It is fair to say that Thailand, particularly Phuket, still doesn’t have the most stellar record regarding ethical animal experiences. Elephants, in particular, have been used as a source of entertainment on Phuket island for decades, from petting experiences to providing rides and circus performances.
Thailand’s Asian elephant population as of 2020 is less than 8,000, with nearly half of these domestically registered – meaning they are used for laborious tasks and, in southern Thailand, primarily for entertainment.
Only within the last ten years has there been a big movement toward rescuing these gentle giants from a life of servitude and changing the face of elephant tourism in Phuket.
There are now more than a dozen places describing themselves as reserves or sanctuarie in Phuket, with varying ethical lines. The most contentious issue is that some still allow bathing with elephants, which Responsible Travel does not consider ethical(1).
In this post, we’re going to dive into what we believe to be one of the most ethical animal experiences you can have in Phuket (noting that there is nowhere in Phuket to see elephants in the wild; Phuket’s elephant population is entirely domesticated.)
Table of Contents
What is Phuket Elephant Sanctuary?
Touting themselves as the first and most ethical elephant sanctuary, the 30-acre property of Phuket Elephant Sanctuary (PES) is located in the scenic jungle that borders Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Sanctuary and is home to a herd of around a dozen elephants. Aged from around 36 to 70 years of age, the elephants here can roam freely across the pastures during the day and are not forced to entertain.
Visitors can observe these gentle giants from a 600-metre-long raised treetop canopy walk, the longest of its kind in Thailand, while the elephants graze or frolic in the freshwater lagoons and hydrotherapy mud pools.
What to Expect at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary motto, ‘redefining elephant tourism,’ is spot on. Sadly, it has taken a significant amount of time to take hold in Phuket and all too many owners are still pursuing the traditional entertainment route for their captives.
The story told by Mr Montri in an introductory video is deeply touching. Previously a riding camp owner, he was determined to find a better way forward. The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary has been set up in conjunction with Elephant Nature Park (Chiang Mai), which is seen as a leader in ethical elephant sanctuaries in South East Asia.
Absolutely no riding or bathing is allowed at PES; it’s all about observation and education, and you’ll be asked to keep a respectful distance when walking in the nature reserve. The only person who will be close to the elephants is the ‘mahout’ (elephant caretaker).
The exception is with feeding time. As much as it is a nature reserve, it’s not the free-roaming natural habitat for elephants that have been brought up in captivity. They still need a degree of human intervention when it comes to receiving their nutrients. Hand feeding here is allowed under staff guidance, and touching their trunks is allowed only if welcomed by the elephant.
As at December 2023, there are 13 elephants in the herd, 11 females (cows) and two tuskless bulls. All the animals here have some sort of injury or have been retired. Most can be sighted on your visit, and the guide will talk you through their background and habits. There’s just one cow that is too scared to join the herd and lives on the property in solitude.
The property has a capacity to grow to 25 rescues, though there are financial constraints (as the elephants still need to be ‘bought’ off the previous owner).
You can sign up for two different packages to experience life at the sanctuary, which depart from the meeting point in Paklok, in northern Phuket.
A half-day morning or afternoon package
Both involve approximately a 3.5-hour program, starting at 9:30 AM or 1:30 PM. Your experience includes:
- Transfers from their office to Tree Top Reception
- An introductory educational video documentary about the work of PES and elephant wellbeing
- An opportunity to meet and feed the elephants
- Explore the longest canopy walkway and natural trails to observe elephants as they roam, bathe, play and socialise
- A vegetarian/vegan Thai buffet with complimentary filtered water, coffee, tea, and soft drinks
A Canopy Walkway Tour
Alternatively, if you are limited on time or budget, there is a slightly shorter 1.5-hour experience, which includes:
- Transfers from their office to Tree Top Reception
- 1-hour guided tour of Canopy Walkway to observe rescued elephants from above
- A feed-and-meet experience with the elephants
- Time to rest and enjoy the sanctuary with a signature iced soda included and unlimited snacks
- A complimentary gift
- Timings: 9:30 AM, 10:00 AM, 2:00 PM and 2:30 PM
For all tours, you should arrive 20-30 minutes ahead of your allotted time.
The venue is stroller and wheelchair-accessible, but amendments can be made for certain parts of the program for those with impaired movement. Do enquire with the venue directly if you have particular concerns; from what we’ve seen, they are very accommodating to guests’ needs.
What Does it Cost to Visit Phuket Elephant Sanctuary?
Half Day Packages
- Adults ฿3000
- Kids (4-12 years) ฿1500
- Under 4 years free
Canopy Walkway Program
- Adults ฿1900
- Kids (4-12 years) ฿950
- Under 4 years free
Optional Extra Transportation: A private van was quoted to us at ฿1700 but will cost you anywhere from ฿800 to ฿2000 depending on how many passengers and your pick-up location, as well as whether you ordered a private driver or shared service. Having our own place in Phuket, we always find it cheaper and more convenient to use Grab or Bolt.
If you are buying your tickets directly, not through a third-party reseller, you only need to pay a 30% deposit online with PayPal. The balance is paid at their administrative office when you arrive (note card payment incurs a 3% fee, cash is preferred).
Getting to Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
There are many ‘sanctuaries’ with similar-sounding names, so if you are arranging your own transportation, take note you’ve got the correct address:
- 100, Moo 2, Paklok, Thalang, ภูเก็ต 83110
- Email enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
The park is set against the backdrop of Khao Phra Taheo Wildlife Sanctuary (National Park), Phuket’s oldest and most biodiverse nature reserve. You are a far cry here from the busy crowds and traffic jams of Patong making it the perfect place to retreat to if you’re over being ‘peopley!’
You cannot take vehicles all the way to the sanctuary, so either arrange a transfer with PES or have your Taxi, Bolt or Grab driver take you to the office on the main highway. Here, you need to make your final payment then you’ll be taken in small groups at a time in a small pick-up to the sanctuary, less than 10 minutes away.
Our Experience at PES
To come this close to the majestic beasts, in as close as they can get to their natural habitat, was truly an honour.
After sorting out final payments and groupings at their office in Paklok, you jump into a pickup truck for the quick transfer over to the sanctuary and Tree Tops Restaurant.
Groups are then divided depending on which tour you’ve opted for, and snacks are provided while you watch an introductory video on the establishment of the sanctuary as well as safety guidelines.
Watching the elephants take turns in the bathing pond was truly a highlight. We didn’t get a rainy day, but look forward to returning in the rainy season so we can enjoy the majesty of seeing them play in the cooling wet mud.
Mud baths are an essential part of the elephant’s skincare routine, so in the dry months, the mahouts will assist their charges with bathing time, in both natural lagoons and man-made pools.
My littlest felt a degree of disappointment on not being too close to the elephants, but after explaining why it was not good to have too much contact with them, he understood (if you are bringing guests – of any age – make sure they fully understand the level of interaction they get so there won’t be disappointment).
The hands-on experience of feeding the elephants is still rewarding, and seeing them play and interact within the reserve is undoubtedly a highlight.
The only time the elephants at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary need to be restrained is overnight while their mahouts sleep. The reserve is unfenced, so this keeps them secure from wandering into the nature reserve or nearby village.
Although this is far from the cheapest activity you’ll undertake in Phuket, it will undoubtedly one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences from your trip to Thailand.
Remember you’re out in the sunshine, so pack your hats and sunscreen and plenty of battery power on your phone/camera!
You are well looked after with snacks and drinks, or a full meal if you’ve opted for the half day. You can also get cold towels if required, plenty of clean toilets are available and a small gift shop if you still don’t have enough Thailand elephant souvenirs!
With thanks to our guide, who taught us so much more about these majestic creatures and made for a thoroughly enjoyable half day.
More FAQ’s about the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
Whilst you may not have time to do a deep reading on the subject of animal ethics, do take some time to read resources such as Responsible Travel and World Animal Protection, which talk about the standards that should be met by elephant sanctuaries. Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is highly commended by both of these organisations.
The sanctuary remains open 365 days a year. If it rains during your tour, you will be provided with umbrellas and boots if necessary. The staff encourage that it can actually be a great time to visit as the elephants love the rain.
No, the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary does not accommodate drops ins; tours should be pre-arranged (at least 24 hours in advance if you also want transportation)
It is,for the most part, you can take a stroller on the canopy walkway and around the buildings. If trekking on foot into the park after rain, you may find it too muddy; a carrier would be preferable for infants.
For the most part, yes. Transfer is arranged from the office into the park, and flat surfaces make much of the park accessible. Any other impairments, you’d need to contact park management to ensure needs can be met email@example.com
Is Phuket Elephant Sanctuary Worth it?
Undoubtedly, the money you pay here will go to an excellent cause. From our limited understanding but well-read experience on what is ethical, this sanctuary is holding itself to the highest of standards.
It is not the only ethical elephant experience on the island of Phuket, though. We would not dismiss the others but ask that you carefully read what is involved before being sold into a booking that you may not agree with or that turns out differently than you expected.
Our complete guide to Phuket elegant sanctuaries is coming soon (with, many, many hours of research and price comparisons already done for you!)
Other elephant parks in Phuket that we would say are also setting a high standard in ethical tourism include:
- Hidden Forest
- Bukit Elephant Sanctuary
- Phuket Elephant Nature Reserve
Please be conscious of several other elephant parks in Phuket that are presently operating with very similar names. They may only be sanctuaries in name and still allow many human encounters that are considered to be unethical.
Our review is as of December 2023. Attractions in Phuket can change over time and between high and low season, so opening hours, prices, and package offerings may differ from what we have set out here.
© Mama Loves Phuket 2024