Nowadays there is a big debate about whether or not it is ethical to visit elephant camps in Thailand or any other country. Even sanctuaries like the famous Chiang Mai Elephant’s Nature Park, an animal sanctuary that claims to rescue abused elephants, are being questioned by those who accuse them of greenwashing what is essentially a business aimed at profiting from tourist visits. It must be said that many of those who participate in these debates on social networks do so without having really studied the issue, which is very complex.
Anyway, for those who want to see elephants and make sure not to contribute in any way to any kind of abuse, I recommend going to see them in the wild, in one of the National Parks in Thailand
There are several parks in Thailand where this is possible. One of them is the well-known Khao Yai National Park, where semi-wild elephants are often spotted near the roads that cut through the park, only 3 hours from Bangkok.
But if your main interest is seeing wild elephants in Thailand, the best place is not Khao Yai but the little-known park that I’ll tell you about in this article: Kui Buri National Park.
Kui Buri is a 4-hour drive from Bangkok, past the coastal town of Hua Hin, and close to Sam Rot Yod National Park. Kui Buri covers an area of 969 square kilometers, right next to the border with Burma. More than 300 elephants and other animals such as gaures, deer, leopards, jackals, among many others, live in the Park.
In search of elephants in Kui Buri National Park
Next to Kui Buri National Park’s headquarters there is an accommodation area with bungalows and tents where it is possible to spend the night. However, those who want to go spot elephants don’t need to go to the HQs but to a place called Hueai Leuk.
There you will find a project developed by the Kuiburi Wildlife Ecotourism Club, in which local farmers work as drivers and guides for visitors, and offer 2-3 hours safaris in a restricted area of the park where elephants and other animals live freely.
This service costs 850 THB per group (December 2016 price) and can be booked on arrival. Each vehicle can fit about 8 people. It is recommended to start the visit around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, since then you’ll have a more chances of spotting elephants.
Seeing elephants is almost guaranteed. Drivers already know where usually roam, so the chances of finding them are very high.
During our visit we saw about 7 or 8 elephants. We first spotted one bathing in the river and playing with the water, about 250 meters away from us. Later, the park rangers, who are spread over several areas and notify the guides when they spot the animals, alerted us that there was a herd of elephants in a different area, and we hurried there. We watched them with binoculars since they were quite far away, over 1 km. These elephants had birds on their backs that, in a symbiotic relationship, feed on the elephant’s parasites. We also spotted a small snake and a deer.
On our way out of the Park we found another herd of elephants bathing in the river about 100 meters away and, later, we saw one of them just over 50 meters from us. In principle, the guides always try to leave a minimum of 50 meters of distance between animals and visitors.
The Park is not very famous yet, so there were not many tourists: during our visit we only met about 3 or 4 cars, with a total of 10-15 people.
It is advisable to rent binoculars for 100 THB at the entrance. If you have a good tele lens for the camera, it will come in handy!
Jen, a Park Ranger from Kui Buri
One of the park rangers we talked to is Jen, a 33-year-old Thai woman with a shotgun and a camera around her neck, dressed in typical Thai rangers camouflage uniform.
Jen explained to us that her role was basically to accompany tourists, and that fortunately there were practically no problems with poaching in Kui Buri Park.
But the truth is, overall, poaching is a real threat to wild elephants in Thailand. Hunting elephants to cut their ivory and sell it on the black market is a fairly widespread practice in Thailand. It seems that the shotgun she carried was primarily to scare elephants by firing into the air in case of emergency.
Entrance to the park costs THB 200 for foreigners and THB 40 for Thais.
How to reach the elephant spotting area?
Hueai Luek Wildlife Watching Area is the place where you can hire the services of local guides and drivers to go out for a couple of hours on an elephant-spotting safari. To get there you must drive on Highway 4, take the detour to Road 3217, and then keep going for a little over 20 kms until you reach Hueai Luek Wildlife Watching Area, near Yang Chum Lake. Once on Road 3217 just follow the signposts.
Online booking is not possible, only upon arrival. As I said, the price is 850 THB per group (plus 200 THB Park entrance fee per person). Most of the guides barely speak any English.
The only way to get there is by private vehicle. Therefore you can rent a motorcycle or a car, with or without a driver. Going back and forth in one day from Bangkok would be too rushed and not really worth it. Visiting as a day trip is a good option for those spending the night in Hua Hin or in one of the beachfront resorts in Sam Rot Yod area.
A good stop on the way to Koh Tao or other islands in the Gulf
After visiting the Park, I think that perhaps we could include it in some of the tailor-made trips we organize with our Bangkok-based agency InThailand. Especially for those who are on their way to Koh Tao and have a special interest in seeing elephants in the wild, rather than in camps or sanctuaries. As an example, if someone wants to go from Bangkok or Chiang Mai to Koh Tao, a good option may be the following route, which can be done by private vehicle:
Day 1 – Bangkok – Train Market and Floating Market – Hua Hin.
Day 2 – Visit Sam Rot Yod National Park (cave) and Elephant Safari in Kui Buri.
Day 3 – Early departure to Chumporn to take the boat to Koh Tao.