Regular readers of this blog will know that I love wildlife. Nothing makes me happier than spending time with wild animals, observing them, and taking photos of them. But with most wildlife, whether it’s penguins in South Georgia, gorillas in Uganda, cheetahs in Tanzania or puffins in the UK, there’s always one slightly frustrating caveat: you can’t get too close. Either because the animals are dangerous, or to avoid disturbing them.
Which is why my recent trip to Koh Samui Elephant Sanctuary was such a treat. Here there are no such rules. You can get as close to the elephants as you like – you can touch them, pet them, feed them and of course take as many photos of them as you want. No restrictions, no fences. Just you and these wonderful, peaceful, charming mammals.
So if you love elephants and are planning a trip to Thailand, read on to find out all about Samui Elephant Sanctuary and how to plan your visit there.
Note: This trip was a paid partnership with the Tourism Authority of Thailand. All thoughts and opinions are my own. I don’t accept freebies or payment in exchange for positive reviews. All prices are correct at the time of writing.
Samui Elephant Sanctuary – their history and mission
Samui Elephant sanctuary was founded in 2018 with the aim of providing a safe and caring home to elephants rescued from industrial use in Thailand. Their mission is to be at the forefront of the movement to transition away from using elephants for things like logging or riding activities for tourists, towards a new model where these gentle giants are kept peacefully in large, well-designed spaces so visitors can come and observe them.
The elephant sanctuary started with one site in Bophut, Koh Samui, and has since opened a second location in Chaweng Noi. As well as providing a safe living environment for the elephants, the new sanctuary also has a clinic providing specialist medical care for the sick or elderly residents.
They currently have twelve Asian elephants, seven at the Bophut site and five at the Chaweng Noi site, all female, and all rescued from a life of abuse and drudgery in riding camps and the logging industry. Now they are happily living out their days in a purpose-built, spacious home.
The elephant sanctuary I visited was the one at Bophut. Here they have a large paddock full of trees and bushes for the elephants to munch on, a covered shelter to protect the elephants at night or during bad weather, and a large swimming pool for them to cool off in.
An introduction to elephants at Koh Samui Elephant Sanctuary
I visited with Roshni from The Wanderlust Within and our local guide, Nina. Between them they took all the photos and videos of me on this post (thanks ladies!).
Our visit started with a welcome introduction and briefing. We sat in the shady café with bottles of water and were shown a video that explained the history of elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, some facts and figures about elephants, and most importantly, a safety briefing.
We were warned not to approach the elephants from behind – they can’t see you so you may startle them – and not to make any loud noises or sudden movements. The best approach, we were told, is to let them come to you, but watch your feet. You definitely don’t want a full-grown elephant treading on your toes!
Feeding the elephants at Koh Samui Elephant Sanctuary
Once we were fully clued-up it was time to feed the elephants. An elephant can eat 10% of its body weight every day – so for a 3-tonne Asian elephant, that’s 300 kg of food every day! Which means there’s always room for snacks, and it was up to us to prepare them.
In a large plastic bowl we peeled soft, ripe bananas, added cooked rice and ground-up grains, and then we kneaded it all together by hand. The mixture was warm and squishy, smelled deliciously sweet, bready and bananary, and all that squidging was rather therapeutic!
We then rolled large handfuls of the mixture into large, sticky balls, coated them in flour, and we were ready to go.
Meeting the elephants at Koh Samui Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
Two of the elephants had been waiting patiently by the fence for their snacks, so we went to meet them.
The one the right is Khamsan. She’s 60 years old and has eyesight problems. She was the first elephant to arrive at the sanctuary after she was rescued from a riding camp. Before that she worked in logging – they know this because she has a large hole in her right ear, which is typically used by the handlers in the logging industry to hook a bullhook into, as a way to control the elephants.
On the left is Khampang, who is 57. She was rescued two years ago from a tourist riding camp. She has no hair on her tail as it has all been cut off and won’t grow back. Although Khampang and Khamsan only met two years ago, they are now firm friends and hang out together all the time.
Both ladies were very keen to get their trunks on our sticky banana balls, stretching out as far as they could reach and sometimes trying to grab a bite out of turn. I loved the way they curled the ends of their trunks around the food so they could grasp it and then carry it to their mouths.
Entering the elephant enclosure
Once we’d bonded with Khamsan and Khampang (and run out of sticky banana balls), we were allowed to enter the enclosure and meet the other elephants. The sanctuary team armed us with a big bag of ripe bananas each, and we ducked under the fence and walked across the field to feed bananas to the rest of the residents.
We soon became popular. As word spread that humans had arrived bearing snacks, the elephants rushed over. It was hard work keeping up with all those greedy trunks trying to get inside the bags to grab a cheeky banana, and a couple of times I nearly had my foot trodden on by an elephant sneaking up behind me while I’d turned my attention to one of her friends.
But they were always gentle and curious, and spending time feeding, hanging out with them, and photographing them was one of the highlights of my trip to Koh Samui.
This one is Cartoon. She’s 58, only has one tusk, and is blind, but she was super friendly and hungry for bananas – and palm leaves!
How much does an elephant cost?
‘Rescuing’ an elephant sounds like some sort of daredevil mission in which the staff from the elephant sanctuary sneak up in the dead of night with a large trailer, cut through the fence, liberate the elephant from its chains and run away without getting caught. But in practice it’s much simpler – and much more expensive – than that!
In order to rescue elephants, the team simply have to persuade the owners to sell them – and raise enough cash to buy them. Of course, riding camps and logging companies don’t want to sell their elephants, unless they have become too old or sick to be useful any more. Without elephant sanctuaries to take them off their hands, these companies would often just abandon the elephant in the forest to die. So the sanctuaries save their lives by buying them.
But it isn’t cheap. An adult female elephant costs around 1 million Thai baht – about £21,500 or $30,000. A baby elephant is even more expensive: 2.5 million baht or £54,000 / $75,000.
On top of that the sanctuaries have to feed them, and here at Samui Elephant Sanctuary the get through 2 tonnes of food every single day.
Read more: Nature Vacations: 25 Amazing Places For An Outdoors Adventure
How much does it cost to go to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand?
Prices across Thailand may vary, but a half-day visit to Samui Elephant Sanctuary, including feeding the elephants, costs 3000 baht (£65 / $90) for anyone 12 years and older. Children under 12 cost 1500 baht and children under 4 go free. Note that payment must be in cash only.
The price includes transfers to and from your hotel in Koh Samui, a vegetarian Thai buffet lunch, and complimentary filtered water, coffee and tea.
Is this Thailand Elephant Sanctuary Ethical?
With any elephant experience in Thailand, it’s always good to double check that the place is actually walking the walk as well as talking the talk. And with Samui Elephant Sanctuary that certainly seems to be the case.
The sanctuary was founded by the world-renowned elephant conservationist and founder of Save Elephant Foundation, Lek Chailert. It has been awarded the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Best Animal Welfare award two years in a row, as well as being recognised as a Best Practice Elephant Venue by World Animal Protection.
Can you swim with elephants at Samui Elephant Sanctuary Thailand?
Other elephant sanctuaries may allow you to swim or bathe with the elephants, but at Samui Elephant Sanctuary they don’t offer swimming or bathing. They believe that if people are crowding round the animals while they splash and roll around, this causes them stress and prevents them from behaving naturally.
However, you can interact with the elephants, feed and get close to them, which still makes for a truly thrilling experience.
Is it ever OK to ride an elephant?
Sometimes people ask why we think it’s OK to ride horses, but not elephants. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, despite its size, an elephant’s back is not built for carrying the weight of human plus the large saddle, which often has no padding. Over time, carrying humans can cause the elephant pain and even spinal injury.
On top of this, elephants are not domestic animals. Horses have been bred over thousands of years to be docile so we can ride them. Elephants, on the other hand, are wild animals. This means that the tools and methods used to control them – such as whips, chains and bullhooks – can often be cruel and cause stress and pain to the elephant.
Rules for visiting an elephant sanctuary in Thailand
So you want to visit Koh Samui Elephant Sanctuary (or another one)? Here are the rules to remember.
- When packing for Thailand, make sure you include comfy clothes and ideally closed-toed shoes (you may get a bit muddy).
- Be aware that some of the elephants are sick or blind, so stay alert.
- Don’t approach an elephant from the side or behind where she can’t see you.
- Wash your hands before coming into contact with the elephants.
- When feeding the elephant, don’t try to put the food directly in her mouth. Put it into the curled end of her trunk and let her feed herself.
- Don‘t feed them anything other than the food approved by the elephant sanctuary.
- No sudden movements or loud noises.
- Watch your back!
Find out more about Samui Elephant Sanctuary
For more information, check out their website.
Or for more Asia posts, check out
- 23 Best Places to Visit in Thailand
- A Dream Itinerary For Sri Lanka In Two Weeks
- The Beautiful Leg-Rowing Inle Lake Fishermen, Myanmar
- Colourful Street Markets in Myanmar (Burma)
Here are some more wildlife encounter posts you might enjoy:
- What Happens On A Chimpanzee Trekking Safari In Uganda
- Visiting the Skomer Island Puffins in Wales
- 60+ Awesome Antarctica Photography Tips
- Entebbe Zoo – Uganda’s Wildlife Education Centre
- 32 Amazing African Safari Animals – A Photo Guide
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