There are hundreds of elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai and it can be overwhelming to find the ethical choice.
Once you get to Chiang Mai, you will see brochures of elephant parks/sanctuaries outside of shops, in hotels, everywhere! Don’t worry about booking an elephant tour in advance. They often mark up the prices on their website, the prices will be much lower in person. We booked our tour at about 8pm the night before.
Look for the brochures that say “sanctuaries” and don’t have pictures of people riding the elephants. Many of the sanctuaries are for rescued elephants or elephants that are orphans, sick, old or disabled. Don’t be afraid to ask the representative a lot of questions.
Once we were picked up in Chiang Mai from your hotel, the car ride was about 2.5 hours through long and windy roads. (I got extremely car sick, and recommend to bring dramamine!)
You will usually be given a colored smock to wear that the elephants are familiar with. It let’s them know that you are there to feed and take care of them.
We spent the afternoon feeding them bags of fruit and bathing them in the river. There were no ropes, chains or riding involved. You could tell the workers here genuinely care for the elephants.