Elephant watching vacations guide

Positive interaction with pachyderms sums up an elephant watching vacation nicely – whether they’re in the wild or in wonderfully caring camps and sanctuaries.
There’s a lot to love about elephants. Physically extraordinary and highly intelligent, they are able to experience and exhibit self awareness, grief, compassion and cooperation. So, it’s understandable that for some elephant fans, spotting them on an African safari doesn’t entirely scratch the ele itch. Happily, alternative elephant encounters exist, with Asia leading the way in positive, ethical and educational vacations packed with pachyderms.
Sri Lanka and Nepal are the best countries for an elephant watching vacation, with the former offering the chance to see elephants both in the wild and at a sanctuary that works to return orphans to the wild. In Nepal, meanwhile, a pioneering camp where elephants enjoy the freedom to be elephants, welcomes visitors who come simply to hang out with them. Within both trips there’s the chance to spot other wildlife, visit local villages and conservation projects, and travel further afield, but the elephants remain the star attraction and are definitely – ahem – worth trumpeting about.

Elephant watching vacations are…

a chance to see Asian elephants and observe their natural behaviour.

Elephant watching vacations aren’t…

about exploitative shows, riding, petting or feeding elephants.


An elephant watching vacation does what its name suggests: it gives you the opportunity to observe elephants at close range. This is a responsible, respectful experience, though, so no elephant riding, no selfies and certainly no elephant performances. It’s a chance to see elephants being elephants, to learn about their lives and the challenges faced by the Asian elephant. Crucially, though, this isn’t a conservation or volunteering vacation; it’s simply an opportunity to indulge your inner elephant obsessive, with perhaps a smattering of other sightseeing and wildlife watching, too.
Unlike African safaris which also, of course, bring you close to elephants, elephant watching vacations usually take place in Asia, in countries that have wild populations of elephants, but also a history of ‘domesticating’ elephants for work. Some of the elephants you’ll meet on an elephant watching vacation, for instance in Nepal, were used to carry tourists on wildlife safaris. Others may have been orphaned, injured or maltreated and are now cared for in sanctuaries.
Your visit contributes directly to the costs of feeding, accommodating and keeping elephants healthy, but it’s important to research any elephant facility you might visit as part of an elephant watching vacation carefully.
Hannah Hesford, from our supplier Rickshaw Travel, has this advice:
“We collaborate closely with our local partners and NGOs to work to ensure that our animal experiences are as responsible and meaningful as possible. To arm travelers with as much information as possible when it comes to choosing reputable elephant sanctuaries, our friends at World Animal Protection advise that genuine elephant sanctuaries ‘should have animal welfare at the core of what they do. They will not use elephants in performances for tourists or allow the elephants to be ridden. Genuine sanctuaries show that neither cruelty nor harsh treatment are ever needed to manage the elephants in their care.”

Our top Elephant watching Vacation

Wildlife tour and beach holiday, Sri Lanka

Wildlife tour and beach vacation, Sri Lanka

Big 5 of Sri Lanka with leopards and relaxing beach stay

From £2650 13 days ex flights
Tailor made:
Tailor made: Available all year where everything is tweak-able, giving you the freedom to build a unique and personal trip for your chosen date. Upgrade your accommodation for all - or just part - of your trip, slow down the pace with few extra nights here and there or add a few more active adventures along the way.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Elephant watching or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
Chiara Vitali from World Animal Protection explains what you should expect from any facility that keeps elephants:
“You should expect to see elephants interacting in a natural environment and in a natural way. Elephants are highly social creatures with strong family bonds and friendships. Elephants that are allowed sufficient freedom will likely move in herds and carers may be able to identify social groups for visitors. There will likely be a great deal of communication between the animals in the form of trumpeting, rumbles and various other sounds. The elephants may also engage in play. Most importantly, the animals should be allowed the freedom to do as their instincts tell them and express their natural behaviours – none of which is possible in ride- and show-based venues, where elephants spend most of their day in chains – and not be forced into any interaction with tourists. In order to enjoy this experience safely, visitors should be mindful of the wild nature of elephants, behave respectfully of the animals (most of the time this includes keeping an appropriate distance) and follow the instructions given by trained staff.”
All the elephant watching places featured on Responsible Travel have been reviewed by us, so you know any vacation that includes a visit to one has been properly screened for welfare. You can read more about our stance on elephant trekking and riding, in our elephant conservation guide.
Sanctuaries doing good work for Asian elephants also exist in Thailand and Cambodia, but it’s very difficult to see elephants in the wild here, so although some organised vacations to these countries take in places such as the Elephant Nature Park for retired elephants near Chiang Mai, they don’t have enough elephant content to be classed as an elephant watching vacation – true pachyderm fans might be disappointed!
A proper elephant watching vacation goes really big on elephants – plain and simple. The most immersive trips involve a couple of days living among elephants retired from elephant safaris. You live in a tented camp close to the elephants, and follow the rhythm of their daily life, getting to know their personalities by observing them as they wake, graze, bathe, play, feed and sleep, and enjoying village visits and jungle safaris, too.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rosanne Desgagnes] [Elephant introduction: Simon Shaw] [Are/aren't: Ivo Verhaar] [What does it entail 1: Richard Whitaker] [What does it entail 2: Pascal Muller] [What does it entail 3: John Pavelka] [Rickshaw travel: Ben o'bro] [World animal Protection: Paweldotio] [Elephant conservation guide: Jesse Schoffe] [Sanctuaries: Bruce Dall] [A proper elephant watching vacation: Mammalwatcher] [Elephant transit home: Pol van den Scheetek]