balls” to help with their digestion. This would be followed by a walk with the family up into their natural habitat. Finally, we would bathe them in the nearby river. This all, of course, sounds great in theory but was it in practice? 

Like most issues, there are two perceivable sides to the coin. 

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Elephant feeding time

As we were taught on the day, elephants spend 22 hours of the day eating to maintain a healthy body weight. So helping them achieve this with buckets full of bananas and other vegetation is most likely a positive. The amount of food provided by the sanctuary is far from what they require. They spend a lot of the day wandering the surrounding jungle to forage for themselves. So, the animals are not entirely reliant on humans for their food. 

Lorna feeding the elephants bananas, they eat them skin on

Everyone involved in the experience seemed to enjoy the chance to interact with these majestic giants. Of course! Who doesn’t love elephants?


Once the buckets had been emptied, our guide gave us an informative lesson in the struggles elephants can face with digestion. With the sheer volumes of food they consume on a daily basis it comes as no surprise they may need some help in this department. 

Our group after making an elephant medicine ball each

The “medicine” that we put together was entirely natural and seemed to be adored by the animals at the sanctuary. Although again, it did feel slightly gimmicky. I’m sure there are ways the elephants could find all of the ingredients for themselves in the wild to overcome any digestive issues without human intervention. 


The part that we did not agree with was bathing the elephants. The animals were led down to the river by the handlers. Despite there being no chains, it felt as though they were almost forced to come out of the jungle to partake in a bathe. As a group, we were encouraged to splash them with water and brush their skin. To us, this did not feel natural but everyone in the group didn’t seem to mind. One of the herd seemed to genuinely love splashing around in the muddy water, however, the other did not stick around for long and made off back to the jungle.

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The Verdict

Bamboo Elephant Family Care claim that they do not allow elephant riding, chains or hooks but simply offer tourists the chance to take care of the elephants with them.

This all sounds great in theory, however, throughout the day, we began to query how ethical the sanctuary really was.

The elephants have been trained and are said to react to certain words that the workers say. From what we experienced, they are allowed to roam free, but if they go further than the sanctuary’s boundaries they are brought back. It is not a life in a cage but to call it a life of freedom would also be inaccurate.

One of the elephants eating bamboo

From the questions we asked, the elephants will most likely never be returned to the wild. Any infants born into the herd will remain as part of the setup. As elephants have strong emotional bonds with their young, keeping the family together is understandable. 

The day overall seemed to be an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. I suppose that is the real intention here. We can see both sides of the argument but have to admit, it was breathtaking being able to interact with elephants up close. That being said we are not certain the welfare of the animals is really what is at the forefront of these so-called sanctuaries. 

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Hi, we're Matt & Lorna. Two travellers on one path hoping to share some of our experiences with you.

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