May 10, 2021
IN THAILAND, THE ELEPHANT, or chang, is the national animal, celebrated in everything from artworks in royal palaces and temples to the name of one of the country’s favorite beer brands.
While widely revered, pachyderms have not had an easy ride in recent times. As human populations grow and forests are destroyed for cash crops, elephant habitats shrink. Instead of roaming happily, the animals are pitted against farmers, deployed as beasts of burden or forced into often squalid elephant camps for the benefit of gawping tourists.
Thankfully, there has been a growing realization of the work that needs to be done to protect the country’s elephants with a host of progressive camps leading the way in conservation efforts. Some adopt a hands-on approach where guests interact with the animals. Others adhere to an observational philosophy where the animals are kept at arm’s (or trunk’s?) length. Here are four of our favorite places in the Kingdom, from north to south, to join forces with jumbos.
1. ANANTARA GOLDEN TRIANGLE ELEPHANT CAMP AND RESORT
This beautiful and luxurious retreat, which enjoys a fabulous setting near the Mekong River and the confluence of Thailand, Burma and Laos, offers plenty in the way of diversion. Elephants are a key part of the experience at the property. The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation—a charity that rehabilitates and protects abused elephants—cares for more than 20 pachyderms in two villages next to the resort. Guests can trek with these magnificent beasts while they forage for shrubs and tree leaves on the Ruak River plain below the resort. Following the trek, under the supervision of a local expert who shares insights into elephant biology, behavior and conservation, guests can water and bathe the elephants.
The piece de resistance of the resort’s elephant experience is a collection of newly developed, transparent “Jungle Bubble” domes (read about our experience sleeping in one here). Each domed suite is furnished with a king-sized bed, lounge, and an enclosed bathroom and shower. Guests can sleep comfortably beneath a starlit sky before waking up to a welcoming committee of wildlife.
anantara.com; contact the resort for room rates, staycation deals, Jungle Bubble packages, and Walking with Elephants experiences
2. ELEPHANT NATURE PARK
One of the highlights of the scenic Mae Taeng Valley north of Chiang Mai, Elephant Nature Park is special on multiple levels. Established back in 1995 as a sanctuary and rescue center for pachyderms working in riding camps and the logging industries, the facility has extensive experience in elephant welfare. The elephants here are retired — what should have been their original state, of course — and are allowed to roam free within the park. This selling point makes it a fantastic place for visitors to get an insight into the problems facing Asian elephants and how their lives can be improved.
Throughout a day-long itinerary guests learn more about the fantastic beasts, as well as the changes advocated by the park regarding their care, treatment, and training. Elephant Nature Park deploys a hands-on approach, and visitors are encouraged to join the park’s volunteers to feed and bathe the animals.
Courtesy of 137 Pillars House (2)
Where to stay: Laid out in lush tropical gardens dotted with lily ponds, 137 Pillars House combines effortless luxury with romantic callbacks. The colonial-inspired suites take cues from the resort’s centerpiece building: a lovingly restored teak homestead that dates back to the late-1800s. 137pillarschiangmai.com; doubles from Bt9,675
3. CHANG CHILL
The clue is in the name of this beacon of ethical elephant tourism in the mountain valleys near Chiang Mai. At Chang Chill the tagline is “where elephants can simply be elephants,” and the vibe is pure relaxation–for you and for their three-tonne charges. Instead of encouraging guests to interact with the animals, Chang Chill emphasizes letting its six resident female elephants do their own thing. This lack of routine gives the elephants the freedom to roam the valley, graze and bathe in the river, mud and dust while socializing with each other.
That doesn’t mean that the visitor experience is a passive one. As well as observing the elephants navigate the lush forest, guests have the opportunity to make giant tamarind energy balls for them, and to learn about Karen hill tribe culture with local community members.
Where to stay: Designed by Thai architect Ong-ard Satrabhandhu, Rachamankha incorporates hidden courtyards and gardens. Beautiful antiques judiciously adorn rooms and suites, while an open-air massage pavilion is a perfect place to ease aching bones. rachamanka.com; doubles from Bt6,205 per night
4. FOLLOWING GIANTS
Courtesy of Following Giants (2)
Like Chang Chill, Following Giants takes a hands-off approach to human-elephant relations. What was once an elephant-riding camp now follows the observational tourism model—and, just as importantly, their handlers are learning to run this ethical attraction to the benefit of the local community. Discarding any notion of rides and other forms of direct interaction, guests here trail behind the animals as they roam, graze, bathe and socialize.
“Venues like Following Giants and Chang Chill are transforming the lives of these elephants allowing them to behave naturally and socialize as they would do in the wild and give them a life worth living,” says Audrey Mealia, Global Head of Wildlife at World Animal Protection, which provides financial support to both camps. “Visitors also get to see how elephants behave in family groups and learn more about this endangered species. Venues that offer tourists a chance to watch elephants in sanctuaries give us hope that we can encourage the urgently-needed shift in the captive elephant tourism industry.”
Where to stay: Combine an ethical animal experience at Following Giants with a stay at Pimalai Resort & Spa, a stunning five-star ensconced in tropical greenery and bordered by nearly a full kilometer of pristine white sand. pimalai.com; doubles from Bt6,200 per night