Kids of all ages love animals, but our opportunities to interact with wildlife in Hong Kong are quite limited. So why not build in some exciting animal experiences into your family holidays? We’ve rounded up a few of our favourite places to encounter animals around Asia (and Australia). You’ll find animal experiences suitable for young kids as well as a few that are best for older kids and teens. If you’re concerned about animal welfare, don’t worry, we’ve chosen only those experiences that treat the animals respectfully and we feel good about promoting.
Experience Elephants in Thailand
Elephant experiences in Thailand are abundant, but not all are created equally. Skip the circus-style shows where elephants are made to paint and dance as well as any Elephant experience that promotes elephant riding. Sure, those elephant riding photos will get you tons of likes on Instagram, but it’s at the expense of the animals. Elephants are often beaten and held in inhumane conditions in order to be used for riding. Not to mention, the actual riding is painful to the animals and strains their back which was never meant to be used for holding humans.
Instead, opt for a visit to an elephant rehab center or retirement camp. We feel good about visiting places that don’t capture elephants from the wild for tourism but rather rescue them from bad situations. Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (pictured in the main image) has long been the leader in this type of responsible elephant tourism. Visitors can volunteer and visit rescued elephants in a natural habitat. They have a variety of experiences ranging from a short park visit of a few hours, a full day visit and an overnight experience as well as longer-term volunteering. Visitors can feed, bath and hike with elephants in a way that respects and doesn’t harm them. In our experience, these elephant experiences are great with kids, but of course keep a close eye as elephants are massive and may not always see your toddler standing nearby as they are walking around.
For another type of Elephant experience in Thailand, visit Elephant Hills which offers the first luxury tented jungle camps experience in Thailand. During their stay, guests can feed, wash and interact with elephants which were rescued from the logging industry.
While in Thailand, you can also check out the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Phuket, which is a responsible way to see learn about gibbons which are being reintroduced into their natural environment.
Marine Wildlife Around Asia
The best ways to experience marine wildlife isn’t in an aquarium (although there’s some of those that are doing good things in the area of conservation). We are fortunate that in Asia there are some pretty great snorkeling, scuba diving and animal viewing opportunities in the wild.
One of our favourites is The Dorsal Effect which is an organisation committed to shark conservation, operating primarily on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. They offer snorkeling and beach-hopping tours that support anti-shark finning efforts by providing local fishermen an alternative means of providing for their families through jobs in eco-tourism.
Dream of taking your children to watch whales or dolphins in the wild? Choose a tour to see the whales in Mirissa and Trincomalee in Sri Lanka for an absolutely unforgettable experience. You can see dolphins and up to ten different varieties of whales off the coast of Sri Lanka, including the big daddy of them all, the Blue Whale. In fact, the area off of Sri Lanka’s southern tip is the place where these giants can be seen closest to land, and most reliably in the world. There’s also a high likelihood of seeing a variety of other sea animals including flying fish, sea turtles and manta rays. A large number of tour companies are available. To make a responsible choice about a tour company choose one accredited by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).
Venture a bit further afield to Australia and explore the Great Barrier Reef for some of the most amazing snorkeling and diving experiences in the world. The reef is the planet’s largest living structure, covering more than 1,400 miles off the coast To make sure you are limiting your impact on the environment, look for an ECO Certified operator.
Make sure you don’t touch or stand on the reef and it can cause irreparable damage, not to mention dangerous cuts to your skin. Check out the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to learn more about visiting the reef responsibly. Your kids will be talking about their snorkeling trip for years to come, while your older teens may even want to try their hand at SCUBA diving.
While zoos aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, there are certainly some good and not so good ones around Asia. One of our favorite zoos to visit with kids is the Singapore Zoo. Immerse yourself in the rainforest-themed zoo with trails, viewing platforms and tram rides to see more than 2800 animals representing more than 300 species. There are thematic exhibits and tons of exciting animal shows. A favorite among little ones is Rainforest Kidzworld which has a long list of activities for kids to play and learn including a watery playground, petting zoo with farmyard animals and fun animal shows. The zoo is conscious about the ethical treatment of animals and they are also involved in wildlife protection and conservation projects throughout Asia, making this is a zoo we feel good about visiting.
Orangutans and more in Borneo
Albeit a bit off the beaten path for family travellers, Borneo is an absolute paradise for those who love wildlife. There are many areas where you can see Probiscus monkeys, orangutans and even the elusive pygmy elephant in the wild as well as a large variety of other animals.
Borneo is one of only two places in the world where you can see orangutans in the wild. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is one of Borneo’s most popular places to visit and learn about orangutans up close in nature. There is a boardwalk leading to a viewing gallery where the interesting and impressive animals are fed milk and bananas twice daily by park rangers. Feeding time may also attract other animals such as long-tailed macaques.
While at the Sepilok Orangutan centre, you can stop by neighbouring Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre which is the only sun bear conservation center in the world. Working with the smallest bear in the world, the center rehabilitates and releases sun bears and acts as a safe home to those which cannot be released into the wild.
Semenggoh Wildlife Centre also works in rehabilitation and conservation of orangutans. Lucky visitors will have the chance to see a semi-wild orangutan enjoying its life in a secure natural habitat. There are several other species which may be seen at Semenggoh including gibbons, porcupines, crocodiles and more. There are five nature trails with a boardwalk. The treks are very family-friendly and all relatively short, so most toddlers could even participate.
To truly experience the animals of Borneo in nature, visit the Sukau Rainforest Lodge. The National Geographic-recognized lodge is set in the jungle and accessed by a boat ride along the Kinabatangan River which is famous for the variety of wildlife you may encounter. During your stay, you can take part in a variety of daily tours led by a team of excellent guides. The guides will give talks about conservation, wildlife and other interesting subjects. As the animals are truly in the wild, there’s no guarantee as to what you may see, but lucky visitors may spot orangutans, probiscus monkeys and pygmy elephants during their stay.
On Safari in Sri Lanka
Dreaming of an African safari but can’t quite work the long trip into your schedule or budget? It may surprise some that the small Asian country of Sri Lanka offers a similar experience. Going on a game drive and watching wildlife in their natural habitat is a fantastic way to see impressive animals from a safe distance. Uda Walawe National Park has the country’s largest concentration of elephants and is one of the best places in the world to see them. Just outside the park you will find the Elephant Transit Home which rehabilitates orphaned elephant calves. Visiting the centre is a great experience to watch baby elephants feed and play and learn more about elephant conservation efforts. Follow it up with a safari or two in the park where you are likely to see elephants and other animals roaming freely in their natural environment. Browse Uda Walawe accommodation on Agoda here.
Truly unique to Sri Lanka is Yala National Park which is famously the only national park in the world where you can see Sri Lankan Leopards in the wild. Other interesting and rare animals that may be spotted in the park include sloth bears, elephants and wild water buffalo. Browse Yala accommodation on Agoda now.
If you’d like the unique experience of staying overnight near the national parks, check out Big Game Camps which offer eco-conscious, tented, safari camp experiences right on the park borders. The camps are recommended only for adventurous children over the age of three.
Have you tried any of these experiences, what did you think? Have we missed your favourite? Let us know in the comments!
For more fabulous ideas for adventurous family travel around South East Asia, check out this article.
Melanie Grosjean is a full-time mommy and part-time writer who left the U.S. for Asia several years ago and never looked back. Nowadays, she spends as much time traveling with her husband and toddler as possible. When she isn’t on the road or squeezed into economy class, you can find her sipping an iced latte or blogging at www.adventurefamilylife.com.
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