Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand


3.2K SHARES

3.2K SHARES


×

Saving Elephants in Thailand

Saving Elephants in Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Everyone wants to ride elephants in Thailand. Including me. That was until I spent the day at an elephant sanctuary and learned the disturbing truth about this popular activity.

Just imagine how incredible it would be to sit atop a massive 9 foot tall, 4 ton beast while lumbering your way through deep rivers and pristine jungle.

This is an experience many of us dream about when planning a visit to Thailand.

I couldn’t wait to get my photo riding on top of a massive elephant!

However there’s a dark side to elephant tourism that many people aren’t aware of…

Elephants Playing in the Dirt

Elephant Family Playing in the Dirt

Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a natural sanctuary tucked away in the beautiful jungles of Northern Thailand. Their mission is to protect & care for mistreated elephants rescued from the tourism and logging industries.

Increasing awareness and promoting sustainable elephant-friendly tourism is another goal. The park currently cares for 36 elephants on 250 acres of wilderness.

When I first arrived at ENP, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. How close could we get to the elephants? Could we touch them? Were they dangerous?

The only other time I’d seen an elephant outside a zoo was on Safari in South Africa, when one of them charged us! It was an intimidating experience.

Elephant Nature Park Owner

Meet Lek: Founder of Elephant Nature Park

Hanging Out with Giants

You get to participate in many fun elephant activities at ENP. I was able to feed them fresh fruit out of the palm of my hand, watch them play in the mud, go on walks with them, and even get into the river to help give them a bath!

Watching these gentle creatures interact with each other is a magical experience.

They chat with friends and family members by chirping and trumpeting back and forth. You have a greater appreciation for how intelligent and social they really are.

You won’t find any elephant rides at Elephant Nature Park though. No circus tricks or elephant paintings either. This is because the elephants here have been rescued from such places.

Saving Elephants in Thailand

Mmmmmm. Lunch Time.

Plight of the Asian Elephant

Asian elephants are an endangered species. Experts believe there are now less than 2000 wild elephants living in Thailand. The population is declining at a rapid rate due to loss of habitat.

Illegal capture and trade for use in the tourism industry is also a big problem.

This industry thrives because foreign visitors all want to ride elephants, or watch them do tricks, paying good money for the privilege.

But the fact is that wild elephants need to be tamed before they can be ridden. Except the taming process in Southeast Asia is not the same as with a wild horse. It’s much more brutal, and is accomplished when the elephants are very young.

Elephant River Bath

Don’t Ride Elephants, Wash Them Instead!

Baby Elephant Torture

Wild elephants won’t let humans ride on top of them. So in order to tame a wild elephant, it is tortured as a baby to completely break its spirit. The process is called Phajaan, or “the crush”.

It involves ripping baby elephants away from their mothers and confining them in a very small space, like a cage or hole in the ground where they’re unable to move.

The baby elephants are then beaten into submission with clubs, pierced with sharp bull-hooks, and simultaneously starved and deprived of sleep for many days.

You can watch a disturbing video of the process if you’re curious. Photographer Brent Lewin won an award for capturing this haunting image of the torture.

Elephants Swimming in Thailand

Sri Prae Teaches Baby Navann How to Swim

Elephant Trekking in Thailand

Elephant mistreatment doesn’t stop after they’ve been tamed. Many elephant camps continue to employ bull-hooks to control the animals. While they may not be stabbing them constantly like they did in training, it’s the fear of being stabbed that’s used to motivate them to work.

Elephants never forget.

If an elephant camp in Southeast Asia is claiming to be “responsible” with it’s animals, you should still be skeptical. Remember the process used to train them is often the same, even if they’re treated with kindness now. And usually there is no way to be sure.

Did you know that riding elephants can actually cause serious long-term harm too? Their spines are not made to support the weight of humans. I know it’s hard to believe given their size, but Zebras are the same way.

Baby Elephant Playing in River

Someone Loves the Water…

Save the Elephant Foundation

Founder Lek Chailert has been fighting to save the elephants and change her country’s acceptance of their treatment since she was a young girl. Lek created Elephant Nature Park to rescue mistreated elephants from the tourist trade and give them a better life.

The park provides day trips and week-long volunteer opportunities that allow tourists to interact with and learn about elephants in a responsible way.

As a registered Thai non-profit foundation, fees collected go towards feeding and caring for the massive creatures, purchasing additional elephants from their abusive owners, and expanding the size of the sanctuary itself.

A trip to Elephant Nature Park includes a graphic video presentation that helps shed some light on the secretive elephant tourism industry. It’s not easy to watch.

Elephants Watching Sunset in Thailand

Elephants Enjoy Both Freedom & Sunsets

The Choice is Up to You

Brutal elephant training has been a traditional practice in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years. The problem these days is that most captive elephants in Thailand are used to entertain tourists rather than for traditional purposes like logging or military use.

It’s our demand for elephant rides and circus acts that leads to more baby elephants getting captured from their mothers, tortured, and sold off to entertain us.

Whether you ride elephants in Thailand or not is your choice. I try my best not to judge others because I’m acutely aware that we all have different moral codes & standards.

Most people who participate in elephant tourism in Thailand are completely unaware of how they are treated. I know many friends who have ridden elephants. It’s easy to understand why people do it. I almost rode them myself.

I just wanted to share what I’ve learned after my own elephant experience in Thailand, to help you make a more informed decision moving forward.

Watch Video: Elephant Whisperer

(Click to watch Elephant Whisperer on YouTube)


What Do You Think?

Did you know about the cruel training? Still want to ride an elephant?

Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Company: Elephant Nature Park
Cost: $78 (day trip)
Useful Notes: Day trips last from 8am to 6pm and include delicious all-you-can-eat vegetarian meals. It’s a wonderful & inspiring place with a dedicated staff who absolutely love their elephants. A fabulous alternative to the elephant trekking camps.

This adventure was made possible with help from Clearly Filtered. I’ve been using their awesome filtered water bottle to save money & ensure clean drinking water while traveling. Read about my experience here.

please share

Matthew Karsten is the Expert Vagabond. Addicted to adventure travel and photography, he's on a mission to inspire your next journey with entertaining stories, vibrant images, and useful tips. Vagabonding around the world since 2010. Follow his adventures on Facebook, , and Twitter.

Want to travel more? Learn how with my favorite Budget Travel Resources.


Tell Me What You Think!

Comment Rules: Critical comments are fine, but rude ones will be deleted. Have fun, and thanks for adding to the conversation!

  • http://www.bemytravelmuse.com Kristin Addis

    Thanks for posting this. I ran into many tourists in SE Asia who wanted to do the elephant treks and I always implored them against it, but it’s hard when they’re told the elephants are well taken care of, and just want to believe it.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      Elephant tourism is big business, and companies are willing to do anything to keep the money rolling in. Lying to tourists is no big deal.

  • http://travel-je-taime.blogspot.com/ Melissa

    Thanks for shedding light on this. I had no idea that elephants had to be tortured in this way to allow humans to ride them. How awful! I’m so glad to have read this before visiting Thailand and making the mistake of riding an elephant there.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      Feed them watermelons instead Melissa! It’s also fun. You’ll make a new friend. :D

  • http://gobackpacking.com Dave

    I rode one in Luang Prabang, Laos first, and they touted treating them humanely. Everything I saw at the camp indicated this was the case.

    Then I went to Chiang Mai and an elephant ride is included as part of the hill tribe trek I did. I saw how they were treated and my gut said it wasn’t right.

    I remember seeing a baby elephant being whacked away from his mom across the river, and having to sit through an obscene display of carnival tricks and painting that embarrassed me, if not everyone else who had to sit through it.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      It’s how they got there that’s often the murky part. Something had to be done to the elephant to convince it to let humans ride on it’s back (which is not healthy for them anyway). But you have no way of knowing, and when large amounts of money are involved (some of these places make millions), it gets complicated. Especially in countries with poor regulations for this sort of thing.

  • http://www.bewicked.eu Lindy

    Thanks for sharing, we were thinking of visiting Asia for the first time by the end of this year and though I knew something was wrong with attractions like elephant rides I would probably have been a believer and could have booked a tour with a ‘good’ company. Guess I’ll skip this ride!

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      You can still enjoy time with asian elephants Lindy! They are amazing creatures, and you’ll get a great photo souvenir too. But it will be a photo of you washing them, not riding them. :D

  • http://www.thewondernuts.com Nicole

    I think it’s great that you’re spreading the word. If fewer tourists do this, then fewer elephants get mistreated. Safe havens are more important, I think.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      That’s the biggest problem. Misinformation about how these trekking companies work. We only see the great photos of our friends having a blast riding elephants.

  • http://20literadventure.com OCDemon

    Sigh. This is how I feel about the tiger temples in Thailand as well. Of course I want the picture, but…sigh. I hope more awareness prompts more “real” sanctuaries.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      One of the reasons I never visited a tiger temple either. Although I’d also love to hug a tiger. It’s hard to say no when you see everyone else having a blast doing it. Except of course when there is news of a horrible mauling. :)

  • Ben

    Are you sure you have thought this through enough? I don’t argue with you that there is abuse going on, but simply not riding elephants is not going to do much good for Thailand’s elephants. Elephants are expensive animals to maintain, and there aren’t enough protected wild life reserves for all the elephants of Thailand to roam. Yes, I love elephants, and I’m willing to donate money for the cause (I’m actually supporting Lek’s work financially with regular donations). However, we live in the real world, and her approach is not scalable – there aren’t enough donations to take care of all the elephants the way Lek does it. So while the elephant riding camps are not a perfect solution, they are nonetheless more a solution than a problem (and arguably even despite the “training” they undergo these elephants have a better life than those living in a zoo).
    If you want to do good for the elephants of Thailand, by all means support Lek’s work. Despite of the fact that her work is famous throughout Thailand and she’s even gotten quiet a lot of international attention, and is receiving institutional support, she’s still needing more money to help more elephants.
    But boycotting elephant riding? I hope someone is going to point out a mistake in my thinking and show that there’s a better alternative that works in the real world, but out of all the people I’ve talked to about this, nobody has been able to come up with a better way.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      You bring up a great point Ben. But if tourists stop riding, the camps would do well to follow Lek’s example and turn themselves into sustainable elephant tourism parks. No riding. No circuses. Elephant Nature Park employs many local Mahouts (elephant handlers). I think it’s possible for Thais and elephants to thrive in a way that doesn’t involve abusing the animals. Some African countries do very well with safari tourism, I believe Thailand should take a hint and follow in that direction. Many of these elephants are force-bred in captivity, others are smuggled over from Burma. It’s not like Thailand has more elephants than it knows what to do with. Elephant populations in Africa are actually thriving so much that game reserves (private & public) have to employ birth control techniques so that they don’t get out of hand. There is no reason Thailand can’t do the same.

  • http://AroundtheWorldin80Jobs.com Turner

    True that. I am happy the $50k, the bllogging community helped get from Adecco went to these guys. It is a hard concept to tell people about elephants. I recently told this couple in Pai Thailand when they asked if I wished to join them on an elephant ride. I told them the deal and they still said “yeah, that is bad. Well we dont support that. But I think we will ride anyway”.

    Great pics Matt.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      I was so happy to hear you were able to help them out Turner. I know they are trying to buy more land at the moment to expand the operation so they can rescue more elephants.

  • http://www.tammyandchrisonthemove.com TammyOnTheMove

    I have been guilty of riding an elephant in Northern Cambodia. When I saw the mahout consistently hitting the elephant (who clearly was more interested in eating than transporting tourists through the jungle) I got really upset though. He didn’t use a metal hook like they do in Thailand, but it had wooden spikes, which is probably equally painful. I decided to walk the rest of the trip and did some more research into elephant trekking afterwards. I was so shocked to find out how the babies are tortured. I am currently part of a travel blogging project (Travel blog calendar) and we are going to raise money for the Safe Elephant Foundation. We are currently preparing everything, but it is all going to kick off early next year. Hopefully this will raise awareness of how elephants are treated even more.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      A worthwhile project for sure Tammy! Good luck with the calendar. It’s a fantastic organization.

  • http://abackpackerstale.com/ Stephen S.

    Man this is wrong and upsetting. It is a shame that they are treated this way because of tourism.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      It is Stephen. Money makes some people do horrible things.

  • Erick

    Although I understand where you were going, I must disagree with some of your points my friend. The claim that all elephant training is brutal and uses bull hooks isn’t true (don’t believe that was your intention). Particularly in regards to elephants. I know this because I’ve worked with orphaned elephants, some of which went on to work in tourist entertainment. YES it is a fact that many places employ terrible practices. But it’s equally true that some don’t. Like any industry regarding animals, from food to tourism, there are atrocities. These I do not support. Nor should anyone. But it’s dangerous and misleading to assume that all do. I grew up learning from Jack Hannah in Ohio. One of the leading conservationist in the world and would caution any finite judgment on the subject until you check out some organizations that ARE doing the right thing with elephants. You and some others have made VERY valid points but overall denouncement is a bit far I think. Those that have witnessed abuse CALL IT OUT. Right then and there. Report it.

    Elephants should be ridden on the neck. NOT the back for the exact spinal reason you stated. Many places leave the baskets on all day not to mention overburdening them.

    I support animal conservation and responsible tourism and believe people should have the opportunity to visit and ride these amazing creatures IF it’s done ethically.

    Baan Chang Elephant Park is an excellent example of doing it right. No circus tricks, no gouging, no scamming. Quality elephant care and tourism. And those that commented on how they treat the babies, Baan Chang refuses to separate the young from the mother.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      Thanks so much Erick for sharing your experience! I’m happy to know some people are doing it right. I just read about a new technique called Protected Contact that some modern zoos are using.

      I’d just like to suggest that anyone visiting elephants in Thailand do their homework, because many of the operations are not run ethically. Even on the Baan Chang website there’s a warning of scam operators copying their business name.

      Elephant abuse is a big problem in Thailand and other countries. It’s not always easy to make an informed decision in places with loose, un-enforced, or non-existent regulations.

      • Erick

        It really is a matter of research. The same goes for restaurants. I watched a piece by Gordon Ramsey on Shark Fin soup. I had no idea because I honestly didn’t care until it was in my face. It’s in our human nature to look the other way because the alternative is hard. Both emotionally and socially. Just think of the way some animals are treated when harvested for food. It’s not only an elephant problem. It’s a human awareness problem.

  • http://www.indahindonesia.com Debbie

    Thanks for posting such a valuable piece of information. I never know about this. To be honest, I feel sad about those mistreated elephants. I mean they are a living creature, and to be abusive to them is really bad.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      Especially when they are being taken from the wild just for this purpose!

  • http://jdombstravels.com/ Jennifer

    I’m going to Thailand in November to the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp to participate in an elephant researcher program. They have rescued elephants that were mistreated, and they do have riding. I’m so torn. Like Erick suggests, I’ve read that there is a correct way to ride an elephant. But I’ve also heard about the abuse. I suppose I will know in my gut what I think is right once I get there…

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      It’s really difficult to ensure you’re doing the right thing. Trying to research absolutely everything you do just isn’t pragmatic. I rode an ostrich once, later learning that I was too heavy to be riding it.

  • http://heynoobz.com/ Casi @HeyNoobz

    Before I went to Thailand one thing I knew I wanted to do was ride an elephant. Then when I started doing research on where I could do this I came across the Elephant Nature Park. I learned so much just from their website and was so excited to visit their amazing park. It was such a great experience playing, feeding, bathing, and just loving all those beautiful elephants. My visit there definitely taught me a lot about elephants and Thailand. And I must say it was one of the best experiences of my life. I hope I get to go back some day.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      Thanks for sharing you experience Casi! It’s impressive to see up close how intelligent and gentle they are for such big goofy creatures.

  • Spencer Dunphy

    Thanks for the recommendation, this is on the top of my list of things to do when I arrive in Thailand in Oct (Railey and deep water soling is up there too.)

    Glad to here that other travellers are actually using reusable bottles and filtering there water as well. I ended up getting a camel back all clear water filter. I have used similar systems for hiking and found them handy and effective in spite of the some what delicate feeling UV light wand. This bottle incorporates it into the lid so it feels a bit more sturdy. We will see how it holds up after a few month use.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      I love my Clearly Filtered bottle Spencer. Very handy, and so much better for the environment.

  • Don

    Hi, I did not realize the sad truth on how the elephants where tamed. My daughter Emily gave my wife a gift of a donation to the Wildlife fund. It was to adopt an elephant. This was quite fitting due to my wife’s early onset of Alzheimer. I would encourage others to donate to the Wildlife fund and help these remarkable creatures.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      That sounds like a great gift idea Don. They truly are amazing animals.

  • http://www.beyondblighty.com Arianwen

    I’ve never ridden an elephant and, after reading this, I never will. Taming them sounds like such a horrific process. Good on you for spreading the word.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      I’d say at the least it’s wise to do plenty of research about the operation before you go.

  • http://roymarvelous.com Roy Marvelous

    I went for an elephant trek in Phuket early last year and had assumed it was also a sanctuary. Very mixed feelings. Wouldn’t recommend it :(

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      Sorry to hear that Roy… the more people who know about the “dark side” the better.

  • http://www.diarioradical.blog.br Monique Ribeiro

    Hey Matthew! Thanks for this amazing post. For me, this was an unknown situation until now. Probably if I’ve been gone to Thailand before reading this post I’d have ridden an elephant… That’s so sad. These incredible animals don’t deserve this. Glad to know that people like you explore deeper and show the truth and the other side about histories like this. I just loved your blog, the pictures and your history! Everything is so much inspiring! Keep doing this and I hope meet u in the road someday :)

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      Thanks Monique, glad you’re enjoying the site. If I was almost ready to ride an elephant before I learned this, I knew there would be plenty of other people out there who might make the same mistake.

  • http://harindabama.com Bama

    Thanks for spreading the words, Matthew! It is really about time for us, tourists/travelers alike, to explore the world more responsibly and in a more sustainable way. That would help others to be aware of their footprint as well.

  • http://www.headedanywhere.com Daina

    Great article! I would like to echo what others have mentioned before. Research comes into play very much so in situations like this. When I visited Thailand there were two things I thought I would absolutely do. 1) Go to tiger temple 2) Ride elephants. After extensive research I decided against going to Tiger Temple. Too much evidence of drugging the tigers and it really jsn’t isn’t a great environment for them to basically be bothered all day by people. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of being able to get close to such creatures, but in the end it just wasn’t for me. I did, however, find a place that I felt comfortable with the treatment of elephants so I went on an elephant ride at Thai Elephant Home. The experience consisted of riding on the elephant for a bit, stopping for lunch where the elephants were free to wander, a trip down to this black mud that the elephants loved to roll around in and a bath in the river. The elephants really enjoyed themselves, as did I. Thai Elephant Home is also devoted to reforestation in the Chiang Mai area as well as educating the children in the community the importance of reforestation. So it really is a matter of doing research and finding places that are transparent in their activities and operations.

  • http://www.suitcasestories.com Michael

    Good information and some even better comments. Like anything in life you need to access whatever you want to do regarding it’s impact on the world, from buying sneakers to riding elephants. When I was younger I was guilty of going to Thailand and riding an elephant and regret that I didn’t look into it properly.

    These days I’m much more aware and will research all animal related activities before doing them.

  • http://www.travelshutter.net Paul

    Couldn’t agree with you more. We saw this in Chiang Mai and Ko Lanta and even though it was recommended by our hostel, we ignored it. Seeing them chained up was so sad :(

  • http://www.intophuket.com Lawrence Michaels

    Good post. Elephant camps are an extremely touchy subject here in Thailand. I’ll admit that I have been on an elephant trek before, but never again. Despite the bad treatment and such, the ride is extremely uncomfortable. I don’t know how anyone can find the experience enjoyable.

  • Jen Briongos

    Thank you for this! I think if we took the time to think about how an elephant got to be comfortable with humans on its back, surely we would realize it might involve breaking its natural behavior, but most people aren’t questioning what they’re being told at these sorts of places. Thanks also for introducing me to Elephant Nature Park – we’re planning a trip to Thailand this year and will add this kind of natural interaction with elephants to the plan instead of riding them!

  • http://www.travellingking.com Sam @ Travellingking.com

    Hey Matt, Where was this article 2 years ago! (or even 1 year ago!)
    We went to a Elephant “reserve” in Phuket and were a little shocked at how the elephants were treated, they are chained to concrete and only taken out now and then, the look in their eyes has such sadness.
    I guess deep down you know its not right but we were told that they were better off in one of these camps otherwise they are hunted in the wild – very sad if true.

    If only Animals and humans could co-exist rather than using them as a way to trap tourists.

    I read in a local Thai newspapers while we were there that an elephant camp had been raided as they had too many elephants and didnt have licenses for some, it said that the police/animal welfare had found several freshly dead elephants corpses around the camp. Its sickening!

    The Thai government really should put their foot down and step in but i guess that could be said about most of the things that go on in the world where the government or others turn a blind eye to.

    Thanks so much for sharing this.

  • http://vikingdrinkinghorns.com Vickie @ Viking Drinking Horns

    Like you say Matthew, it’s truly heart-breaking when you see the elephant-ride business in countries like Thailand, Cambodia and even Laos.

    It always amazes me that the mainly Buddhist owners of these wonderful beasts, who are supposed to respect nature and practice human-kindness, act in such a barbaric way with their animals.

    I expect Myanmar is next…

  • http://renuka-voyagerforlife.blogspot.in Renuka

    I have never sat on an elephant and after reading this I will have to think whether I should be doing so. Thanks for bringing out the ignored truth about elephants.

  • http://www.richtraveler.com Morgan

    Initially I was gung-ho on riding an elephant while in Thailand….that was until I read about their cruel treatment (and my mother said, “That’s just ugly to ride an elephant!”) This “crushing” period breaks my heart. Glad to hear you enjoyed your experience at ENP. Did you have to reserve a spot in advance? Easy to get to? I’d love to do that!

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      They have an office in Chiang Mai, and will drive you out to the park after you sign up beforehand. I believe it’s like 45 minutes North.

  • http://ryanpike.com/ Ryan

    Thanks for shedding some light on this issue. It seem to be a big problem. It’s a shame that most tourists are unaware of the mistreatment of the elephants.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      I know I’ll be paying more attention to the activities I engage in, and try to do a bit of research beforehand.

  • bernie

    yeah i have always wanted to ride a elephant but not anymore but i will have to visit this place next time i go to thailand!!

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      ENP is a wonderful organization Bernie. You won’t be disappointed.

  • http://www.namasteindiatrip.com Rawat

    Thailand is my favorite country, I love its fabulous varied cuisine and its tropical islands. Elephant riding is an air of romance but like this way its very ridiculous and inhumanity, I never know about this.

    thanks for sharing this informative post.

  • David

    I’m making my way up to Chiang Mai now to volunteer for a week at the park.

    I realised the elephants you see in the cities in Thailand were mistreated and think it’s terrible but, like you, I was unaware that they shouldn’t be ridden.

    Anyway, I’m really looking forward to next week but I’m dreading watching the video.

    Thanks for the great article.

  • n n

    I’m so glad I read this. I’m going to the Patara elephant camp next month and my friends were certain it was the “humane camp.” I don’t think I’ll be able to convince anyone not to go, but I certainly can skip riding these poor creatures. Curious your thoughts on maybe climbing on for a quick photo op :-)

  • Clarissa

    I am going to Thailand in April and I was just researching about that idea of riding an elephant. It was nice to get aware of all those information you have shared. Although I really appreciate the idea of not riding but taking care of an elephant by playing with it and feeding it, I won’t have time to go to Chiang Mai. I found this Ayutthaya Elephant Camp & Elephantstay (www.elephantstay.com) but they have only experiences with a minimum of 3 days. Is it trusted to be a nice project? Does anyone know where I could have an experience of just one day being respectful to the animals?

  • Ivy Stinson

    I wish I had read this sooner. I just came from a elephant trekking tour and left with a heavy heart. I chose it because I love elephants and read that the ones at this place were very well taken care of. In hindsight I admit I should’ve done more research.

    My heart quickly sank when I saw one get hit with the bull-hook. He got hit again in the trunk and it left a puncture. All I could feel was guilty for putting this poor guy through this.

    I had much more fun feeding them bananas and interacting with them face to face instead of riding them anyways. I hope to one day visit a sanctuary and hopefully redeem myself to the elephants.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      But now you can share your experience with others Ivy, hopefully preventing them from making the same mistake.

  • http://wifewithbaggage.com Wife with Baggage

    We, too, met Lek and all of her 4 legged friends a few summers ago at the ENP. I am confident that our up close and personal experience with the elephants and their mahouts was exponentially better than riding atop of one. I love this article and the discussion it opened up!

  • http://www.angloitalianfollowus.com Franca

    I’ve been at ENP as well, volunteering at the dog shelter for a month and learnt a lot about elephants and the atrocities they have to go through to become tourist machines and entertainers. Thanks for posting this, we need to spread the word and tell everybody why is completely unnecessary to ride those amazing creatures and make them doing anything completely unnatural for them.

  • rafael

    im going to thailand in february i was more than ready to do the elephant trek but not anymore, thanks for sharing this

  • Dee

    I have just returned from Thailand and now ashamed to say we went on an elephant trek. The people seemed really nice and seemed to worship the elephants although I did complain at the end when they showed us where they sleep, nowhere near big enough for such big animals! I guess I thought if you can ride horses, elephants would be fine as they are even bigger. I wish now I had done some research and found this place instead :-(

  • Lisa

    What rescue did you visit in northern Thailand?

  • James

    I want to visit this sanctuary and meet this women!! Looks amazing!!

  • http://marketofeden.blogspot.com Adrian Fleur

    Matthew, great post and I’m so glad it’s sparked such an immense discussion in the comments! Fantastic work!

    I also had the pleasure of experiencing a day at Elephant Nature Park, although I did have the pleasure of seeing elephants many times in my home country of South Africa. The situation there is very different to Thailand, which is why I hold ENP in such high esteem compared to many tourist Elephant Hells!

    You can see my post about ENP and the elephants here: http://marketofeden.blogspot.com/2013/11/experiencing-elephant-nature-park.html

  • Jan

    I wish I read this earlier
    We went elephant trekking today in Thailand with my family we had an absolutely lovely time and our children eyes were filled with amazement at being so close
    But in returning to my motel I too wondered about their well being
    It saddens me greatly and wish I had of taken the time to be more informed

  • robin

    Hi

    Thank you for your page. If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have known that riding elephants was cruel. I love them and would hate to think I played a part in their misery. I have a question.
    I’ve been looking into responsible elephant conservation projects in Chang Mai. I found the ENP and am planning to visit. I came across a park call Baan Chang Elephant Park. They look like a fairly well organised company. The animals looked well treated. However I was put off by the numerous pictures of people sitting on the elephant’s backs. It made me think they maybe they are not responsible as they encourage this wrong practice. Some of my friends want to visit this park. I would like to advise them not to, if this place isn’t putting the needs of the animals first. Can you shed some light on this park and it’s practices? Thank you

  • Cajsa Nilsson

    Where can I donate?

  • April

    I was just wondering how you contacted this woman/organization to schedule this trip? I’ve always wanted to do something like this but do not know the correct ways of going about it.

    I enjoyed reading this article and up until it, i actually had the life goal of riding an elephant. I would love to do something aside that, something that would really make a difference. I have visited the website, but do not know the appropriate way to go about scheduling a trip there.

    Thank you

  • Leigh freeman

    When I first visited Thailand we went to elephant hills in Surathami, we had believed we had researched this camp and the treatment of the elephants appeared very good. The saddle platforms were very well padded, by policy the mahoots didn’t use the bull hooks and during treks the elephants were completely free to forage without being dragged. There were young elephants there with their mothers. On a later trip we did another ride as part of a package and the experience was very different. The elephants looked extremely unhappy, their camps were dry and dusty and they were constrained. A very different experience. After seeing the two experiences, I’m really surprised to hear both camps were so unethical, in that the young would have had to endure the ‘crush’ and both put the same pressure on their spines. We truly had thought we had researched the first camp, so would say be weary, as some camps aren’t obvious perpetrators.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com/ Matthew Karsten

      Elephants are wild animals that need to be broken in. But it takes a lot more to break an elephant than it does a horse.

  • Krungtep Look

    The trouble with ‘vagabond travelers’ is that they and you are not really vagabonds at all but middle class westerners who bringing their value system to another culture impose judgment on all and sundry in the most general and irresponsible way. All elephants are not treated badly when being trained anymore than all horses are treated badly when they are broken in but a degree of workmanlike firmness is needed in both instances. I think the Elephant sanctuary is a great little business started by the Thai women and her farang husband. Wow, if all gullible westerners paid $78.00 at elephant riding venues I bet the elephants in the places reported as being poorly treated would have a much better life too. So next time you visit an elephant park . . . pay $78 as well! Vagabond traveler indeed!

    • Trevor

      Are you saying that I could hang out with some elephants in Thailand for cheaper then $78? If so, would you provide the details? I’m traveling to Thailand summer 2014.

      • Krungtep Look

        Come here and find out for yourself Trevor . . .$78 is a LOT of money here in Thailand. The minimum wage is just a little more than one TENTH of that figure per day. Perhaps that shows you what a lucrative business this is? Good luck to them for coming up with the idea. I just get a bit tired of the smug, gap year psueds writing about Thailand. Go on a trip to Isaan, the north east of Thailand where you will see lots of elephants in the streets of some cities and towns as well as on the country roads and forests. Offer a Thai person some money and anything is possible. I guess i am saying ‘do it for real’, make your own adventure don’t rely on a company of any kind aimed at foreigners who don’t know any different. Don’t have a big plan just come here and see what happens, you will be amazed.

        • http://ExpertVagabond.com/ Matthew Karsten

          Ah yes. The begging street elephants who don’t get fed by their owners unless tourists pay up. Another excellent example of Thai elephant tourism gone wrong.

        • valarmorgulis

          How can you support beggar elephants?? If you support that, you dont respect animal rights at all. All you say is stupid sorry, starting from when you say that other places are cheaper and “f all gullible westerners paid $78.00 at elephant riding venues I bet the elephants in the places reported as being poorly treated would have a much better life too.” If you give that money to all trekking or elephants shows, they will keeping torturing elephants for educate them. It is not about having a bigger cage or get more food. The point is NO ELEPHANT should be jailed and domesticate, they should be free in the jungle. And the only reason why the elephant nature park is doing that is for rescuing already tortured animals from shows and treaking. If elephant were free and safe in the wild, they wont be neccesary.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com/ Matthew Karsten

      Horses aren’t beaten with metal hooks and starved.

      I’d absolutely love if all the trekking companies became sanctuaries and charged what was needed to keep the animals healthy and happy. Of course that won’t happen, because those companies don’t care about the elephants, only profit.

      Thailand seems to be been doing a WONDERFUL job with their elephants. That’s why they’re almost gone. Maybe it’s time to take a hint from parts of Africa (where elephant populations are now thriving).

  • Distant Eyes

    Have you heard about movies being made in Thailand re: elephants yet they’re asking for donations or investments that only helps to fund the film’s production or offices…?

  • GreenLace

    I went to the Baan Chang Elephant Park with my daughter a couple of weeks ago after being told that it was an ethical one. I had a bad feeling about riding an elephant even before going there and that was without even knowing about the training process. When we arrived there the 8 elephants that were there for our visit were all chained up which upset me immediately, and the chains were pretty short. I asked why they were chained and was told that it was because they might wander in the jungle and could damage trees and the surroundings, or enter village areas and may be a danger to villagers or damage properties etc, so it was for the protection of the elephants as well as people etc. Even though this is understandable it still didn’t sit right with me to see them chained up.
    There was a baby elephant there of about 2 years old who we fed LOTS of bananas to. The mother was also there and was with the baby while we were there except when she was being ‘used’ by ‘us tourists’ (said with a heavy heart).
    My daughter did the initial training on how to get on the elephant and learning commands and did a short 5 minute practice on one of the elephants in preparation for a 40minute trek. She decided not to do the trek after this though even thought she did enjoy the experience of being on the elephant. I decided to just feed and be next to the elephants rather than get on one.
    It also upset me to see that the trainers had those stick hooks even though I didn’t see them being used. I asked about these and was told that it was for the protection of ‘the tourists’. Us! :’( I didn’t think the elephants here looked or seemed unhappy but I did see that one of the elephants had marks on its forehead which looked like wounds and I did wonder whether it had been mistreated with said hooks. Would this be the reason for the wounds? We also took the elephants down to the river to wash them and the trainers made them get on their knees which made the elephants look very uncomfortable. I asked if this hurt their legs and they did say that it is an uncomfortable position for the elephants so they only get them to do it for 5 minutes. I do wonder why they bother getting them to do it if is not comfortable for them, I felt there was no need.
    I asked more questions and was told that the elephants here “only work for 4 hours a day” after which they left to just hang out (in their chains).
    All in all, I had mixed feelings about this place. They were fed alot while we were there and were kept in an area close to the shallow river so had access to water at all times. They didn;t perform tricks etc and only had a seat if someone really requested it. I did however feel heavy hearted by the time we left though for all the reasons I have stated above, and since being there I have done more research and am disgusted to find out the process involved with their training for tourists to be able to ride them and unfortunately the elephants here have obviously been though that treatment and abuse because they were very ‘obedient’ which seemed very unnatural for such an animal.
    I wish we had gone to the Elephant Nature Park instead. My 9 year old daughter also felt it too.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com/ Matthew Karsten

      Thanks for sharing your experience with us! Elephants are very intelligent, so just having the hook around is usually enough to keep them in line. They remember the brutal training. Like the saying goes, elephants never forget!

  • Belinda

    Excellent, thank you. Taking my daughter to Thailand, so we’ll forgo a ride, and contribute to their health and happiness instead.

  • Tex

    Riding elephant’s isn’t bad, it is the shady places people like you go too that treat the animals badly that is wrong. Say what you want but it is obvious from your perspective that you are only a tourist, who did piss poor research about where he wanted to go in the first place. I’ve lived in Thailand a long time and I know that there are many places here that truly want to help the elephants. They are wild animals with no real place left to go, the sanctuaries at least offer them protection, food, and life. If you have better suggestions then say them but remember it’s not like Africa where there are large game reserves set aside to help the animals, there isn’t much land left in Thailand for elephants just to roam.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com/ Matthew Karsten

      The game reserves in Africa didn’t just start themselves Tex. Government and private businesses created them. I’m sure Lek would be happy to take the Thai government’s money to buy more land and make her reserve larger.

      We all know that won’t happen though.

      Many of the elephants you see in Thailand these days are captured and smuggled illegally into the country from Myanmar. And yes, riding elephants is bad, because it means they were tortured with the Phajaan. If you pay to ride elephants, people will continue to capture, torture, and sell elephants to the camps for riding. Simple supply & demand economics.

      The solution? Ban elephant riding and turn the trekking camps into private or public reserves like Elephant Nature Park. People will pay to hang out with elephants without all the circus tricks and riding.

  • M.

    This article is so slanted. I know what you’re showing is true for some, but not for all. Just because an elephant let’s a person ride on its back DOES NOT mean that it has been tortured. Moreover, bull hooks are fine…it’s when they’ve been sharpened or altered to a point that they are harmful/unethical. A mahout uses a dull, curved bull hook to lead the bull ( female elephant, used here to regard all elephants) by its trunk. DO YOUR RESEARCH FULLY! A video and some comments with no support is just a bad.

  • Colina

    I did so much research about this before going to the place I rode elephants in Thailand. The family who owned the farm were passionate about elephants. They also adopted mistreated elephants from circus’ and from the streets. The elephants they have lived in the forest. The land they had in Chiang Mai was huuuuuge. They spoke with us about riding elephants and how a lot of ways to ride them (e.g. putting those seats on top of the elephant and having up to two people sit in them) is really harmful to the elephants. If you look at my Thailand pics, We sat just behind their heads – which is the most strongest part. Riding them any further back hurts them. I was really skeptical about riding elephants in Thailand but this placePatara Elephant Farm were amazing and so in love with their elephants. I would never have ridden them if I thought it was just a tourist money making scheme. The elephants were so happy and playful the entire day we spent with them. Also, I saw in that article they spoke about separating the babies from the mother’s to ‘tame’ them. We had three baby elephants toddling alongside us and their mother’s the entire day. They definitely don’t separate them. Anyway, I would totally feel confident in recommending this specific place in Chiang Mai after the research I did and the overall experience.

    • valarmorgulis

      Well the elephant happiness you see, doesnt mean they are trully happy…. The thing is, from the moment you educate an elephant to be ride by an human, or to play with humans, you have to beat him. A wild elephant will never allow you to ride in his back. You should be sceptikal by all this places because there are a lot of things you dont see.

  • Leo Rome

    Thank you, i was going to elephant trekking, before reading this !!

  • Lonni_J

    My family and I are leaving for Thailand in ten days and one of the things I wanted to do was ride an elephant. After reading this article, I’ve completely changed my mind. I won’t add to the abusive treatment of an elephant by riding it. Thanks for the information.

  • Lara

    I’m in Thailand just now and have been having a major ethical dilemma about going on any sort of tour with elephants involved. I would have loved to have ridden one but understand that if an elephant is tame enough for you to ride on it means it has been broken! Whether they arent mistreated now still means that they should be in a park somewhere not ridden by tourists OR mahouts. That would really be saving them! I think I will visit the elephant park and see for myself how much good work is going into the sanctuary

  • Gabriella

    I went to India in 1989 and even if I was not aware of all things I know today, I have a great intuition and I refused to ride an elephant in Jaipur which would have made my life easy in 48 degrees.

  • Noel Johansson

    Thanks for shaing! Elephants are my absolute favorite animal, I refused to ride an elephant at the circus because I wanted to ride them in their natural habitat one day… now my new aspiration is just to go to that place you recommended in Thailand and just interact with them! Thanks so much for writing that! Opened up my eyes!!

  • H

    No wild animal should be ‘broken in’ for human use. It’s disgusting that humans think they have a right to rule animals lives.

  • CHUCH

    WHY CAN’T I FACEBOOK THIS?

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com/ Matthew Karsten

      Hmmm. Not sure. You should be able to…

  • cj

    why can’t I share this on facebook

  • Thailand resident

    Living in Thailand I have been to several sanctuaries for elephants, all claiming to rescue and rehabilitate street elephants. I don’t doubt Lek’s intentions but if she has rescued 200 elephants, why does she only have 36 now? Has she sold them on or did they all die? How did she afford the acres of land and elephants in the first place? She has to be using tourists to finance the place. I haven’t been to her place but I have been to at least two equally good sanctuaries where you can feed and bath the elephants, far more pleasurable than riding anyway. These gentle creatures evoke our passion and praise is deserved for all the places in Thailand where they try to make the lives of elephants better.

    • Katelyn

      Could you let me know the names of the two sanctuaries where you feed and bathe them? I’m interested in looking into/visiting them.

  • Maria

    Is this the case in Nepal as well? Are there any recommended places like ENP there, where we can get close to them without contributing to abuse?

  • Taylor

    Thank you for this artical

  • Kiki

    I was hoping to take my toddler to meet an elephant In June- he loves them and is obsessed with all animals – I won’t be going to Chang mai though, could anyone tell me any other places that are rescue sancturies for animals including elephants that truly look after the animals.

  • http://charlieontravel.com/ Charlie

    Excellent and informative post. There’s a lot of bloggers doing a fantasic job on shedding light on elephant cruelty, thank goodness.

  • Marie

    I LOVE THIS ARTICLE. We have been planning our trip to Thailand for several months and ENP is the main reason we’re going.
    Someone we know went a few years back and raved about riding elephants; all I felt was sadness. I swore to go and and never partake. I cannot wait to visit ENP, I’m so excited!

  • trinz05tigger

    I recently saw pictures of some friends of mine riding elephants in Thailand. It looks pretty amazing but at the back of my mind I thought “Are they really that friendly to allow people to ride them?” Then today a friend of mine posted a video of an elephant named Sudan painting a “self-portrait” and signing its name on it afterwards. I watched the entire video in awe but also thought to myself “This does not seem natural… Yes they have very good memories but then how could they precisely paint this way using human tools?” I then googled “elephants in thailand” and your blog came up. This is definitely an eye-opener and for sure I would never ride elephants even if the opportunity is offered to me. Sure, I’m still intrigued by how that would feel like but then I think one less person participating in this activity could lead to more people refraining from participating as well. I will definitely share your blog and the video on here. Thank you and have safe travels! :)

3.2K SHARES Facebook 2.9K Google+ 142 Twitter 227 3.2K SHARES ×