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Finding The Perfect Ethical Elephant Sanctuary In Chiang Mai, Thailand

A bucket list activity for so many travellers to do when they visit Thailand – Chiang Mai in particular, is to spend time with the elephants at an ethical elephant sanctuary.         

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary                

Many people say this experience is a highlight of their trip to Thailand, and it’s not hard to see why – these animals are so gorgeous!

There are many elephant sanctuaries and reserves throughout Thailand, and Chiang Mai in particular, that it can be overwhelming trying to pick which is the best place to visit.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

The most important point that you should take into consideration before you book any excursion however, is how well the elephants are treated. Some places, despite being called ‘sanctuaries’ do not treat the elephants well, in fact – they are cruel to the elephants, and they are not ethical.

Many of the reserves claim that they look after the elephants much better than they actually do, when in reality, they still exploit the elephants for entertainment for tourists, and the elephants do not have the best life.

Therefore it’s really important to do some research before you book your day trip to see the elephants, to make sure you select and support an ethical elephant sanctuary. Ethical elephant sanctuaries certainly do exist, you just need to know which ones they are!

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

This article goes into detail about Karen Elephant Serenity – a wonderful ethical elephant sanctuary located near Chiang Mai that we recently visited. Find out about how to visit, how much it costs, and what fun interactions you’ll get to have with the elephants!

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

How To Know If An Elephant Sanctuary Is Ethical Or Not

Any Elephant Reserve or Sanctuary that offers elephant rides or elephant shows is not ethical. Simple.

These places use harsh training methods, and despite elephants being huge creatures, the seats on their backs used to carry tourists really hurt and damage their spines!

These places must be avoided at all costs. The spirit of the elephant at these places has been deliberately broken by the trainers (by torturing the elephant and separating them from their family), in order for the elephant to be submissive to humans and obey them.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

The elephant knows they have to do what they are told, otherwise they will get punished.

Fortunately, education and awareness has increased massively over the years – both for tourists and the Thai people, so these places are becoming less and less.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

But plenty of them still exist as they know there will always be some tourists who want to ride an elephant. Please don’t be that person. Getting to walk amongst and alongside the elephants and seeing them in their natural environment playing is far more rewarding.

You want to find a sanctuary that focuses on providing a safe and natural environment for rescued elephants (whether they are being rescued from logging, circuses, riding camps or street begging), allowing visitors to engage with these magnificent animals in a responsible manner.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

The sanctuaries should focus on rehabilitation, and providing an environment where the elephants can live without fear, so that they have a better life and can live freely in their new habitat.

Numbers of tourists allowed to visit ethical elephant sanctuaries is often limited, to ensure the best experience for the tourists and the elephants.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

About Karen Elephant Serenity – An Ethical Elephant Sanctuary In Chiang Mai

Karen Elephant Serenity is a sanctuary near Chiang Mai run by members of the Karen hill tribe, who have a long history of working with elephants in an ethical manner.

The sanctuary focuses on providing a safe and natural environment for rescued elephants, ensuring their well-being without engaging in activities like riding.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

They emphasise ethical treatment of the elephants, ensuring they live in a stress-free and natural habitat.

Currently Karen Elephant Serenity is home to two elephants: a mother and her baby. The elephants are free to roam around as they wish – there is plenty of land for them, as well as a bathing and mud area for them to keep cool.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

Karen Elephant Serenity is managed by Elephant Nature Park – another very ethical Elephant Sanctuary that I had the pleasure of visiting over 15 years ago.

When I visited Elephant Nature Park, you were allowed to interact with the elephants, however because it has now become so busy with tourists over the years, they don’t allow interactions with the elephants any more, only observations from about 5-10 metres away.

As I had had such a pleasant experience at Elephant Nature Park last time, I actually got in touch with them to see which ethical company they would recommend where we can have a little bit of interaction with the elephants.

They manage several ethical elephant projects around Chiang Mai and organised our day trip to Karen Elephant Serenity.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

How Much Does It Cost To Visit Karen Elephant Serenity?

The cost of visiting Karen Elephant Serenity is 2,500 Thai Baht (approximately $80 USD) per person for a full-day visit. This includes transportation from your accommodation in Chiang Mai, lunch, and interactions with the elephants.

Bookings must be made in advance, and a non-refundable deposit is required to secure a spot.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

Where Is Karen Elephant Serenity In Chiang Mai?

Karen Elephant Serenity is located near the Karen hill tribe village in Mae Wang, about 55km southwest of Chiang Mai. Here is the Google Maps location.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

How to Get To Karen Elephant Serenity From Chiang Mai

Karen Elephant Sanctuary is approximately a 1 hour 30 minutes drive from Chiang Mai city centre.

Shuttle bus transportation is provided by the sanctuary as part of your tour package. An English speaking guide will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel in Chiang Mai which is very convenient. Pick-up is around 8:00 AM and drop-off is by 5:30 PM. 

The drive to Karen Elephant Serenity is pretty smooth, it’s just the last few kilometres of the road where you turn off onto a dirt road that are unsealed so are a little bit bumpy!

I was actually 24 weeks pregnant at the time, so the driver made sure to drive as smoothly as possible, which I definitely appreciated!

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

Our Experience At Karen Elephant Serenity

Our guide was Bancha and he was really lovely. On the drive from Chiang Mai he explained to us about the elephants and their behaviours, and how we can safely interact with them. For example, don’t surprise the elephants from behind as they don’t like it!

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

When we arrived at the elephant sanctuary, we saw the mahout call out to the elephants. We heard the elephants reply, and then after a couple of minutes, mum and baby elephant came along happily, with big smiles on their faces! It was amazing to watch!

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

It was so great to see a mum and her baby together, and we were really excited to spend time with a baby elephant!

We spent some time at the beginning feeding the elephants, which was so fun! We then walked with them through the forest and enjoyed watching them wander freely.

Afterwards, we had a really nice lunch, and then bathed the elephants in a big bath, which they loved! We then watched the elephants play in the mud pit and get completely dirty again, covered from head to toe in mud!

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

We ended the day by preparing some nutritious rice and bananas mixed together for the elephants and feeding them some more. All in all, it was such a great day and one of our favourite and most memorable experiences in Asia.

And with just one other tourist there, it felt like a really intimate and special experience with the elephants, and not like a big group tour.

What Interactions Do You Have With The Elephants At Karen Elephant Serenity?

At Karen Elephant Serenity you’ll have the unique opportunity to interact with the elephants in a variety of activities that allow for close, yet respectful, interactions with the elephants:

Feeding The Elephants: 

Before feeding the elephants you must wash and disinfect your hands. You’ll then get to feed them bananas and sugar cane sticks at the feeding area which is really fun!

You feed the elephants by putting food in their trunks, not in their mouths! They are very gentle taking the food from you.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

The elephants are so funny, instead of taking the food from their trunk and putting it in their mouth straight away, they will often hoard 5 or 6 sugar cane sticks or bananas near the tip of their trunks and then swallow them altogether!

Their coordination so they don’t drop any is quite incredible! Bancha told us that elephants are so intelligent, and that he sensed the mum elephant could tell I was pregnant as she was so gentle next to me.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

I honestly couldn’t believe how much they love to eat – in fact, they eat around 10% of their body weight each day. It’s actually a full-on whole day activity for them!

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

The baby elephant Heng Heng was so cheeky, she was always waving her trunk in your direction for more food and trying to climb over the wooden post if you weren’t feeding her quick enough!

After all the food, the mahout then sprays the elephants with water from a hose – the elephants just took the hose and started drinking directly from it – it was so cute to watch!

Walking With The Elephants: 

You’ll then get to walk alongside the elephants through the forest and grasslands. They have so much land here to wander freely, it’s so nice to see.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

Throughout the day, our guide also talked to us about elephant conservation and the importance of ethical animal tourism, as well as the Karen tribe’s relationship with the elephants.

Bathing The Elephants: 

After a yummy Thai lunch sat in the shade, you’ll get to give the elephants a bath, which they seem to really enjoy!

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

You’ll also get to watch them enjoy a mud bath afterwards. The mud baths are not only fun for the elephants, but the mud protects their skin from the harsh sun, as well as keeps them cool.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

They seemed to be having so much fun splashing themselves with the mud!

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

Is The Karen Elephant Serenity Sanctuary Worth a Visit? 

Karen Elephant Serenity is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in ethical animal tourism and want to support efforts to protect and care for elephants. It was honestly such a highlight in our Thailand itinerary and I am so glad we got to experience it.

One thing I particularly love about Karen Elephant Serenity is that it receives considerably less tourists than other elephant sanctuaries in the area, so you really get a personal and intimate experience with the elephants.

When we visited, there was only one other tourist with us, so we basically had one elephant each which was amazing! 

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

What To Wear When Visiting An Elephant Sanctuary

When visiting an elephant sanctuary, it’s best to not wear any light clothes as the elephants may splash some mud on you (not intentionally of course!).

The mud should of course come off in the wash, but I would recommend to wear darker clothes if possible just so your outfit is easier to clean!

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

Bring a hat, sunglasses and sun cream as you will be in the sun quite a lot. And you may wish to wear a swimsuit underneath your clothes if you’ll be getting in the water to help bathe the elephants.

It’s also wise to bring some insect repellent and wear comfortable shoes as you’ll be walking a little bit in the forest. I wore comfy sandals and was fine, so don’t worry if you don’t have trainers, but I would avoid flip flops.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

It’s also not a bad idea to pack some wet wipes – by the end I was covered in mud spots everywhere all up my arms and on my face, so it was easier using a wet wipe than trying to wash it all off in the sink.

karen elephant serenity chiang mai ethical sanctuary

The staff have plenty of water to give you, so don’t worry if you forget to bring a water bottle.

Where To After Chiang Mai?

If you’re wondering where to head after Chiang Mai, a visit to Chiang Rai – a 3 hour drive away, is a must. You can explore Chiang Rai in two days, seeing the famous sights like The White Temple, The Blue Temple and Wat Huay Pla Kang – the 3 most impressive temples in Chiang Rai.

Or, take a flight or overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and explore Bangkok for a few days, then check out the islands Thailand is famous for, including all the stunning beaches around Krabi and beautiful Old Town Phuket.

Summary

Karen Elephant Serenity is a great place to visit if you’re looking for an ethical, rewarding and memorable experience with elephants in a sanctuary when you’re in Chiang Mai.

The sanctuary focuses on the well-being of these gentle giants, offering visitors a chance to learn and interact with them in a natural setting.

By visiting Karen Elephant Serenity, you are also supporting the welfare of rescued elephants while enjoying close, ethical interactions. It’s a must-do daytrip for anyone in Chiang Mai!