Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries In Phuket (And Where to Avoid)

by Mama Loves Phuket

In recent years, ethical elephant sanctuaries have become a pivotal part of Phuket’s appeal to conscientious travellers. These sanctuaries offer a humane and sustainable way to experience one of Thailand’s most revered animals – the elephant – in a domesticated setting.

There are no ways to experience elephants in the wild in Phuket. Most of Thailand’s dwindling wild Asian Elephant population (less than 3,500) are found in the northern provinces.

Moving away from traditional elephant camps, which often prioritize entertainment over welfare, these sanctuaries in Phuket focus on the long-term health and well-being of their resident elephants. It is not possible to return them to the wild, but they can be placed in a better long-term home.

a walkway platform over the phuket elephant sanctuary providing an ethical manner in which to interact with elephants in phuket
Free-roaming elephants at a sanctuary in Phuket, observed with a no-touch policy

Based on extensive research, I’ve put together this guide to help you delve into the world of ethical elephant sanctuaries in Phuket and the surrounding southern provinces of Thailand.

I will help you explore how these sanctuaries operate, the experiences they offer visitors, and why they represent a significant shift towards responsible animal tourism.

I’ll also highlight the crucial role these sanctuaries play in elephant conservation and how they contribute to educating the public about the importance of ethical animal interactions.

Deciding on an Ethical Elephant Experience in Thailand

Finding an ethical elephant experience in Thailand is harder than it first seems. You cannot make assumptions based on the language used in advertising, such as ‘retirement‘, ‘rescue‘, or ‘sanctuary‘; look at the complete offering, how the animals are actually treated, and what sort of interactions you can expect.

Whilst most tourists have come to understand that elephant riding is unethical and cruel, the same cannot be said for experiences such as elephant bathing, showering, and ‘massaging’ elephants. At first, when many elephants were moved from tourism to sanctuaries over the past decade, bathing was seen as a welcome compromise to riding, allowing visitors a close interaction.

elephant bathing alone in Phuket elephant sanctuary
Bathing is essential for elephants but should not be done under duress

However, the education process is evolving, and it’s now commonly understood that bathing with elephants is not only unhygienic but can still be distressing to the animal. The elephants must be trained and often restrained in unnatural ways to allow tourists this opportunity.

Here are some resources I have found helpful in my own journey to understanding domesticated elephant ethics. I urge you to educate yourself before booking any elephant experience in Thailand.

Note that elephants in Phuket cannot be left to roam free at night. They only actually rest for about 4 hours a day and spend 16-18 hours of their day eating! But their mahouts do need rest, so overnight, you will find even at the most ethical of sanctuaries, they are required to be kept in a space-appropriate enclosure, unchained, but fenced in.

elephant hotel; enclosure where the elephants sleep overnight so not to escape the fenceless property
Example of overnight accommodation for elephants to keep them from escaping into the forest

How can I be certain these elephant experiences in Phuket are ethical?

I cannot for certain; I am not an animal welfare expert or a vet. As a visitor, you only get a glimpse of the actions of the park and what is going on.

My top tip is to look for look for third-party accreditation. While the Thai government does not have a mandate for what constitutes an ethical sanctuary, many international organisations and NGOs do set the standard. I look for mentions with

  • Responsible Travel
  • World Animal Protection
logo for responsible travel
logo for world animal protection

Other things you can look out for and be aware of if you are reading a review of an experience include:

  • Are your behaviours going to restrict the animal from behaving in a natural way (e.g., restricting their movement)?
  • Do the mahouts (the elephant keepers) use bullhooks, punish the elephants in any way, or force the elephants to do something they do not want to do?
  • Can you see a baby elephant without a mum? The vast majority of rescues are mature animals unless they’re orphans from the wild (which does not occur in Phuket); be very suspicious of a ‘rescue’ with babies and juveniles.

The situation in Phuket is not helped by many ‘sanctuaries’ having very similar names and all now using the word ‘ethical’ to appeal to an audience without putting the best standards into practice.

I personally read through several hundred reviews before publishing this guide – and not without a lot of pause for thought about the challenges I might receive.

I truly hope this round-up gives you a fair view of what is presently offered (as of early 2024) in Phuket, but I encourage you to do your own reading, too. The face of animal tourism in Phuket IS evolving, albeit slowly.

Map of Elephant Sanctuaries in Phuket

This map here will help you quickly identify all the elephant parks in Phuket, along with my research notes below to help you in your search.

(I have not visited each one, so I have had to base opinions on their advertised programs and online reviews. Green coloured parks on the map are the ones I consider to be following the highest ethical standards, and orange parks are getting there, but there’s room for improvement, mostly around bathing interactions.)

Phukets Most Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries

Let’s start with the ones I am fairly certain will deliver an ethical elephant experience in Phuket. These sanctuaries are accredited by external bodies and run no-bathing policies, in addition to no riding, no chains, no bullhooks. Currently, I believe there are only 4 meeting this highest standard.

NB pricing is in THB – see more on Thai money and conversions here

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

Established in 2017 and endorsed by National Geographic and World Animal Protection, the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary’s mission is to give Thai elephants that have undergone abuse a chance at life in a natural environment free from humans mingling.

Short and non-obtrusive feeding sessions are included as part of their canopy walk and half-day experiences. You can also trek in the park on foot with a guide, but there is still no touching policy (unless the elephant engages first).

The highlight of PES is its observation deck, Thailand’s longest canopy walkway, where visitors can observe the elephants roaming, foraging, and bathing.

an elephant residing in phuket elephant sanctuary

Half-Day Packages (3.5 hours morning and afternoon programs)

  • Adults ฿3,000
  • Kids (4-12 years) ฿1,500

Canopy Walkway Program (1.5 hours, 4 per day)

  • Adults ฿1,900
  • Kids (4-12 years) ฿950

Beware of many imposters with similar names. The one in Paklok is the original! Phuket Elephant Sanctuary currently has 13 elephants, though its aim is to rehome as many as 25 on their 30-acre grounds surrounded by the Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Sanctuary. PES focuses on rescuing older elephants with permanent disabilities.

Learn more about Phuket Elephant Sanctuary here | Read our detailed review of Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

Bukit Elephant Park

Note that the current owners took over the park in 2022, so if you are reading any reviews, please check that they are recent, as there have been some significant changes under new ownership.

Located next to the picturesque Khlong Kata Reservoir, the Bukit Elephant Park is presently home to 6 rescues in a lush green environment filled with ponds, streams and grassy fields.

They operate a strict no-riding and no-bathing policy.

Taking pictures with the elephants IS permitted here, with the guidance of a mahout who will advise which animals are approachable and how each of their elephants prefers to be interactive with.

Visitor Programs on offer (2024)

  • Half-Day (3 hr) Elephant Nature Tours ฿2,700 THB and ฿1,500 THB for kids (4-11 years)
  • Mini Elephant Nature (2 hr) Tours ฿1,400 THB/ Kids ฿800 THB
  • Half-Day Walk and Feed ฿1,600 THB/฿1,000 THB
  • Walk and Plant ฿1,800 THB/฿1,100 THB

Part of the tour will also involve a rubber tapping demonstration, Thai cooking, and a coconut milk demonstration. I feel that Bukit delivers one of the most holistic and ethical elephant and nature experiences in southern Phuket, where the focus isn’t just on the animals but on having an immersive Thai cultural experience.

Learn more about Bukit Elephant Park here | WhatsApp +66 984 392 999

Phuket Elephant Nature Reserve

Located in the lush jungle near the centre of Phuket Island, the Phuket Elephant Nature Reserve allows visitors the opportunity to interact with rescued elephants at the sanctuary through feeding and jungle walking with the elephants to view the beautiful lush forest.

There is no riding, chaining or bathing allowed here. Learn about elephant dung recycling, which is used for paper and biogas for cooking. You can help prepare herbal treats and go on nature hikes. There is mention of a mud and spa bath for the elephants, but this is purely observational for humans.

They currently have three elephants, so it’s a smaller experience than PES but still a rewarding one. It’s not too far from the popular beachside towns for those looking for an ‘easy’ but fulfilling half-day experience.

  • They offer a 90-minute introductory experience at 9:00 AM, 11:00 AM, 1:00 PM and 3:00 PM
  • Adults ฿1200 | Kids (4 to 12 years) ฿600

For a more in-depth experience, opt for a half-day adventure which includes lunch and a cooking demo

  • 9:00 AM and 1:00 PM
  • Adults ฿3,000 | Kids (4 to 12 years) ฿1,500
  • They also offer discounted family packages

Learn more about Phuket Elephant Nature Reserve

Hidden Forest Elephant Reserve

Very recently opened in November 2023 (I believe the same team previously operated under the name Treetops), this new sanctuary hidden in southern Phuket is supported by Responsible Travel. Home to just a handful of elephants all rescued from tourism, the sanctuary is run to a high standard and works on a no-touch basis.

You can relax in their Bamboo Observation Huts as the elephants graze, play in the mud, or bathe nearby. The huts have stunning views of the forest and the valley towards Big Buddha. You can also enjoy a Thai meal at their on-site vegetarian restaurant.

As well as 6 current elephant residents, the park is also home to an abundance of butterflies and dragonflies, as well as eagles and egrets that enjoy the natural surroundings.

Group experiences are intentionally kept small and intimate with a morning and afternoon guided session for visitors to enjoy a complete educational experience at 9:30 AM and 2:00 PM, each lasting 3.5 hours.

  • Adults ฿2,900
  • Kids (4 to 11) ฿1,450
  • The price here includes transportation and a vegetarian Thai buffet meal.

Learn more about hidden Forest Elephant Reserve

Recommended Elephant Sanctuaries Near Phuket

If you are touring around southern Thailand, there are a couple more ethical elephant sanctuaries also worth considering in your itinerary that may provide an equal or superior experience to those found in Phuket:

Elephant Hills

Elephant Hills is located in Khao Sok National Park, north of Phuket (2 hours north of Phuket Airport HKT). Numerous rescued elephants reside here and are free to roam the vast jungle area.

The park offers two luxury tented jungle camps for those looking for a unique and interactive nature experience. Elephant Hills is not just focused on the elephants. You will be able to see them during your stay and enjoy their natural habitat, which is combined with other experiences such as nature hikes and canoeing.

This is one of only a few chain-free elephant parks in Southeast Asia, and it offers one of the most immersive experiences.

Given the remote nature of this nature park experience, they operate on an all-inclusive camp basis, which includes transport to and from their remote camps and all your meals while you are there.

  • It is open to families with children 4 and above (7 and above if you want to stay at their floating camp)
  • Prices vary greatly by season and which of their camps you choose, but expect prices to start around ฿13,000 Adult /฿7,000 Child (off-peak) for a 1 night/2 day experience in their Safari Camp
  • For the floating jungle camp, 3 nights/4 days, prices go up to ฿36,000 Adult / ฿18,000 Child
  • Sign up to their newsletter for promotions, mostly run in the off-peak season you can get offers like like stay free

Learn more about Elephant Hills all-inclusive packages here

Following Giants, Koh Lanta

Supported by World Animal Protection, this free-roam sanctuary now has two locations in Krabi (mainland) and on Koh Lanta. Leading the way in ethical standards and running educational programs, they offer a few different program variations you can expect to find in Koh Lanta:

  • 2 hours programs here start from adults ฿1,500, kids (2 to 11) ฿750
  • Full-day programs adults ฿3,500 | kids ฿1750

Learn more about Following Giants

Other Elephant Parks in Phuket & Surrounds

I am also including here a complete listing of elephant parks in Phuket. According to my investigations, as of early 2024, these venues are not presently meeting all modern best practices for ethical standards in animal welfare. However, you will NOT find cruel practices such as riding and chaining at these venues.

As I say, do your own research. After thoroughly understanding why, I cannot support bathing and showering as being ‘ethical, ‘ but most of the items listed below fall into this category.

I don’t want to deter from the good deeds these places are doing either when the animals are ‘rescued’ and facing a better life than before. No-touch options are available at many of these if you prefer. But I do ask you to please think about where you want your much-needed tourism dollars to go in Thailand when there are more ethical options available.

Phuket Elephant Care Sanctuary

Be careful of names that are very similar to PES. Here, they do all sorts of interactive activities that cross the line of modern ethical standards. Whilst they strongly promote that no riding takes place, which is a massive tick, showering and bathing with elephants and ‘massages’ is their big sales point.

There are several different locations in Phuket: Naithon Sanctuary, Loch Palm Sanctuary and Mum Muang Lung Sanctuary.

  • You can partake in a feeding-only experience from ฿1,250/฿1,000kids
  • Half-day experiences with feeding, bathing and rain showers are ฿2,900/Kids ฿2,200.

Learn more and do your own research into Phuket Elephant Care Sanctuary

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary Village

Another one not to be mistaken for PES, Phuket Elephant Sanctuary Village, has been criticised for effectively housing elephants as props for tourist photos.

  • They offer feeding and photo packages starting from ฿900 through to half-day experiences ฿2,200.

One look at the size of the bathing pools and how many tourists are closely touching the elephants at one time was enough to explain why I took this one off our ‘ethical elephant sanctuary’ shortlist for Phuket.

Learn more and do your own research into Elephant Sanctuary Village Phuket

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (EJS)

Although they strongly tout themselves as ethical, reports show that they have baby elephants ‘on display,’ which strongly suggests they are breeding in captivity (unverified). They also promote feeding and playing with the elephants, which is against the ‘no touch policy’ considered to be the highest ethical standard.

They have three locations across Phuket (Kathu, Thalang, and Bangtao branches) and a minimum of 5 elephants that can be seen in each herd, though it’s not terribly specific which one you’ll get to visit. Please proceed with caution as I see this one being widely sold to tourists staying at the beach resort towns.

Learn more and do your own research into Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Elephant Wildlife Sanctuary Phuket

Again, mud baths and bathing are the advertised highlights here, with their ‘save and care’ program a ‘best seller’ through to honeymoon packages. It is not my idea of romance to be petting an elephant in a contained enclosure and then rubbing your bare body on them for the sake of a photo, but I’ll let you decide…

  • 2-hour program adults ฿1,800/kids (5-9 years) ฿1,350
  • Half-day programs from ฿2,600/kids ฿1,800

Learn more and do your own research into Elephant Wildlife Sanctuary Phuket

Phuket Elephant Retirement Park

Another that carefully crafts wording to hide their ethical standards in place. Their ‘retirees’ are indeed able to roam freely here, and strictly no riding. However, they still heavily promote their ‘care programs’, which include mud baths, a lot of physical touching, and a ‘training’ program for wannabe carers.

The programs on offer are extensive if you are still insistent on something that involves touching. They offer Half-Day Elephant Care, Private VIP Elephant Care, Honeymoon Elephant Care, Volunteer Elephant Training, and Corporate Team Building (the photo of around 10 colleagues all ‘hugging’ an elephant in mud enough to explain what you’ll get here).

  • Half Day Adults ฿2,600, kids ฿1,800
  • Through to VIP Elephant Care ฿7,000

Learn more and do your own research at Elephant Retirement Park Phuket

Green Elephant Sanctuary Park

Located close to our place in Surin Beach, I had high hopes as they boasted of operating under European Elephant Protection Laws for their infrastructure. However, they still allow a mud spa with elephants.

I do hope they will take on feedback here to adjust their program, as it ticks the boxes in many other regards (but let’s not also ignore the recently reported unethical human treatment of the owner, a Swiss National caught up in his own private controversy in Phuket).

  • Half-day Adult ฿2,500
  • Kids (5 to 10 years) ฿1,900

Learn more and do your own research into Green Elephant Sanctuary Park

Tonsai Elephant Care Camp

Situated close to Patong but not as well known as some of the others. I do like that you can opt for a feeding-only experience here from ฿800, and a feeding and trekking option for ฿1,600.

However, they still allow bathing and showering programs with posed photo sessions, which has put us off attempting a visit. If you choose the full program, it is ฿2,700 for a half-day.

Learn more and do your own research on Tonsai Elephant Care

Lake Phuket Elephant Home

Another that actively promotes no riding, no hooks, and no chains but lets itself down with bathing experiences still being offered. Located in northern Phuket, close to Phuket Airport, they offer half-day and full-day care experiences that are popular with those only making short stops on the island.

  • Half Day Adult ฿3,500/Kids (4 to 10 years) ฿3000
  • Full Day Adult ฿4,900/kids ฿3,900

Learn more and do your own research into Lake Phuket Elephant Home

Phang Nga Elephant Park

Sitting an hour or so north of Phuket island, this is an interesting one as the elephants are cared for by a small village of families. They definitely tick many of the boxes when it comes to animal welfare, but then I read that they allow neck riding rather than back riding; I have a big question mark if this is still currently happening, as online information is unclear.

We’d previously seen this appear in a few ‘ethical lists’ (written ironically by tour agencies that profit from selling tours there), so please be very careful with this one. Bathing with the elephants is still part of their daily program.

  • Elephant care Experience ฿3,900/ Kids ฿2,900
  • For families with kids under 4, they recommend their Family Elephant Experience ฿8,900 for 2 adults and up to 2 children under 4

Learn more and do your own research into Phang Nga Elephant Park

Elephant Attractions to Avoid in Phuket

There are a few key ‘attractions’ in Phuket that any animal-lover – or anyone with a conscience really – should totally avoid. These include:

FantaSea – that clearly knows how unconscionable their acts are as they confiscate your phone before allowing you into the show – you’ll see no pictures online these days of what actually happens during the show, so many are still taken by surprise that this Thai ‘Cultural Theme Park’ still has so many animals involved.

  • You only need a brief read through platforms such as TripAdvisor to see that despite the ‘reduced’ use of animals in their shows in recent years, there’s still a huge degree of animal exploitation happening here. (You can’t even buy tickets through the TripAdvisor platform as it does not meet animal welfare guidelines – one small step towards stopping this outrageously outdated show from continuing).

Kokchang Safari located near Karon, Kinnaree Elephant Trekking in Rawai, Kalim Elephant Camp (aka Camp Chang Kalim) in Kathu area, Phuket Elephant Trails, and Phang Chang Kamla (aka Elephant Camp Phuket).

  • All of these venues still offer elephant riding. Yes, in 2024, it’s still not actually illegal.
  • Elephant riding involves heavy contraptions being attached to the elephant’s back and bullhooks being used to control the animal. This is not OK in any way, shape, or form; elephants aren’t meant to be ridden.

Please avoid these elephant trekking camps at all costs; you can hire an ATV (still not great for the environment) or go on foot if you really want to see the ‘jungles’ of Phuket.

Final Thoughts on the Ethics of Animal Sanctuaries in Phuket

I welcome your thoughts and opinions on this topic. What may have been seen as ethical and something you enjoyed on your last trip to Thailand, remember that the world has progressed. Understanding of what elephants should and shouldn’t be forced to do in the name of tourist entertainment has changed significantly.

Unfortunately, without regulations, it’s still all too easy for anyone to call themselves a sanctuary. The best advice is to educate yourself. Don’t be sold on a glossy brochure or try to simulate an Instagram moment from years ago.

elephant in the care of a mahout at phuket elephant sanctuary
A mahout with this charge at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, one of the best and largest ethical elephant experiences in Phuket

Remember, due to the destruction of natural habitats and many other factors, simply returning domesticated elephants to the wild is not an option.

Alongside this, the livelihoods of locals should also be considered. Sanctuaries still welcome guests because the upkeep of ‘retired’ elephants, from feeding to medical bills, is expensive, upwards of $100 USD per creature per day. Make sure your money supports those working the hardest to work for animal welfare.

If you have previously undertaken elephant bathing or been to shows like FantaSea, where elephants are forced to perform, this doesn’t make you evil; education on responsible tourism is always ongoing and evolving; we just each need to play our part in passing on this education to the next generation and choosing what to support.

I hope our list of ethical animal sanctuaries in Phuket will help you make better decisions for a rewarding experience in the future.

Image of an elephant and mahout walking through the phuket elephant sanctuary with text overlay Phuket ethical elephant sanctuaries

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© Mama Loves Phuket 2024

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