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Visiting a Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary

Have you always wanted to spend some amazing quality time with elephants? There are plenty of elephant sanctuaries near Chiang Mai, and we tell you all about how to choose the right one, what we did, and what we thought about it. Spoiler Alert! We loved it!

On our epic Southeastern Asia trip, traveling through Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, one of the most important bucket-list things we wanted to do was visit an ethical elephant sanctuary near Chiang Mai.

We were looking forward to getting out of the smoggy cities into the Thai jungle and communing with the largest land mammals. We’ve always been curious and enamored with elephants, and we had lots of questions.

We visited the Happy Elephant Sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai, and boy did we enjoy our time there.

In this article:

You can listen to all our thoughts and stories about our visit to Happy Elephant Sanctuary on this podcast.

Molo and Mojiko on the side of the river.
Molo and Mojiko off gossiping!

How to Choose the Right Ethical Elephant Sanctuary

Some of the things to keep in mind when choosing the best elephant sanctuary to visit:

  • Make sure the elephants, not the tourists, are the priority.
  • Make sure there is no one riding elephants.
  • The center really tries to educate its guests about elephants in Thailand and how to interact with them.
  • The group sizes are kept small enough not to stress out the animals.
Corinne and Jim walking with Bua Bann through a jungle path.

Happy Elephant in Chiang Mai

After a ton of research, we landed on Happy Elephant as the sanctuary we wanted to go to visit. It’s small, but everything about it screamed that the elephants came first, and we wanted to respect these animals as much as we could.

Upon arrival, we met Pupae. She was our caretaker and guide throughout our experience. Although she had only been officially working there for a month, she had volunteered there for a few years before being hired.

We loved the straight-forward way she told us how the elephants are their first priority and the why behind the rules and ways that things are done there. Energetic and knowledgeable, Pupae is definitely one of the reasons we really enjoyed our time communing with the elephants.

An elephant reaching out to visitors at an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand.
Ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand.

The Elephants at Happy Elephant

There are three elephants at Happy Elephant, all rescues. It warms my heart to know these gentle giants will enjoy the rest of their days being well cared for at the sanctuary.

Molo – The oldest and smallest elephant, Molo, was rescued from a logging enterprise. Because of her harsh working life, she’s blind in one eye, and we were given strict instructions on what to do when near her.

She’s extremely smart and knows that she gets her way. She only likes yellow bananas, and each time one wasn’t yellow enough, she would throw it out in the grass and demand more. It was hilarious.  

Meeting the sanctuary elephants for the first time.
Ernestine on an elephant jungle walk near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Mojiko – Maybe because she’s about the same age, once she arrived at camp, Molo and Mojiko became best friends. In all honesty, they’ve formed a bit of a clique. They hang out together as much as possible, leaving the last elephant to sort of fend for herself. Mojiko was rescued from a riding camp and deserves to wander as freely as possible without anyone or anything on top of her.

Bua Bann – She is the largest, tallest elephant I’ve ever been up close to. She lumbers through the forest on our walks, and it’s pretty hard to keep up with her. She tried to take us off the regular path when we did our morning walk because she was a bit cheeky.

The Happy Elephant Sanctuary, an ethical choice in Thailand for enjoying elephants.

Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary Options

No matter which elephant sanctuary you choose, there are a number of options for experiences. All of them offer at least a half-day and whole-day program, but only a few offer overnight stays.

During our stay, we noticed that the vast majority of people went on a full-day trip. It’s the most common choice. It’s not that much more expensive than the half-day trip, and therefore, it’s really worth it. We really wanted to do an overnight, and we were the only ones that did.

Getting wet with the elephants.

Going to an elephant sanctuary is one of those things where you just have to go with the flow, do whatever is on offer, delve in, and enjoy it. We were so ready to do just that, and for a little extra, we could do it for two days instead of just one. We always opt to spend the night somewhere like this when we can.

Why? It’s simple, everyone else will be gone. There might be more than just us, but not usually. We’re almost always alone and have the people all to ourselves. After everyone else has gone home, we get to talk, eat, and enjoy the company of local people whom we wouldn’t have had contact with otherwise. It always, 100% of the time, makes our experience that much richer as we learn about their lives and laugh with them over cooking and eating. It’s the best.

Now, to be honest, the accommodations were far from luxurious. They were in a wooden house with beautiful furniture, but the electricity was iffy. Regardless, I would do it again and again. It was so worth it.

Mud bath for Bua Bann.

What We Did at Happy Elephant

The very first thing you do at Happy Elephant is change your clothes. Yep, I was surprised, too. It was explained to us that the elephants feel safer when they see people dressed like their mahouts (carers), who wear traditional clothes.

We changed into a woven top and really loose-fitting pants. This was great because a lot of what we did was squelch around in mud, and this way, our clothes were protected. It’s a good idea to wear your bathing suit under the local clothes because we did go in the river with the animals.

At the end of the day, when we were not going to be doing anything else with the elephants, we changed back into our street clothes. There were showers in the changing rooms, so you could easily get clean and refreshed after a day of jungle-ing.

Jim and Pupae making dinner on our overnight stay at Happy Elephant.

At the camp, we did so much with the elephants. We first met them and fed them bananas, which we did quite a bit, actually. They really love bananas. While the rest of the group was there, the sanctuary kept close tabs on the number of people near each animal. They didn’t want them to feel overwhelmed.

Of course, eating is one of the most important things the elephant does during the day. They need to eat…a lot! We made and fed them elephant sandwiches, medicine balls, banana stalks, and yes, more bananas.

We also went into the river with them, went on a couple of jungle walks with them, gave them a mud bath, and generally just hung out with them for the majority of the time we were there.

Because we spent the night, we got more than just being with the elephants. After the day trippers left, Pupae and one of the mahouts drove us into the nearby village for a “tour.” We visited a temple, talked with the locals at a café overlooking the river, bought a few snacks at the market, and just had a typical end-of-the-work-day fun with them.

Laying in a bamboo hammock on our overnight stay at Happy Elephant watching the sunset.
Laying in a bamboo hammock on our overnight stay at Happy Elephant watching the sunset.

Afterward, we “helped” make dinner and sat around talking and eating. We had curry, pad Thai, some amazing Asian-style deviled eggs, and, of course, mango sticky rice for dessert. Finally, we were taken to our overnight house, which was so beautiful with its dark teak wood and traditional bulky wooden furniture. There, we loved the sunset and sat around talking about the elephants and our day.

The next day, we had the camp to ourselves before the day trippers arrived. We went for a pre-breakfast walk with the girls (the elephants), and they were quite spunky first thing in the morning. Then we ate breakfast before starting all the other activities for the day.

Some of the amazing food we ate at the Happy Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Food at Happy Elephant

As you definitely know by now, food is very important to me. Thankfully, almost everything we did at Happy Elephant revolved around eating. To be fair, we were mostly preparing or feeding the elephants most of the time. They do eat…a lot!

However, we also got some great meals and food experiences for humans. On the first day, our lunch was a make-your-own noodle dish. Pupae and the house staff set up a huge pot with bowling soup broth, which, as it turns out, was the last thing we put in our bowls.

Before that we loaded up the bowl with whatever we wanted, spices, greens, and meat were options. Then we boiled the noodles we wanted (thick or thin) in a pot of boiling water in a sort of colander-like tool. Dumped those in and finished it off with the aromatic broth. It was a smart way to feed a large group, and it was amazing.

A local village grocery store near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Visiting a local grocery store in a village near Chiang Mai.

We also helped make our own dinner on the first night when only we three, my sister, Jim, and I were spending the night. That was almost like a full-on cooking lesson which I always love, and who can go wrong with homemade Thai food?

Breakfast was nothing special, but it was hardy and had lots of fresh fruit. Of course, we went and had a coffee along the river, which was also nice.

The sanctuary is not near any restaurants, so we were pleasantly surprised how good the eating was. Yum!

Corinne learning how to wield a machete to feed the elephants banana stalks.
Corinne, Jim, and Ernestine pretending to eat the elephant medicine balls at Happy Elephant Sanctuary.

Our Rating

5 Star Activity Rating.

We were overwhelmed by how much we enjoyed this activity! Happy Elephant was all at once fun, ethical, and educational. Plus the food options were plentiful and fun as well.

We enjoyed being with the elephants as much as we were, and we think we really got to spend a lot of time with them since we spent two full days at the camp. At first, we were a little disappointed there were only three elephants, but after spending a couple of days with them, we got to know them more personally, which reminded us that doing things like this really gives you an insight into how intelligent animals are. Just like our own pets we’ve gotten to know, we recognize their personalities, likes, dislikes, and quirks, which made the experience that much more special.

A beautiful rescued elephant who will spend the rest of her life in a Thai elephant sanctuary.

Also, for lunch, we all assembled our own noodle dish. Jim made his a bit too spicy the second time around, and it was pretty hilarious. It was a great way to feed everyone yet let them be as picky as they wanted since they were making it themselves.

The overnight accommodations were more than adequate, and even though it wasn’t luxury, we were comfortable. Of course the biggest bonus staying overnight is getting so much more time with Pupae and the family that owns the camp. Priceless!

Ernestine on an elephant jungle walk near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Mud baths are healthy for elephants in Thailand.
A wrinkly view!

Visitor Information for Happy Elephant Home

Getting There – Luckily, Happy Elephant Home has a driver that will pick you up from any hotel in Chiang Mai. We had time to eat breakfast and load up into the van. It took about 40 minutes to get there, but even though there were signposts on the main road, I’m not sure I would have found it on my own. At any rate, it’s super simple. They pick you up.

Website – Make sure you book online before going and keep checking their website for updated information.

Wat Mueang Kut, a side trip on our overnight stay at Happy Elephant.
There are so many wats in the area of Happy Elephant, but Pupae brought us to this one, her favorite. We loved it too!

Things to Do Nearby

Depending on where you choose to do your elephant sanctuary experience, you will probably be looking at the main city or area near there. For us, that was Chiang Mai, and we spent a few days there templing and eating and generally just having a blast.

Some of the things we did in Chiang Mai:

  • Wat Phra Soi Suthep
  • Jing Jai Farmer’s Market
  • Khao Soi Samerjai and the nearby Wat Fa Ham
  • The Phae Gate
  • City Pillar Shrine
  • Wat Chedi Luang with its reclining Buddha
  • Silver Temple

Other Podcasts about our Thailand Travels:


Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.