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The controversial topic about riding elephants in Thailand reflects the ongoing plight of the Asian elephant as it continues to be affected by this abusive tourism practice. Together, by raising awareness of why riding an elephant is wrong, we can help to end this form of entertainment.
There are many reasons why you shouldn’t be riding elephants in Thailand, and visiting the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai enlightens you as to why. It remains one of my most significant and most valuable lessons in travel about wildlife tourism in South East Asia.
You will never RIDE an elephant, anywhere, EVER again.
I’m a responsible traveller and do my best to adhere to best practices and highlight topical issues regarding community and conservation in tourism. I aim to practice what I preach; dedicate time to long-term volunteering and projects close to my heart; support local people and community enterprises, and be aware of how and where I spend my money.
But I’m also guilty. While I never visit poorly run zoos, join baited cage dives with animals or give money for a picture with a dancing monkey, I have engaged in harmful tourism practice when it comes to the treatment of elephants in Thailand and Asia generally.
In India, I was used to elephants wandering the streets as if they had as much right to roam like a local, a goat, or a cow – almost majestic in their presence. In 2009 on my first trip to Thailand, a country symbolic of everything elephant-related, my curiosity got the better of me. I rode an elephant through a small area of the jungle outside of Chiang Mai that was, back then, promoted as a conservation park.
Then in 2012, in Chitwan National Park in Nepal, I embarked on an ‘elephant safari’ following a rhino through the dense jungle while four of us sat in a large square wooden hold strapped to the elephant’s back. The next day I sat on an elephant as it bathed, and almost instantly, it tried to throw me off.
Only then did the sheer unhappiness of these creatures strike me. The realisation that while we humans pale compared to the size of an elephant, this kind of contact violates their freedom and makes them unhappy. I vowed never to engage in such practices ever again.
As a firm believer in karma, I’ve always felt guilty about my actions. I tell people not to ride elephants or bathe with them to counteract my actions.
I want to educate people about why you shouldn’t ride elephants in Thailand or anywhere else.
I listen to people respond that they will do it anyway because it’s the only means of interaction they have found available. But if you take away these cliché tourist experiences, it doesn’t mean you CAN’T have contact with these magnificent creatures.
- The Truth About Riding Elephants in Thailand
- Chose an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
- Responsible Interaction with Elephants in Thailand
- Feeding Elephants Responsibly
- Bathing Elephants Responsibly
- Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand
- Further Information
- Help End Elephant Rides in Thailand – Pin It!
The Truth About Riding Elephants in Thailand
Elephant tourism in Thailand exists because there is still a high demand for travellers looking for places to ride and bathe with elephants for entertainment. This exploitation of elephants began following the changes in Thailand’s logging industry, where elephants were the primary source of labour.
In 1989 logging was banned in Thailand, putting working elephants out of a job. Thailand sold many elephants to neighbouring countries such as Burma, and those elephants left were seen as pests. The population of elephants in Thailand quickly declined, but those that remained were left with one legal option – working in tourism. Many elephants were (and still are) abandoned or left to die without it.
Except to work in tourism, elephants get subjected to a horrifying and abusive ‘training’ process called “the crush”. Living in cruel living conditions, shackled and beaten, the elephants suffer extreme psychological and psychical abuse as part of a method to get them to submit to humans and basic commands.
While tourism has given elephants a new lifeline, there are no strict penalties for abuse and no extensive measures to avoid mistreatment.
Only half of the Thai elephant population is considered endangered – and that’s the wild ones. The rest, per Thai traditions, are seen as livestock or ‘domesticated’ and are therefore not protected.
Elephants are highly intelligent and social animals, and this means of taming them produces nothing more than one of the cruellest shows on earth where you become more than just a spectator, but a participant.
Chose an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
In Chiang Mai, I researched, collected promotional leaflets and looked at treks, tours and day trips from local providers. All offered itineraries that included riding elephants – precisely the kind of ill practice I was trying to avoid.
Except at Elephant Nature Park. This sanctuary is a home for the elephants, not where the animals are forced to work. Established by award-winning conservationist, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert over 16 years ago, it’s a project that rescues injured and mistreated elephants and educates tourists about responsible practice.
Even a neighbouring elephant camp has decided to try out the Elephant Nature Park’s concept of care and retire their female elephants from tourism treks.
The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai
You can visit Elephant Nature Park for one day (2,500 ฿), as I did, or do an overnight stay (5,800 ฿), multi-night and volunteer weeks (12,000 ฿).
All visits include transport to the project site from the ENP city office, bus station or the hotel where you are staying.
You can find an overview of the visit and volunteering packages here and book a full day trip, including hotel pick-up and drop-off.
The elephants at Elephant Nature Park come mostly from abusive pasts, including being overworked in trekking camps, forced breeding and street begging. It leaves them with permanent injuries from the horrific torture they endure at the hands of their owners, who use a practice known as ‘phajaan’ or the ‘crush’.
The elephants are tied up in a small cell-like structure for three days and nights, beaten and subjected to sleep deprivation and hunger to break their spirit and conform to demands. Except for the elephants born at the park, all bear the scars of this tragic past.
Responsible Interaction with Elephants in Thailand
At the park, you spend the entire day interacting, observing and assisting with the feeding of the animals. As soon as you arrive, you are given a quick orientation tour and are straight out in the vast green 250 acres of landscape these elephants get to call home.
With dense parkland, a river and a mud bath at hand, the elephants roam freely and do as they please.
A guide is always with you, taking you to the best viewing spots via the walking platforms or out in the open, where you can interact with the elephants freely alongside each of their caretakers.
The elephants are cheeky, happy and eager to give hugs and sloppy, trunk-slurping kisses to their caretakers and visitors.
You immediately notice that there is no hitting, shouting, or the use of tools from which inflict pain to force action. The park does not have forced breeding or the use of chains (something I have seen all too often at other parks).
There are also no shows, no rides, and no gimmicks like elephant painting. Instead, all that radiates from the elephants and everyone that works here is love, trust and positive reinforcement.
Feeding Elephants Responsibly
Everyone is encouraged to get involved with feeding time. As the elephants arrive, you are overwhelmed by the crowd of trucks swooping up and sniffing all around for their eagerly awaited treats.
Placing a big chunk of fruit or a small bunch of bananas at the end of the elephant’s trunk, it’s in their mouth and swallowed quicker than you can reach into the basket for the next piece. The cheeky ones even find a way to outdo you, swooping their trucks into the empty food basket to hoover up every last bit.
Getting so close to the elephants takes a bit of getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, it’s an incredibly humbling experience to have such close interaction with them for such a long time.
Bathing Elephants Responsibly
Do you think an elephant loves shooting water at you through its trunk while you jump around on its back while the mahout continues to hit it throughout the ‘performance’? Hell no! You won’t see that here – not even the caretakers climb on the animals!
Walking down to the river, you get a plastic bucket for one of the most fun parts of the day – bath time! Everyone, including the caretaker, swoops bucket after bucket of water and throws it over the elephant as it leisurely enjoys being cooled down in the baking northern Thailand heat.
You know you’ve done an excellent job when the elephant trunk hugs its caretaker in delight.
Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand
Elephant Nature Park promotes a core education and awareness programme that is helping to overcome a huge problem that exists with tourists riding elephants in Thailand.
After a hearty lunch and a slow wander around the site, you learn more about elephant conservation and the problems in Thailand and much of Asia. More heartbreakingly with a video of “the crush” process – it’s both graphic and heartbreaking.
The videos explain how the industry exists today following the time elephants were used for logging. You will never think to ride an elephant, bathe with an elephant, take an elephant safari ride, or support any project that sees elephants painting or performing anywhere in the world, ever again.
Lek hopes to change all that with her project, where tourism can move away from exploitation and bring elephants back to their natural environment through rehabilitation and education.
After all, what would Thailand be without its elephants?
An overnight train from Bangkok is the best way to reach Chiang Mai – an arty, nature-encased city worth spending a few days in.
For more information about Elephant Nature Park, visit their official website.
For more Borders of Adventure articles on best animal practice and conservation, read:
- Taking a Chengdu Panda Tour: Conservation and Education at China’s Cutest Tourist Attraction
- Seeing Orangutans in Borneo Responsibly – Semenggoh Centre, Sarawak
Help End Elephant Rides in Thailand – Pin It!
Elephant Nature Park invited me on a one-day visit to experience the incredible work being done here and help raise awareness of the plight of the endangered Asian elephant. They did not ask me to write a favourable review and all opinions in this article remain my own based on what I saw, felt and learned.