While Thailand is the main destination for tourists wanting a close encounter with elephants, neighbouring Cambodia has several elephant sanctuaries that are well worth a visit too.
When it comes to choosing between elephant sanctuaries in Cambodia, there is a lot to consider. Many places use buzzwords like ‘ethical’ or ‘sanctuary’ so that tourists think they are doing a good job when it comes to the elephants’ welfare. However, this is not always the case.
If you want the quintessentially Southeast Asian bucket list elephant experience, you must do your research. To take the stress out of finding an ethical elephant sanctuary in Cambodia, we’ve listed some great options below to help you pick.
Related: (opens in new tab)
- The Ethics of Elephant Tourism
- Cambodia Backpacking Guide
- Cambodia Itineraries for Backpackers
What is an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary?
There is a lot of debate as to what constitutes an ‘ethical’ elephant sanctuary. Simply put, an ethical elephant sanctuary places the elephants’ needs above profit. Ethical sanctuaries (mostly) allow elephants to roam freely within the grounds. The land will likely be hundreds of hectares, allowing them a fairly expansive territory.
At a truly ethical sanctuary, the elephants’ autonomy will be respected, meaning the animal will be allowed to do what it wants inside the confines of the sanctuary. They will not give rides or perform in shows. Both of these activities are a big red flag. Neither are natural and no truly ethical elephant sanctuary would endorse them.
Some sanctuaries allow tourists to feed and bathe the elephants. This is controversial, with some arguing that it takes autonomy away from the elephants. After all, if the elephants were living in the wild, they wouldn’t be washed several times a day by groups of tourists.
Many animal activists believe the only way to have a truly ethical experience is to observe the elephants in the sanctuary without touching or influencing them.
The need for sanctuary breeding programmes has caused division within animal activism circles too. In Defence of Animals say that no real sanctuary will ever breed elephants. However, other groups accept that elephant breeding is necessary to boost numbers – on the condition that there is a plan in place to release babies into protected wild areas when they are old enough.
Elephant tourism in Southeast Asia is a controversial topic and things are rarely black and white. At South East Asia Backpacker, we have chosen to work solely with elephant sanctuaries which practice a ‘hands-off’ policy. These sanctuaries don’t allow tourists to bathe, feed or ride elephants. As we aren’t experts, we feel that this is the only way to be 100% sure that we are endorsing only ethical organisations.
👉View the list of ‘hands-off’ elephant sanctuaries in SE Asia here and book your visit now! 🐘
Popular Elephant Sanctuaries in Cambodia
Disclaimer: In Southeast Asia, things change quickly, especially in the animal tourism world. If you have updates or personal experiences to share about the sanctuaries listed here, please do so in the comments.
1. Elephant Valley Project – Mondulkiri, Cambodia
- Riding: No
- Feeding: No
- Bathing: No
HANDS-OFF! 🚫🖐️🐘 This elephant sanctuary does not allow tourists to touch the elephants. You can book your ethical elephant experience via our website here. Discount code: HANDSOFF.
About: Founded in 2006, Elephant Valley Project was the original and first elephant sanctuary in Cambodia. Located in over 1,500 hectares of forest, it is dedicated to providing a safe home for the ex-working elephants of Cambodia. Their sanctuary echoes their motto: “Let them roam free.”
The Elephant Valley Project runs under the NGO, the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (ELIE), which began by providing veterinarian care to elephants and education to the mahout families in the far east Mondulkiri province of Cambodia. They aim not only to care for the elephants but support the families that used to rely on elephants for their livelihood in this part of the world.
As well as supporting the welfare of their 11 elephants, EVP pride themselves on their charity work. They claim to be the most charitable elephant sanctuary in Asia and donate a huge portion of funds to local causes, to improve education, healthcare, job security and reduce poverty. Elephant Valley Project also works in conjunction with the Ministry of the Environment and the Wildlife Conservation Society to help protect the Seima Protection Forest, a nearby hub of biodiversity.
Elephant Valley Project does not allow riding, feeding or bathing of elephants by tourists and the sanctuary closes on weekends to allow the elephants time to relax in private. They do employ foreigners at the sanctuary but say that this is because there are not enough trained experts from the local area to effectively manage the elephants.
How to visit: If you want to visit the Elephant Valley Project, there are a variety of ways to do so, from a day visit to an overnight stay and a five-day volunteering program. A day’s visit will cost around $95USD while a 2-day visit (in a shared room) will cost $140USD. There are discounted rates for group bookings and school groups.
👉Book your visit to the Elephant Valley Project here.🐘
2. Mondulkiri Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary – Mondulkiri, Cambodia
- Riding: No
- Feeding: Yes
- Bathing: Yes
About: This non-profit project was established in 2015 and originally sponsored by L.E.A.F Cambodia, a local environmental conservation organisation. The sanctuary is committed to the protection of working elephants and aims to provide the now-retired animals with the opportunity to live the rest of their lives out in a protected area.
Unlike many of the other sanctuaries in the area, Mondulkiri Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary is managed solely by Khmer people and doesn’t employ Westerners. They say this is why they can keep their entrance fees lower than other sanctuaries.
The sanctuary is co-owned by 52 indigenous families who live in the area, meaning that a visit here will help to support local people by providing them with sustainable incomes. This shift in income also means that the area is less dependent on logging.
There are five elephants housed here, all of which have been liberated from either the farming, tourist riding or illegal logging industries. The elephants are not directly owned by the sanctuary but rented from the original owners. Riding is not permitted at the sanctuary, however, tourists are allowed to feed and bathe the elephants.
How to visit: If you are interested in visiting the Mondulkiri Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary, you have a couple of options. They offer day trips and overnight trips. The latter costs around $80USD per person and usually includes washing and feeding the elephants, jungle trekking and a visit to a local farm.
3. Mondulkiri Project – Mondulkiri, Cambodia
- Riding: No
- Feeding: Yes
- Bathing: Yes
About: Not to be confused with Mondulkiri Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary (above), this sanctuary is owned by Cambodian, Mr Tree. They don’t employ foreigners or allow international volunteers to take jobs away from the local population. Mr Tree believes that by empowering the local community through work opportunities in his sanctuary, he can help the indigenous Bunong People and improve their quality of life. It also means that he can offer lower tour prices to visitors.
In partnership with Mr Tree, the Mondulkiri Project is managed by the Cambodia Elephant Rescue Organization, a locally registered NGO. They have agreed with the elders of the nearby Bunong community to stop logging in the Mondulkiri Forest.
There are four elephants at Mondulkiri Project, Princess, Happy, Comvine and Sophie. All of them are rescued elephants, either from the logging or elephant riding industries. Those who choose to visit Mondulkiri Project can walk with the elephants, prepare their food for feeding time (administered by the visitors) and wash them in the river. Elephant riding is not allowed at the sanctuary.
As well as offering tours to visitors, the Mondulkiri Project also supports elephants through its donation and adoption schemes (not literally – you won’t be taking an elephant home!). These give people the opportunity to donate money directly to the sanctuary and their elephant of choice, ensuring that the staff get paid and the elephants get looked after.
How to visit: Mondulkiri Project offer three types of tours for visitors. A full-day visit (approx. $50USD) and a two-day visit (approx. $80USD). 1.5-day visits (leaving at lunchtime) can be arranged directly with the project. These tours include a jungle trek with the elephants, the opportunity to learn more about the sanctuary and the mahouts, feeding time and the chance to bathe the elephants (not offered on the 1.5-day visit).
4. Kulen Elephant Forest – Siem Reap, Cambodia
- Riding: No
- Feeding: Yes
- Bathing: Yes
About: Founded in 2018, Kulen Elephant Forest (KEF) covers 400 hectares of land in the foothills of Kulen Mountain, around an hour from Siem Reap. The sanctuary is dedicated to housing retired elephants, all of which were previously used to give tourists rides around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat.
They have 12 elephants, making them the largest herd of privately owned elephants in the country. There are two bull elephants, Thong Kham and Kham Song who are a little wary of strangers. As a result, they tend to spend their time in the forest with their respective mahouts. All of the other elephants are female and these are usually the ones that visitors interact with.
Kulen Elephant Forest has plans to pioneer a breeding programme for Cambodia’s elephants. There isn’t that much information about this on their website, so it is unclear whether they would work with charities and NGOs to help breed wild elephants in Cambodia or use their own captive elephants. The only reason given for the implementation of a breeding programme is to ‘protect genetic diversity in an attempt to combat inbreeding’. It is unknown whether KEF has plans to introduce new baby elephants into the wild.
Washing and feeding are allowed at this sanctuary but riding (for tourists) is prohibited. Their website features photos of mahouts riding elephants and the words sanctuary and elephant camp are used interchangeably.
How to visit: All tours to KEF depart from Siem Reap daily. Two different tours are offered; morning and afternoon. Both cost approx. $80USD per person and lasts around six hours. There is a maximum of 12 visitors per group. They also offer overnight camping in their campsite, however, visitors will need to enquire directly for prices. A volunteer scheme is believed to be coming soon.
5. Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia/Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary – Siem Reap, Cambodia
- Riding: No
- Feeding: Yes
- Bathing: No
About: Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia is a joint venture with Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. It’s best known for being the home of Kaavan, rescued from a zoo in Pakistan and dubbed the “world’s loneliest elephant”. His arrival in 2020 was facilitated by charities including Four Paws, Free the Wild and bizarrely, the singer Cher.
Sitting in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, the sanctuary is based in one of the largest protected forest areas in the entire country. There are three elephants at Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia. Kavaan is the only bull elephant and there are two females who were rescued from the logging industry, Di-Ploh and Sarai Mia.
Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia operates a hugely popular volunteer scheme which involves preparing food for the elephants, gibbons and domestic animals, cleaning shelters, accompanying elephants on jungle treks, teaching English at local schools and helping with sustainable farming.
Endorsed by Save Elephant Foundation, set up by Lek of Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, the elephants can roam freely during the day giving them time to forage and interact with each other. Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia do not allow tourists to wash elephants and only practice protected feeding (through a fence).
How to visit: Volunteering comes with a minimum of a one-week commitment and costs around $400USD per person. Accommodation is provided on-site and vegetarian meals, drinking water and return transport from Siem Reap are also included.
If you don’t have enough time or money to commit to a volunteer experience, you can also visit Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia for a day (approx. $120USD) or on an overnight visit (approx. $160USD).
Choosing an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia is a hugely important decision which you should not take lightly. We all have a responsibility to ensure that we only support organisations that put the welfare of the animals before profit.
While all of the above elephant sanctuaries are very popular with visitors, only you can decide how much contact you feel is fair for tourists to have with elephants. If you do have direct experience with any of the sanctuaries listed in this article, please help other travellers by sharing your experiences in the comments below.
Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World
Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind Winging The World, a blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.
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What is the ethical elephant sanctuary in Cambodia? ›
The Elephant Sanctuary Project
The Elephant Sanctuary was founded in 2006 with the aim to improve the health and welfare of the captive elephants in Eastern Cambodia, work to conserve the wild elephant's natural habitat and to support the local people who work with these magnificent creatures.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project based in Thailand.Which elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai are ethical? ›
The elephant mahouts help people realize incredible life experiences such as feeding the elephants by hand or bathing elephants in Chiang Mai. The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical elephant sanctuary near Chiang Mai, Thailand.What is the purpose of elephant sanctuary? ›
Sanctuary, park, camp or orphanage
Without an income their owners cannot feed or support them – this is where the elephant sanctuaries come in. An elephant sanctuary is, in theory, a place where 'retired' elephants can come and live in peace, no longer needing to work in order to feed themselves.
“There are no elephant rides that are ethical,” she said. “All the elephants that have humans on their back experience stress and pain in their vertebrae. Elephants have evolved to have very strong shoulders and necks, but not for pressure directly on their spines.”How do you know if a sanctuary is ethical? ›
- How to Identify an Ethical Animal Sanctuary. Look for the sanctuary's mission statement which will explain why the facility exists. ...
- Avoid Operations That Sell or Exploit Animals. ...
- Consider a Farm Animal Sanctuary. ...
- RELATED: Willkommen to Germany's First Fully-Vegetarian Alpine Cabin Restaurant.
- Prevent illegal killing.
- Protect elephant habitat.
- Monitor elephant numbers, poaching rates, and threats to elephant habitat at key sites in Africa and Asia.
- Reduce ivory trafficking.
- Reduce the demand for ivory.
Due to their physical size, complex social needs, high level of intelligence, large home ranges, diverse diet and large behavioural repertoire, the full welfare needs of elephants cannot be met in captivity. A life in captivity for elephants is inherently cruel and leads to suffering throughout their long lives.Where is ethical elephant based? ›
Elephant Nature Park, Thailand
The sanctuary at the forefront of the movement towards ethical elephant experiences would have to be Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Lek Chailert, the founder of the sanctuary, paved the way with her mission of elephant welfare and animal rights.
Welcome to Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
As the first ethical elephant tourism experience in Phuket, we rescue sick, injured and old elephants, welcoming them back into their indigenous habit.
Is Pattaya elephant Village ethical? ›
We adhere to an ethical model, which means no chains or bullhooks, no riding or performances, and limited interaction with people. This allows the elephants to express their natural behaviours, including foraging in the jungle, interacting with each other, playing in the mud, and bathing in the pool.Is bathing with elephants ethical? ›
Is Bathing with Elephants Unethical? Yes, bathing with elephants is an unethical activity. But it's understandable why the typical visitor to Thailand may not know this. In the wild, elephants love to bathe in rivers, streams, ponds, and muddy wallows.Is aonang elephant sanctuary ethical? ›
Not a real sanctuary. Not ethical. This place is not a sanctuary, nor is it ethical. The elephants don't roam around freely - they have been trained to follow what their caregiver tells them to do for the pleasure of tourists.What happens at the elephant sanctuary? ›
The Elephant Sanctuary welcomes you
Visitors are taken on a journey into the world of the African elephant and are guided through an unforgettable experience with these magnificent creatures. Visitors are able to touch, feed and get to know these animals.
There are only 5 long-term resident elephants in the sanctuary, and the emphasis seems to be using these individual elephants to make money rather than helping and rehabilitating elephants.What is the most famous elephant sanctuary? ›
1. Chobe National Park, Botswana. Botswana's famous Chobe National Park has the largest population of elephants in the whole of Africa. With an estimated population of between 120,000-130,000 in the country, a safari here is guaranteed to feature large numbers of these wonderful animals.Is it ethical to use trained elephants for entertaining people? ›
The animal rights answer
The use of animals to entertain human beings is wrong because: it treats the animal as a means to achieve some human end. it fails to treat animals with the respect they deserve.
Elephants in Circuses Are Abused and Deprived
Circuses are terrible places for elephants, and trainers abuse them using electric shocks, whips, and sharp metal-tipped sticks called “bullhooks.” When they make a “mistake,” they may be beaten, yelled at, tied up with ropes, or chained for hours.
According to the NhRP, elephants “share numerous complex cognitive abilities with humans, such as self-awareness, empathy, awareness of death, intentional communication, learning, memory, and categorization abilities,” which makes them uniquely deserving of the right to habeas corpus.Why sanctuaries are better? ›
Moving or relocating animals from their habitat is challenging, but sanctuaries offer the same natural habitat. They make them feel comfortable by putting them in an environment they are familiar with and is natural. All occupants inside these homes are fully protected and monitored.
Is it ethical to keep animals in captivity? ›
Considering the questionable management practices and the poor or absent conservation and educational benefits, even in zoos considered to provide the best conditions, confining a wild animal to a lifetime of captivity in a zoo is, in our view, clearly unethical.What is an ethical argument for not having zoos? ›
Arguments Against Zoos
Being a member of an endangered species doesn't mean the individual animals should be afforded fewer rights. Animals in captivity suffer from boredom, stress, and confinement. 5 No pen—no matter how humane—or drive-through safari can compare to the freedom of the wild.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage (Sinhala: පින්නවල අලි අනාථාගාරය), is a captive breeding and conservation institute for wild Asian elephants located at Pinnawala village, 13 km (8.1 mi) northeast of Kegalle town in Sabaragamuwa Province of Sri Lanka. Pinnawala has the largest herd of captive elephants in the world.Which organization runs the largest Elephant Sanctuary in the US? ›
The Elephant Sanctuary founded in 1995 in Hohenwald, Tennessee, is the nation's largest natural-habitat refuge developed specifically to meet the needs of endangered elephants. It is a non-profit organization, licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.Can you visit the Elephant Sanctuary in the US? ›
The East Texas Elephant Experience visit lasts 1.5 hours and is both entertaining and educational. Not only will you get the chance to have a personal encounter with the elephants but you will also learn about their care and the challenges their population is facing in Africa.How do you protect a field from elephants? ›
By placing beehives around their plots, however, farmers can protect their crops from elephants. Unlike human skin, elephant skin is too thick for bees to penetrate with their stings. The pachyderms, however, have sensitive areas such as the tip of their trunk, mouth and eyes.What scares elephants? ›
Elephants are afraid of bees. Let that sink in for a second. The largest animal on land is so terrified of a tiny insect that it will flap its ears, stir up dust and make noises when it hears the buzz of a beehive. Of course a bee's stinger can't penetrate the thick hide of an elephant.What scares away elephants? ›
- Shouting, yelling, whistling as a group.
- Banging on things such as drums, tins and trees.
- Setting up an alarm can do two things - one, it alerts you to the presence of elephants and two, it can scare off the elephants if the alarm noise is loud enough.
San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park is probably the first one that leaps to mind when thinking about ethical zoos, and with good reason. Founded in 1916, San Diego Zoo was the first to introduce cage-less, open air enclosures that are designed to be as close as possible to the animals' natural habitats.What is the ethical side of zoos? ›
Zoos and aquariums have an ethical obligation to ensure that the millions of animals in their care are afforded good welfare and humane treatment. To help achieve this, all zoos and aquariums should be subject to independent and third-party certification using science-based animal welfare standards.
Are elephants in captivity happy? ›
Elephants in circuses and roadside zoos are denied everything that gives their life meaning. Many become neurotic, unhealthy, depressed, and aggressive as a result of the inhumane conditions in which they're kept.Who is the owner of the ethical elephant? ›
The Elephant Project Founder, Kristina McKean, Lives Among the Elephants in Chiang Mai's Most Ethical Elephant Sanctuary.What is the most ethical elephant sanctuary in Bali? ›
Mason Elephant Park Taro Bali
The abused and abandoned Sumatran elephants are given a safe haven here in Mason Elephant Park Bali. This sanctuary is fully devoted to preservation and it is the principal for setting the standard on how to take a good care of elephants in such purpose-based situation.
Visiting the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, the most ethical sanctuary in Phuket, gives curious visitors a unique opportunity to interact with magnificent elephants in the safety and security of their natural home.Can you visit an elephant sanctuary? ›
The Elephant Discovery Center welcomes families to visit, explore, and learn about the mission and work of The Elephant Sanctuary. Admission is always free though donations are welcome. Our education staff is on hand during open hours to answer questions and guide your family through the exhibit space.Where is elephant poaching a problem? ›
Because so many popular destinations around China, such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, have active elephant ivory markets, this is a significant concern.Where can you pet elephants in the US? ›
The Elephant Ranch allows tourists to get up close and personal with the majestic animals. The Two Tails Ranch located near Gainesville lets people feed, bathe and even ride the eight elephants living at the ranch. The nonprofit group All About Elephants, Inc.Do Thai people respect elephants? ›
Elephants are the national animal of Thailand- they represent strength, loyalty and longevity. Many Thais believe, for example, that walking under one will bring luck. Thai and Buddhist literature about elephants are still the basis of popular stories today.Should you bathe elephants in Thailand? ›
Elephants really like to be clean as their skin is sensitive, so it is common to see an elephant bathing in Thailand. Elephants mud baths are also important as it protects their skin from being burnt by the harsh sun.How do you identify an ethical elephant sanctuary? ›
True sanctuaries never buy, sell, trade, breed, exploit, or profit from elephants. They never use bullhooks or punish elephants in other ways (even out of tourists' sight), and they don't force animals who naturally avoid humans into close contact with them.
Do elephants enjoy being bathed? ›
Elephants love to bathe in water and play in the mud either on their own or with each other. To do this, they need space to splash, roll around, submerge, and cover themselves in mud. Our guests stand on the bank, or sit quietly in the Observation Huts observing the elephants from a distance.Is Kanchanaburi elephant sanctuary ethical? ›
Elephants World, Kanchanaburi
Home to more than 30 elephants, it's one of the best ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. You can visit Elephants World for half a day, or a whole day, or even spend the night in a traditional Thai-style bamboo hut close to the mountains.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is as one of the best elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai as our track record of sustainable and ethical treatment speaks for itself. Our elephant reserve in Chiang Mai has many options for visitors to experience the wonderful elephants of Thailand.Is Jungle elephant sanctuary ethical? ›
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project based in Thailand.Which is the ethical elephant sanctuary near Pai? ›
Pai Elephant Sanctuary is situated just 10 kilometres from Pai. The sanctuary covers an area of 50 Rai – 80,000 sq metres – 20 acres. The Pai river runs through the land ensuring a constant supply of water where the elephants can drink, bathe and take mud-baths.Are elephant mud baths ethical? ›
Is Bathing with Elephants Unethical? Yes, bathing with elephants is an unethical activity. But it's understandable why the typical visitor to Thailand may not know this. In the wild, elephants love to bathe in rivers, streams, ponds, and muddy wallows.Is the Aonang elephant sanctuary ethical? ›
Not a real sanctuary. Not ethical. This place is not a sanctuary, nor is it ethical. The elephants don't roam around freely - they have been trained to follow what their caregiver tells them to do for the pleasure of tourists.Where is the loneliest elephant? ›
Kaavan (Urdu: کاون; born 1985) is a male Asian elephant known as the "world's loneliest elephant" since his partner, 22-year-old Saheli, died in 2012. Kaavan was gifted by the government of Sri Lanka to Pakistan in 1985.What is the most ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Phuket? ›
Visiting the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, the most ethical sanctuary in Phuket, gives curious visitors a unique opportunity to interact with magnificent elephants in the safety and security of their natural home.Is elephant Hills Thailand ethical? ›
Elephant Hills Thailand is an immersive outdoor experience that combines ethical elephant encounters, tented camps, and floating lodges. Located two hours from the island of Phuket, Elephant Hills in Thailand is one of the highest-rated ethical elephant experiences in the country.
Why there are only five elephants in the sanctuary? ›
There are only 5 long-term resident elephants in the sanctuary, and the emphasis seems to be using these individual elephants to make money rather than helping and rehabilitating elephants.What do hunters do with elephants when killed? ›
The meat is given to local people, it's never wasted. The money from hunting the elephant goes towards elephant conservation. The trophy fee on a elephant is quite expensive, more than any of the locals will make in a lifetime, so this system works out well for all involved.How long do elephants live in sanctuaries? ›
Wild: Wild elephants have long life spans and typically live 60 to 70 years of age. Captive: Captive elephants have significantly lower life spans than their wild counterparts and are usually dead before the age of 40.