Whether or not you consider the elephant your spirit animal, riding high atop one of those majestic lumbering creatures is a quintessential Southeast Asia experience. Elephant rides are one of the major sources of tourism money in Northern Thailand—but unfortunately, the traditional methods for breaking in, training, and controlling an elephant are harsh. The good news? There is a growing awareness for more ethical treatment of elephants throughout the region. Films like How I Became an Elephant and National Geographic’s Vanishing Giants are exposing the depressing realities of the elephant tourism industry, encouraging a wave of more humane elephant experiences. But while many trekking companies are ditching the elephant hooks, the best experience you can have with an elephant in Southeast Asia will never be perched on top of one, but rather frolicking beside one. Here are four places in Southeast Asia where you can actually high-five elephants.
Since Sangduen “Lek” Chailert established Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in the 1990s, the original “elephant heaven” has been a bucket-list destination for elephant lovers. Today it is a refuge for 37 elephants that have been rescued from the tourism and logging industries in Northern Thailand and Myanmar. Equal parts fun and awe-inspiring, it’s an up-close and personal experience where visitors get to help feed and bathe elephants, walk around the compound, and learn about the family dynamics of the resident elephants. As a bonus for dog lovers who also love elephants, ENP also has a dog shelter that houses rescues from the big cities. ENP offers a range of experiences from day visits (which include a delicious vegetarian lunch) to overnights to week-long volunteer opportunities.
2. Elephant Haven in Kanchanaburi—Kanchanaburi, West Thailand
Not long ago, Elephant Haven in Kanchanaburi was a run-of-the-mill Thai elephant tourism camp, complete with rides and elephant shows, known as Saiyok Elephant Park. But since partnering with ENP, Elephant Haven ditched the saddles and chains and re-opened in August 2015 as a fully ethical interactive elephant experience. Similar to ENP, visitors get to feed, bathe, and interact with elephants, as well as learn more about their habits and lives. Visits to Elephant Haven are limited to single-day or overnight trips.
The Elephant Valley Project (EVP), located deep in the Modulkiri region of Cambodia, is dedicated to finding a solution to elephant tourism that benefits both the elephants and the families that have traditionally relied on elephant tourism for income. EVP provides care, shelter and medical services to newly retired elephants and in doing so, creates employment for mahouts, or elephant caretakers, and for their families. While it is possible to visit EVP for a day trip or an overnight and live the life of an elephant, due to its remote location and the dedication of the staff, many people prefer to volunteer for a week or longer. Volunteer time is split between working on projects around the center and becoming best friends with the elephants.
The brand-new Elephant Camp Nepal (officially opened on October 24th) is the latest project of the Tiger Tops family, a company that has long been dedicated to sustainable, responsible conservation tourism in Nepal. Elephant Camp is an opportunity to actually live among elephants and experience the culture of Nepali mahouts as well as the special bond between mahout and elephant. Visitors stay in the tented camp and learn how to interact with elephants like a mahout through training and participating in daily elephant-related work. There are also plenty of opportunities to explore the surrounding national park with activities such as jungle walks and bird watching.
For the die-hards:
Elephant Nature Park has two other projects, one in Cambodia and on in Surin (Northeast Thailand). Both are longer-term volunteer opportunities and both projects provide a chance for the truly pasisonate to get involved in the beginning stages of creating an elephant sanctuary and the grass-roots movement for ethical treatment of elephants.