Animal tourism is a touchy subject. And, as awareness around animal tourism rises, the lens on ‘welfare centers’ and elephant sanctuaries become more critical (and rightly so). With more information out there tourists are becoming more and more cautious about where they put their money when it comes to animal experiences. And finding genuinely ethical elephant experiences in Thailand is no different.
Elephant tourism in Thailand is massively popular. And during our trip to Phuket and Koh Lanta, we saw a number of different elephant sanctuaries and attractions.
After a lot of research online, we decided to take a half-day trip to a truly ethical elephant experience in Phuket, Treetops Elephant Reserve and I learned a LOT. It was an incredibly valuable and insightful day and I would highly recommend it as a top thing to do in Phuket.
Here’s everything you need to know about the history of elephant tourism, how to find a genuinely ethical elephant experience in Thailand, and spending a day at Treetops Elephant Reserve, Phuket.
Why Is Elephant Tourism So Popular in Thailand?
One of the most important things I learned at Treetops is the history of elephants in South East Asia and why Elephant tourism is so common in Thailand.
The majority of elephants were brought to Thailand to work in the logging industry many decades ago. However, a logging ban by the Thai Government in 1989 put hundreds (if not thousands) of elephants and their mahouts out of work overnight.
For many families, elephants & logging had been their sole source of income. Therefore, they had to find alternative means.
Mahouts (the elephant owners & caretakers) started begging on the street, with the elephants by their side. This quickly evolved into tourists paying for a photo with the creatures… to the elephants performing for tourists… and from there the “elephants as a tourist attraction” industry exploded.
The Problem With Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand
As perceptions of animal tourism evolve and many tourists become aware of the cruel training elephants endure to learn these tricks, the entertainment factor has faded. But still, Mahouts need to find a way to feed their families.
Thus, the new wave of elephant tourism in Thailand was born in the form of “elephant sanctuaries”.
Elephant sanctuaries may sound as though they have the best interest of the animals at heart. But in reality, there are still a number of harmful tactics being deployed. While elephants are no longer walking tightropes or spinning hoops, they are still forced to interact with humans in ways that go against their nature.
Bathing with elephants in Thailand is incredibly popular. However, it is bad for elephants to be washed this often and the buckets of water being thrown in their faces all day are distressing. Often Mahouts will have a hidden nail in their hand or underwater to move the elephant around as necessary.
Elephants use mud to keep themselves cool. So the constant bathing is contrary to their natural state.
Lastly (and personally I think most importantly!) elephants also almost always immediately shit on entry into the water. So if you’re bathing with elephants in Thailand, it’s not only unsanitary for them, it’s not great for you either!
So How Do I See Elephants Ethically In Thailand?
Short Answer: Head to Treetops Elephant Reserve!
Long Answer: Keep Reading!
Treetops Elephant Reserve Overview
Where: 30 minutes from Kata
Cost: 2,900 Baht pp (inc transport)
What: A converted Elephant Trekking site, now giving elephants and their Mahouts the freedom to live a peaceful and cruelty-free life.
The History of Treetops Elephant Reserve
The reserve (who are intentionally not labeling themselves a ‘sanctuary’) was originally the site for traditional elephant experiences in Phuket centered around elephant trekking.
Instead of shutting down the site and putting the elephants and Mahouts of work again, Treetops Reserve converted the existing site into a truly ethical elephant experience.
They shut down the site for 9 months, re-educated those who worked there on the importance of providing an ethical experience and socialized the elephants who lived there.
Before Treetops came in, the elephants had been kept separately and not permitted to socialize. So this was a necessary period of adjustment for them to interact and learn that they could truly roam where they wished.
Nine months later, the result is a newly opened, peaceful and genuinely ethical elephant experience right in south Phuket.
(It’s worth noting that Treetops provides the elephants with the free-est and best life possible in light of their backgrounds. After so many years of living in a controlled environment, they wouldn’t survive if released completely and sent into the wild.)
A Half Day Trip To Treetops Elephant Reserve
1 pm: Hotel Pickup & Drive to Treetops Elephant Reserve
The experience starts with a pick-up from your hotel.
We stayed at the SIS Kata, which was the last stop before the drive to the reserve, which made it only around 20 minutes of driving to the Treetops Elephant Reserve.
(Side note: The SIS Kata is a super lesbian-friendly hotel in Phuket)
1:30 pm: Arrival at Treetops and an intro movie
On arrival, we were offered tea, coffee, and some biscuits, whilst we filled in some waiver forms and waited for other transfers to arrive.
The first part of the experience really began when we were introduced to the reserve’s owner and our guides for the day. (The owner is originally from England but has lived in Asia for many years. The guides were two locals who had previously worked in the reserve in the trekking industry)
After that we watched a short movie, detailing the history of elephant tourism in Thailand, how the treetops reserve was created and how to spot an ethical elephant experience.
It was incredibly informative, and I learned so much. It really set us up well to understand the importance of the reserve that we were about to visit, and exactly where our money was being spent.
2:15 pm Feeding the elephants
Depending on whether you book the morning or afternoon session, the order of activities may be different, based on the elephant’s needs.
However, after our video, the first thing we did was head over to wash our hands and break up massive bunches of bananas in preparation for feeding the elephants.
We then waited by a fence for some of the elephants to come around to us for feeding. Not all of them came, which I guess is a great thing because it shows that treetops is a truly ethical elephant sanctuary. They reinforced many times that the elephants are never forced to do something they don’t want to do.
Feeding the elephants was an incredible experience. As someone who is not confident around animals, I thought it might be scary. But they are such gentle giants you just lay a banana out in the flat of your palm and they scoop it up… and immediately come back for another.
This part of the experience really gave everyone in the group a good amount of time to interact with the elephant in a safe and un-intrusive way.
Once the bananas were all gone, we washed our hands again (bananas are stickier than I expected!) and patiently waited for the elephants to stroll off into the reserve.
2:30 – 4 pm Exploring The Elephant Reserve
Taking a stroll
The majority of the experience was spent on reserve land. The reserve is a massive space out in the countryside of Phuket. There are no borders, and so at all times, the elephant is followed by their Mahout to keep it safe.
In our small group (approx. 15 people), we walked along the pathways that used to be used for elephant trekking, following behind the mesmerizing creatures at a safe distance. At times we were required to stop and hang back whilst they stopped for some snacks from the foliage.
The entire experience was incredibly relaxed. The staff and elephants were clearly at peace, roaming about on the land, doing as they pleased.
Getting that ‘gram
Before arriving, I had wondered how they would ensure that we were likely to see the elephants, without forcing them against their will to be somewhere. I quickly spotted that large piles of bamboo leaves (they eat two tons of per day) were strategically placed throughout the reserve. So, whilst the elephants we’re not forced to stop anywhere for a photo op, it’s highly likely that there will be opportunities throughout the walk for you to get that gram without interfering with their day. (It’s strictly forbidden to approach them unless they approach you, or to touch/hug their trunks).
During our walk, we also passed the watering hole, which is constantly filled by the reserve from the local rivers. This was created to give the elephant somewhere to bathe if they want. Some of them love it, others haven’t yet taken the plunge.
As guests, we waited in a sheltered spot away from the water (and besides some well-needed cold water for ourselves to drink). After a while, two elephants came down to the area and got in the water. The benefit of the treetops staff knowing their elephants so well is that they can generally predict where they’re going to go next, without forcing them to do anything.
It was incredibly fun to see them swimming around as they should. Particularly the baby who you could tell was having the time of his life rolling around in the water.
After witnessing their natural behaviors in what is truly an elephant sanctuary, I can see now, why bathing with elephants is harmful. It may be fun for us, but is not the right thing to do.
4 pm Buffet (and more elephants!)
After we’d spent around an hour and a half walking about the reserve and observing the elephants in their natural (or as natural as can be simulated) habitat, we finished up the day with a beautiful buffet.
We ate in a newly renovated sheltered area, with stunning outlooks on another watering hole and the whole reserve. The buffet had a mix of meat and vegetarian options. And plenty of fresh fruit. Thai food is simply unmatched anywhere else in the world.
As we ate, a few elephants came and went from the water hole. No matter how often we saw them, it never got old. They are truly fascinating creatures.
5 pm Hometime
Sadly, the time had come to say goodbye to the gorgeous animals and to the marvelous humans working at Treetops. We were driven back to our hotel in the shuttle van we’d come in and within 30 minutes we were back in Kata. Just in time to catch the sunset and reflect on a mind-blowing day.
For more information on Treetops, Phuket, head to their website.