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Elephant Freedom Project: An Ethical Elephant Sanctuary In Chiang Mai

Wanting to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai? Find out everything you need to know about spending a day at the Elephant Freedom Project run through Elephant Nature Park. I will let you know all about my experience from start to finish and all the elephant encounters!


For my first time in Thailand, I knew I wanted to book some sort of elephant experience. Though it was important to me that I would be booking an ethical option where the elephant isn’t only treated correctly when tourists are around, but 24/7. I knew Elephant Nature Park would be my best option for an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. Though, what I did not exactly know was how far in advance it actually books out!

Luckily for me, there was one once left on their Elephant Freedom Project for 2 weeks time. I did a bit of research on this project making sure it was just as ethical as the main Nature Park we all hear about and decided to book.

Just so you are aware if you are wanting to visit the main Elephant Nature Park I highly recommend booking at least a month in advance.  In the high season in Thailand, I have even seen it book out two months in advance! This can be a bit problematic for travelers who like to just go with the flow, but trust me it will be worth it.

This article was originally posted in August 2017 and has since been updated in 2019


Elephant Freedom Project: Ethical Elephant Sanctuary In Chiang Mai


How I Book Cheap Transport In Thailand: 12Go Asia


playing in a dust bath for elephants and elephant nature park on the elephant freedom project


Choosing An Ethical Elephant Sanctuary In Chiang Mai

When it comes to choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai the most important thing to do your research. Also, by that I mean you doing the research. It is easy to walk into a travel agency in Chiang Mai enquiring about an ethical elephant sanctuary and they will tell you basically everything you want to hear to make the sale.

I personally like to choose TripAdvisor when looking for reviews of elephant sanctuaries. You can easily google the name of the sanctuary or the project and a TripAdvisor link will come up. Within that, you will be able to see what individual people have to say. That way you know if it was a positive experience and whether it is truly ethical.

It is surprising the number of reviews I have come across in the past stating that an elephant sanctuary which is marketed as ethical is truly not. The elephants could be chained up overnight, be performing tricks or the mahouts could even be carrying bullhooks for control. It is important that we as travelers do this research so we can stop funding these unethical elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai.

dirt bath for elephants at elephant freedom project ethical elephant sanctuary in chiang mai


About The Elephant Freedom Project

Located south of Chiang Mai City is the Karen village where the Freedom Program by Elephant Nature Park is held. Elephant Nature Park runs quite a lot of ethical elephant experiences alongside local Karen villages. Elephant Nature Park teaches them about the importance of ethical encounters and sets rules about the do’s and don’ts ensuring they are up to the high standard of the company. The purpose is to encourage locals to participate in ecotourism and to show that tourists will still want to interact with their elephants even if they aren’t riding them.

Elephant Nature Park has had great success in building their own sanctuary and are now encouraging these smaller Karen communities to start doing the same. When I first booked the Elephant Freedom Project it was a relatively new option on the Elephant Nature Park website and had only been around a couple of months. That meant there was not too much information available. Nevertheless, I was curious so I took the plunge and bought the $75.00 ticket.

elephant freedom project sign with elephants around it


My Experience On The Elephant Freedom Project

The Van Ride To The Elephant Freedom Project

Its early morning when a van rolls up outside my hostel in Chiang Mai. I jump on board as we navigate the tight streets to pick up the remaining passengers. Once everyone is onboard, they play a video about the Elephant Nature Park and the efforts they do to encourage ecotourism.

Elephants in Thailand have been used commercially throughout the years, having their spirits broken in order to be trained and satisfy the demand in various industries. They have been used as nothing more than an instrument for gaining money with no regard for their overall well being. This is the ideology Elephant Nature Park is attempting to change.

The van ride to the sanctuary takes about an hour and a half through rolling green countryside. Chiang Mai is so much more than just a city. Even though it may seem like a concrete jungle, there are plenty of opportunities to get away. One popular option is the Samoeng Loop which will take you completely into the countryside and to some amazing stops. We stop on the way at 7/11 for snacks. Onward into the countryside we venture and spot numerous elephant riding companies along the way. I honestly did not realize how many there actually were, its ridiculous!

tasha amy and a baby elephant on elephant freedom project in chiang mai


Preparing The Elephant Food

On arrival we park up at the Karen village under the cover of a large wooden hut. In the surrounding area is a locker room to store our stuff, some bathrooms and an eating area. Oh, and of course the elephant’s are just a short walk across a path!

One of the staff members drags out huge sticks of sugar cane and a couple of people in the group are given machetes and shown how to cut them up. A young Chinese boy starts eating the sugar cane himself, encouraging us Westerners to join as well.

Full buckets of water line the bench with bushes inside for us to clean the cucumbers. They tell us the pesticides on them can make the elephants very sick and that it is import we get it all off. The cucumbers change from a white pale green to the usual dark green with each scrub.

preparing the bananas and sugar cane for the elephants by washing ethical elephant sanctuary in chiang mai


Feeding The Elephants

With food preparation complete we bring it across the path to where the elephants are live. A small wooden fence which is open on one side separates us from these magnificent creatures. There are four larger elephants, two which must be teenagers and two babies. Excitement is in the atmosphere as we stand by the fence as they reach their trunks over for some food.

Unlike other animal sanctuary experiences, we aren’t taught commands which tell the elephant to do a certain movement. Rather the animals do what they want, some refuse to eat the sugar cane, others like to sniff the food before deciding and some just grab it without a second thought.

The baby elephants ignore the fence and run around to get the food, soon the other elephants follow as well. None of the mahouts tell them off for this behavior. Instead, they help us feed them while the staff members tell us the individual elephants stories.

We have to peel the bananas for the baby elephants as they don’t have teeth strong enough to break the skin. Another cheeky elephant grabs the bucket and starts dragging the cucumbers across the dirt area. This goes on for an hour, we take photos and enjoy being right next to these beautiful animals. Eventually, the elephant’s interest in the food disappear and it is time to move on to the next activity of today.

feeding the baby elephants at elephant freedom project

feeding elephants bananas and sugar cane on elephant freedom project


Walking with Elephants

We begin to walk down the road, with the elephants on the right and us on the left. This way they have plenty of room and we are not in danger. We head off the road to a large paddock area surrounded by fallen trees, dry grass from the heat and a rolling landscape. The elephants bathe in the sunlight and start pushing around the trees.

Soon enough the air becomes thick as the elephants start throwing dirt everywhere. All over each other, over themselves and in all directions. Most are loving the dirt bath. Though, one wanders back up the track with his mahout following behind, obviously not in the mood.

Further, into the walk, we end up in a valley with high hills up on either side. The plants are overgrown and the grass is up to my knees off the narrow path. The elephants start spreading themselves out and exploring the area.

A teenage elephant starts walking up the steep hill on one side. With every two steps she makes, she slides back down one. We all wonder what could she be doing and what could be at the very top. Though once she reaches the top she turns around and to our surprise lays down and starts sliding down. I guess everyone enjoys a good slide. We all have a good laugh, because how often do you see an elephant doing that!

After about an hour and a half playing in the dirt with the elephants, we decide to walk back towards the village. The mahouts and their elephants lead the way through the dry Chiang Mai landscape.

walking down the road next to elephants at elephant freedom project in chiang mai

a family of elephant among dust in chiang mai

walking with elephants in chiang mai

elephants rolling in the dirt having dirt bath ethical elephant sanctuary in chiang mai


Bathing The Elephants

Once back in the village we pile into the tray of a pickup truck are driven down towards the river for elephant bathing. With the wind in my hair and the hot sun beating down this is the true definition of a good day.

After killing time for twenty minutes the elephants soon emerge from around the corner. The truck arrives with more food for the elephants and they get all excited. We are given brushes and each one jumps into the water to cool down. None of the elephants are forced in and once they are over swimming they walk on out and hang around on the river bank.

The water is about waist deep, though the elephants still manage to fully emerge themselves by lying on their side. I notice that the younger elephants definitely enjoy being in the water more, basically staying in the whole time.

The mahouts have a good time jumping in a covering us all in freezing water. It is a little bit too chilly for me though and I didn’t bring a change of clothes. Therefore I decide to wait with the older elephants on the sidelines.

The swimming is unfortunately cut short as another group of elephants arrives. Though, these ones have tourists riding on top. The staff tells us they are known for being quite aggressive towards our elephants. We quickly pack up and look on in disappointment at the riders. Our group of elephants starts walking back towards the sanctuary, away from any possible danger.

spraying dirt and water from elephant trunk

elephants playing in local river at the elephant freedom project


Lunch

Back at the village, we have a vegetarian lunch of noodles, a curry, vegetables, and french fries. I chat with the girls I have met about what they are doing in Thailand and life back home. We bond equally over our love of animals, adventure and food.

elephants eating pumpkin after a swim in the river in chiang mai


My Overall Opinion: Is The Elephant Freedom Project Ethical?

Back in the van we all quickly fall asleep after a busy day under the Thai sun. Taking a tour with Elephant Nature Park is one of the best things I did in Chiang Mai. Throughout the time spent with the elephants, I did not once see them getting pressured, abused by their mahouts or be overwhelmed by the people around them as groups were kept small. I think Elephant Nature Park has done an excellent job with their Elephant Freedom Program. Especially by encouraging local Karen tribes to practice ecotourism and educate both the tourists and the local Thai people.

When I am back in Chiang Mai I will definitely do another tour with Elephant Nature Park. Though, hopefully, next time I get to visit their main park.

Looking for more things to do in Northern Thailand? Why not give learning Muay Thai in Chiang Mai a try!

rolling in the dirt with a baby elephant


How I Book Cheap Transport In Thailand: 12Go Asia


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Wanting to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai? Find out everything you need to know about spending a day at the Elephant Freedom Project run through Elephant Nature Park. I will let you know all about my experience from start to finish and all the elephant encounters!

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Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. So, if you click on it and purchase something, I get a small percentage at no extra cost to you. As always all opinions are my own and your support is much appreciated.

2019-06-28T14:44:14+13:00

67 Comments

  1. Yashodhara Roy September 15, 2017 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    Literally everyone has been talking about elephant sanctuaries! And I loved reading your experience! I hope to get to Chiang Mai and some other parts of Thailand next year! #gltlove

  2. Outdoors Wonders September 15, 2017 at 4:22 am - Reply

    Thanks for giving a more detailed post about this particular tour with Elephant Nature Park. Elephants there seem to be well cared for and quite a happy bunch. I can’t wait to see them!

  3. Alyse August 23, 2017 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    Lovely photos! It’s great to know that tourists can still interact with these beautiful creatures without riding or harming them. What a wonderful experience this would have been and I’m so glad they are protecting the elephants 🙂

  4. Jennifer Schlueter August 21, 2017 at 7:57 pm - Reply

    Wow! Incredible adventure! An elephant park is still on my list and this made me want to go even more! And your pictures are awesome! Can’t wait to snuggle with one of the baby elephants 😀

  5. Crystal Castaway August 21, 2017 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    I really wanted to do this when I was in Chiang Mai but they were all booked out. So YES! definitely book in advance so you don’t miss out!

    • Tash backpackerswanderlust.com August 25, 2017 at 4:19 pm - Reply

      Argh I nearly missed out as well! I never realized you had to book in advance, but it makes sense considering how popular it is.

  6. Addie Gray August 21, 2017 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    This sounds like such an amazing experience! So glad that there are options like this nowadays 🙂

  7. Katelyn Brin Bossany August 21, 2017 at 9:33 am - Reply

    This looks like an amazing adventure! I would love to visit an elephant park someday. It’s so wonderful that places like this exist to educate the public and protect these gorgeous creatures!

    • Tash backpackerswanderlust.com August 25, 2017 at 4:20 pm - Reply

      Its definitely an amazing adventure! You totally should it is so magical. Yeah I agree its important to educate both locals and foreigners about ecotourism and discourage the riding and mistreatment of elephants

  8. Liliana Ventura August 21, 2017 at 4:27 am - Reply

    I love your post! SO INSPIRING!!

  9. Christie Goyette August 21, 2017 at 4:12 am - Reply

    This looks like such an amazing experience! I would love to do something like this when I visit Chiang Mai. It’s really nice to hear how well the elephants are treated at ENP as well!

    • Tash backpackerswanderlust.com August 25, 2017 at 4:22 pm - Reply

      Yeah just remember to book in advance as it is super popular, especially ENP. If you just want to go to any park you can book once you are in Chiang Mai and at a discounted rate. Though, I reckon ENP gives you the best experience so I recommend visiting there

  10. Susan August 21, 2017 at 3:19 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing your experience! It is so hard to find an organization that allows you to experience and interact with elephants in a humane way. From what I’ve read ENP is one of the few!

    • Tash @ Backpackers Wanderlust August 25, 2017 at 4:25 pm - Reply

      No problem. Yeah that’s true especially there are a lot of place that claim to be a sanctuary, but actually mistreat their elephants. Just check reviews online before booking and see what other people have witnessed to whether they are treating their animals ethically

  11. Nicky Mackenzie August 21, 2017 at 2:29 am - Reply

    You have some beautiful photos to cherish! We visited ENP when we were in Chiang Mai, and it was the best experience! I’d love to go back and do it all again!

  12. Kristen Kellogg August 21, 2017 at 1:44 am - Reply

    You have SUCH beautiful photography in this article! My friend Lacy did this experience in Chiang Mia and loved it so much! Thank you for sharing!

  13. Danielle @ EscapingEssex August 20, 2017 at 10:38 pm - Reply

    Sounds like you had the best day! I’ve heard so many great things about Elephant Nature Park and I’m glad it lived up to the expectations for you! 🙂

  14. Vicki Viaja August 20, 2017 at 1:30 pm - Reply

    I love your post. For me also spending a day with elephants was the total highlight of my stay in Chiang Mai. Also I am happy you chose one that treats the animals well. (We heard about some that do one day like feeding and bathing with elephants and the next day they let another group ride the elephants. Just awful!) Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience! 🙂

    • Tash @ Backpackers Wanderlust August 27, 2017 at 10:27 pm - Reply

      Thanks! Oh wow I had not heard of that before, I guess some companies just jump on the eco tourism bandwagon and if the tourist dont look into the company and research they think they are ethical, but truly they are not. Its unfortunate

  15. caroekg August 20, 2017 at 11:04 am - Reply

    Sounds like an incredible experience! Would love to do something like this in Thailand, elephants are such beautiful creatures!

  16. lorettawiden August 20, 2017 at 10:56 am - Reply

    This sounds like such an amazing experience!

  17. Candy August 20, 2017 at 9:22 am - Reply

    Omg, they are so friendly and cute! I love that this is a sanctuary and that they don’t teach them commands. For being fairly new, they seem to be really well organized 🙂

  18. Sarah Gallo August 20, 2017 at 9:09 am - Reply

    WOW! What an incredible experience !!!!

  19. Ticket to Adventures August 20, 2017 at 7:19 am - Reply

    What an unforgettable experience! I have travelled a lot in Thailand but not made it up to Chiang Mai yet. I have always wanted to do things like this with elephants. Thank you for sharing this interesting article, I will add this on my list for future reference.

    • Tash @ Backpackers Wanderlust August 27, 2017 at 10:29 pm - Reply

      Oh you will have to next time you are in Thailand! Its an amazing place, completely different than the Islands. Plus flights are so cheap nowadays which makes it super accessible. No problem 🙂

  20. Alexa Williams Meisler August 20, 2017 at 5:13 am - Reply

    Ahhhhhh! I want to do this. Seriously, dream come true!

  21. Missy | The Journey Project August 20, 2017 at 3:37 am - Reply

    I love that there is a group starting to do something about the mistreatment of elephants! I absolutely love animals, so this sounds like the tour for me!

  22. Diana Čechová August 20, 2017 at 3:33 am - Reply

    Wow! I’ve been to Chiang Mai recently, but I wasnt sure whether these Elephant days were about to be worth it! So hopefully… next time!

  23. marvi ocampo August 20, 2017 at 2:37 am - Reply

    What a wonderful experience! I’m such a scaredy cat when interacting with animals, even the gentle ones, so I don’t know if I can do this. But, I love reading and looking at people who are able to. Glad to see the elephants are being taken cared of despite being in a controlled area. 🙂

  24. Amalia August 20, 2017 at 2:35 am - Reply

    Such an incredible experience! I am so glad that despite all these negative news about Thailand with regards to animal treatments, these sorts of organizations exists! We definitely need more of these 🙂 Great story and photos!

  25. Fiona Thackeray August 20, 2017 at 12:24 am - Reply

    Amazing! I love elephants and it is so nice to hear of places that allow you to engage with them on ‘their terms’ and in a natural way – unlike a place we visited in South Africa that was billed as somewhere you could go to ‘watch their natural behaviour’ before they were walked into a woods and made to perform for us. Sounds like a great place to visit!

  26. Rebecca Hall August 19, 2017 at 11:51 pm - Reply

    I absolutely adore elephants! And I love the idea of being able to partake in trips that don’t do elephant rides and promote ethical elephant tourist. How wonderful!

  27. Jessica August 19, 2017 at 11:41 pm - Reply

    We were planning on going this past summer but didn’t end up having time. Great post! Those are some beautiful photos.

  28. Janine Beynon August 19, 2017 at 11:30 pm - Reply

    Loved reading about your experience. I spent some time in Chiang Mai and had a day at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary which was also a great experience! I loved it so much, it made me want to volunteer with animals in the future.

  29. Kalilah Hayward August 19, 2017 at 10:47 pm - Reply

    I’ve heard so much about this so I’m happy I finally get to such an informative post about this place! It sounds great!

  30. Aarti Kamath August 19, 2017 at 10:11 pm - Reply

    We were in Thailand last year but did only Bangkok and Phuket!.. Lately I have seen a few posts on Chiang Mai and it seems quite inviting to check it out some day! The pictures show you had a great time :)… Did you enjoy your vegetarian lunch of noodles, a curry, vegetables and french fries?…

  31. Jen Horsfall August 19, 2017 at 9:38 pm - Reply

    I’m going to Chiang Mai in November and this is definitely on my list!

  32. Megan Brake August 19, 2017 at 8:59 pm - Reply

    Looks like you had a really great time. Glad to see ethical elephant tourism becoming more and more popular!

  33. Bryony Clapperton August 19, 2017 at 8:56 pm - Reply

    Glad you were able to and promoting an ethical animal experience. Its really important that places and posts like this exist in Thailand and South East Asia to help others have an equally as life changing and ethical experience. P.S you look fab on all your pics too!

  34. Denisa August 19, 2017 at 8:41 pm - Reply

    Oh my god, this park sounds amazing! I’ve always wanted to help with saving and protecting animals and parks like this are one of the good possibilities. 🙂 I’ll definitely check it out once I’m in Thailand!

  35. Sarah @ Sarah Sees The World August 19, 2017 at 8:31 pm - Reply

    Oh I would LOVE to feed an elephant! Your photos are beautiful – such amazing animals! Responsible animal tourism is such a great thing.

  36. Doryn Fine August 19, 2017 at 7:56 pm - Reply

    This looks amazing and I am so jealous you were able to be so close to the baby elephants. The tour with Elephant Nature Park definitely seems like the way to go. I’ll keep that in mind for when I visit Thailand 🙂

  37. Leigh August 19, 2017 at 7:45 pm - Reply

    This brings back great memories- ENP was also the highlight of my time in Thailand…what a great way to spend a day! Thanks for sharing!

  38. Kavita August 19, 2017 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    I am planning a trip to Thailand at the moment, and we are making sure we only include Elephant experiences that do not involve cruelty to the animals. So far I’ve booked us into Elephant Hills in Khao Sok but this one in Chiang Mai is also on my list, once I firm up my dates for the northern part of my itinerary. Sounds like it’s a great experience.

  39. Fay Pickering August 19, 2017 at 6:23 pm - Reply

    What an amazing experience, it’s clear they really care for these gorgeous animals. Great photos, looks like you had a jam packed day.

  40. Stella Marie Encina August 19, 2017 at 5:55 pm - Reply

    Aww amazing experience! I love the fact that you chose this instead of riding them or supporting any other business that abuses elephants!

  41. Andrea Cvitanovic Mayfield August 19, 2017 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    What an amazing experience! Those elephants are just adorable and such majestic creatures! Great read 🙂

  42. Kirstin Street August 19, 2017 at 5:14 pm - Reply

    They’re so damn beautiful! I have such a respect and love for all elephants, and love reading about other’s encounters with them. I did a very similar program with Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai and it was one of the greatest days of my life! Thanks for sharing, your photos are gorgeous <3

  43. Tanya Korteling August 19, 2017 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    This sounds an interesting experience. I recently spent some time at Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri Cambodia which is also extremely ethical! They only allow you to observe from a distance and no interaction at all not even feeding! If you’re ever in Cambodia I’d highly recommend it 🙂

  44. Elaine J Masters August 19, 2017 at 4:53 pm - Reply

    What a full and wonderful day. I loved how the elephants choose and do what they want. Must be hard when less fortunate elephants with riders (and all that implies) show up. Great experience.

  45. Jessica Carpenter August 19, 2017 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    This is amazing. I’ve heard of this sanctuary before and knew it was a good one, but I had no idea how good. I went to an elephant attraction in Chiang Mae years ago which I thought at the time was one of the best. They didn’t put seats on the elephants but we did rise them and they know a few commands. Which now I know better and wish I hadn’t gone. Although I think it was one of the better ones, it still contributed to the terrible practice. Thank you for sharing this.

  46. toni August 19, 2017 at 3:59 pm - Reply

    What an awesome experience! I love that they are so well looked after…it must have been weird to see people riding them, but for you to be participating in such a beautiful experience. I would definitely do this when i am there. Thanks for sharing it.

  47. Travel Textbook August 19, 2017 at 2:27 pm - Reply

    This is an awesome post — it is so good to see responsible animal tourism!

    Lucy x

  48. Aimee Binstead August 19, 2017 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    So much time for posts that advocate elephant experiences without riding them ???? Thanks for spreading the word about such an important issue and making people aware that more natural encounters are just as rewarding!

  49. Jessica August 19, 2017 at 10:20 am - Reply

    I’ve allways wanted to do that. This animals are just so amazing and great. Happy for you.

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Your typical New Zealander, now discovering the world one country at a time. With a high-end backpacking style I prefer to glampack across the globe by embracing the best of each destination. All of which I share right here on Backpackers Wanderlust. 

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