Technically a large island, Phuket is Thai for “hill” and features lush landscapes, luxe resorts and party beaches that entice millions of tourists (and A-listers from Leonardo DiCaprio to Kim Kardashian) each year.
There are also animal “sanctuary” tourist traps aplenty. Over the years, these so-called parks and sanctuaries have earned a bad rap — and for good reason.
Abuse is rampant. Many of the small-eared pachyderms endemic to this part of Asia are chained, climbed on and ridden by the uncaring or just plain ignorant. But that doesn’t mean you have to leave your morals at home to get a cute Thai elephant selfie.
In fact, tourism can do these elephants a lot of good.
Because they eat a tenth of their body weight each day in green shoots and bananas, plenty of visitors and bahts are needed to keep these beautiful creatures well-fed and cared for.
So how does an outsider tell the good from the bad? Here’s a look at five sanctuaries and elephant activities around Phuket you can feel good about visiting.
Pachy your bags
Skip popular Trip Advisor photo spots like Phuket Elephant on the Beach and Elephant Lover Phuket. They allow people to climb all over the elephants and sit in their trunks as staffers take photos in an unnatural beach environment.
Instead, head to Phuket Elephant Care. It doesn’t allow riding and is set up for respectful selfies. In fact, it’s all about creating a healthy and stress-free environment for elephants, which live within a fruit-filled forest with its own natural mud pool. They also offer programs like elephant feeding and even “spa” days in the water with their elephants so you can make a splash on your Thai trip. Prices from roughly $28.
Elephant in the room
For decades, mass tourism created hard conditions for these incredibly sensitive animals. At Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, many of their charges were injured while chained at tourist riding sites or at logging camps. You can help care for them by helping to prepare their food, feeding them or simply watching and enjoying these rescued elephants from a distance.
What happens when an elephant sanctuary shutters? The Elephant Wildlife Sanctuary steps in. They focus on rescues from failed elephant endeavors, as well as moms and their babies.
If you are also into families, stop by with your new spouse for the half-day Elephant Honeymoon Care Program, which includes bathing and feeding the elephants, along with photos and a video. There’s even cold Champagne and a “special love couple lunch set.” The package will set you back $450.
One of the biggest and best operations is Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which has several locations throughout Thailand. It works to rescue elephants from logging operations, ride attractions and circuses. At their Phuket establishment, you can place bananas in the elephants’ rough, muscular trunks or even hose down one of the aging cows. Tickets are roughly $56 per person.
A big deal
Want to breath it all in? Green Elephant Sanctuary Park lets you bathe in mud with their thick-skinned giants and wash off in a spring. Prices are just $71 for adults and $54 for kids age 10 and under. Tragically, this park’s baby elephant passed away in May from the deadly elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus that affects babies worldwide. Now, the sanctuary raises money to fit the disease and for elder elephant medical care.
Now, that’s a cause you’ll never forget.