Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants In Thailand

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 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

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)

More Information

Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand [Map]
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.

READ NEXT: Blessed By A Monk: My Magic Sak Yant

Do you still want to ride an elephant?


Hi, I'm Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for over 4 years. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel more with crazy stories, photography, and useful tips from my travel adventures. Join thousands who receive exclusive email updates and click the green button below...

Comments & Questions


  1. Krizza Kristine Ybañez
    May 15, 2015

    Thank you for the information. My friends and I planned to try Elephant Trekking in Koh Phangan this weekend and I’m thankful that I came across your article. This made me decide to just go for Elephant Nature Park and wash the Ele’s instead. Millions Thanks!

  2. Elliott
    May 12, 2015

    Sometimes, I just hate humans.
    Recent Post: Why I Won’t Ride Elephants in Thailand

  3. Donna power
    May 9, 2015

    My niece told us about a documentary she watched and was very anti elephant trekking but we all said no they are well cared for etc we then went to the kho lak elephant camp were they all had the picks in hand we told them we do not want them used so my niece hesitantly went on the ride I wish we hadn’t forced her now reading this, but would just like to say her guide had a bamboo stick and he continued to hit the elephant with it so in return my niece decided to wack him with her selfie stick! He was not amused. The worst experience for us was the Fantasea show that shocked us and we left there were load cannons going off on stage the use of the elephants in the show was awful I wish we had known beforehand

    • Matthew Karsten
      May 10, 2015

      Ha! I love that she whacked him back! A taste of his own medicine… :-)

  4. rebecca
    May 6, 2015

    I’m just looking at booking the four seasons tented camp in the golden triangle, Thailand which includes elephant experience – I do not want to ride elephants but do you know if its an ethical reserve?

    Any info please?

  5. Prasit Puttajak
    May 2, 2015

    I’m an elephant trainer instructor. I work with elephant more than 10 years in tourism field.

    I disagree with this opinion that againt elephant working.
    From statistic in 2009, Domesticated elephant have more than 2000 elephants in Thailand.
    And most of elephant work in tourism industry. The words you spread will save a few sanctuary that you supported but in another way that mean the rest of elephants will be poverty and more than 3000 people lose thier job.

    I’m not afraid if someday i lose my job, even i will missing many of elephants that i used to work with.
    For living, i think not too difficult to find a new job. But why don’t you think of other elephants that will be no job, no food and nobody take care of them.

    You don’t have to believe me, i’m nobody, but please think with your own common sense by the general facts that you might known and forget to think about.
    – Grown up asian elephants eat minimum 200 kg. of food per elephants per day or about 10% of thier weight.
    – Domesticate elephants in Thailand, in 2009 record by government is about 2000 elephants. and i think increasing slightly for recent years.
    – Recents sanctuary or called themself elephants sanctuary, that’s run by donation, for all over Thailand now maintain not more than 10% of elephants we have.
    – That’s mean the 1800 elephants now maintaining by others, my work, which let elephants work, which animal lovers called us evil.
    – By the 2009 record, wild elephant have about the same amount 2000 but slightly decreasing because of not enough foods in the national park.
    – By above facts, 1800 elephants have to work for thier own foods to survive and this becoming the world-wild drama. if you still not agree with me to let elephants work, what is your suggest solutions? where the foods of elephants come from? Do you really think just the donation money can maintain all 1800 elephants?
    – Why we don’t just let the domesticated elephants to be free in the wild? The first reason is a food. Recently, our national park nowaday is decreasing, when forest gone, the wildlife food gone as well. Do you still want them to be free and straving in the wild?

    Another reason is about the feeling of elephant owner, The elephants for them is a member of family. they grow up together. In the past, age of imperialism, the western came here and start trading teak wood. peoples here at that time use elephant to tranport the wood, they work together generation by generation untill now for more than 200 years. you might think the domesticated elephant now came from the wild, yes thier grand grand elephant parents came from the wild but not the recent domesticated elephant. Nowaday, after the idea of rehabited elephants to be free in the wild is dead-end, Working in Tourism Industry is the answer and the source of foods of all domesticated elephant. We work together again as in the past, they both work for living together. The money that they have got from work most paid to be elephant foods and have a few left for owner to survive. Some of elephants owner are rich, but most of them who is a Karen hilltribe are not. Even now the price of elephants is very high about 1-2 million baht but they not sell thier elephant and try to keeping elephant with thier family because the feeling that thier elephants is apart of their family. Ten years of my work, i saw a lot of elephant owners who is not rich at all, the things they did when they can’t maintain their elephant and thier own survive is to join the mass tourism elephant camp that run by the rich man, that they not really want, lower paid than standard, because the mass sell price is cheap, but they have to work for years to survive. they cannot run small business by thier own because thier are no money and lack of business skill, so they have to work year by year to keep thier elephants to thier family.And to sell thier elephant is always their last choice, even there are the easier way, to run out of the poverty.

    From all above, I’m not expect you to change your vision that saw us as a bad guy to be a good guy, all i need is, you read my words and re-think about it with no bias, not for us the human who used elephants, but for the rest of the working elephant.

    You will not believe me, because It’s againt all believe that you ever heard and thought, But let your common sense decide.
    How one people could such being an evil like that? and what is truely purpose to be evil?
    Do you really think we so greedy for money?

    I work with only ten years to let elephant working. But many of elephant trainers, the evil guys who let elephant work, they sacrified thier life to live with and take care of elephants, Yes, i’m also angry and sad as well, when the peoples judging us, especially a poor guy like them, as an evil. But what can we do? we just a small peoples who try to fight the poverty for both human and elephant in reallity.

    All i can do is to speak out here for the peoples you thought they are evil. even my English is not really well, and make you confused, please forgive me.but i have to do, because most of them cannot communicate English as i can, they are low educated and poor. So i think this all the things i could do for them.

    • Matthew Karsten
      May 2, 2015

      Thanks for the long and thoughtful comment Prasit, it’s nice to learn from the other perspective. However elephant sanctuaries like ENP seem to be doing pretty well, are staffed by locals, and still attract tourism. I believe it should be used as a model for others. If they are successful, why can’t elephant trekking companies change their business model and become sanctuaries instead?

  6. Clazz
    May 2, 2015

    Thanks so much for this post! I’m about to do a similar one myself. :) I just spent a week volunteering at ENP and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done!

    Before visiting, I had no idea how horrifically treated elephants were – I too used to want to ride them, but quickly quashed that idea a while ago when I learned how badly some of the camps treat them. However before my visit, I didn’t know about the training process and it’s heartbreaking to see such wonderful animals put through this. And tourists have no idea! I think it’s a hugely important message to spread. It’s the consumers who can stop this, sadly not the people running the treks etc.

    I’m glad to see so many comments of people wanting to visit this amazing place, so thank you for promoting it! And of course thank you to Lek for, on top of everything she does for the animals, allowing a new form of elephant tourism! :)
    Recent Post: Buses, boats and bikes in Saigon

  7. Amanda Burger
    April 20, 2015

    I’m late to this discussion, but had to say- fantastic post! I’m sure not a lot of people realize how detrimental this practice is, so great job explaining!
    Recent Post: Quick & Easy Natural Products

  8. Mr Tree
    April 17, 2015

    If you are in eastern Cambodia and looking for a locally owned and operated elephant sanctuary where you can watch rather than ride elephants make sure to visit the Mondulkiri Project.


  9. paul
    April 16, 2015

    Hi guys, I have arrived in Thailand for our honeymoon and it was our dream to ride one of these beautiful creatures. I must say we did go on an elephant trekking day and something didn’t feel right. So, I Google it Then I found this page. We feel so disgusting about funding this monstrositY. I hope we come back again and visit this sanctuary. Need to do some good to make up for the bad we did.

  10. vanessa
    March 28, 2015

    Thank you for this information.. I absolutely had no idea. Shocking.
    Recent Post: 3D Magic at Art in Paradise Langkawi

  11. Nick D
    March 19, 2015

    I am in Thailand as I write this. My friend and I heard about the elephant trekking and decided to give it a try. We arrived to the site and saw the elephants being beats with the blunt side of an ice pick on their head. I immediately got off the elephant and wanted no part of the ride. It was utter animal cruelty and horrific to see. These are extremely smart and beautiful animals.They should NEVER be treated this way. I am disgusted with myself for being so naive. I hope this is another eye opener to anyone who decides to do this. If our tourist money doesn’t go towards this cruelty the demand for these rides will stop. It needs to end.

    • Tony T
      April 14, 2015

      I did the same thing Nick. I ended the ride, less than a quarter of a mile from the Elephant stable. I couldn’t bear to see this beautiful animal being treated so horribly, it made for a terrible mar on what was a great vacation.

      I only wish I had read this story PRIOR to leaving for Thailand. On my next trip, I’d love to ENP and spend a day giving these beautiful creatures the attention they truly deserve.

  12. Rachel Allen
    March 18, 2015

    I’ve just read your article and created a petition on Change.org asking for Tripadvisor to attach a warning to cruel attractions.

    Please support and spread the word!

  13. suree
    February 26, 2015

    I felt pity for the beautiful creature as well. Definitely not gonna ride one.
    Recent Post: 5 Days Trip Itinerary in Kuala Lumpur

  14. Andrea
    February 13, 2015

    I am confused. I just read an Instagram post where the person posted pictures at Elephant Nature Park in Chaing Mai. And they were riding the elephants. Of course defending it saying the elephants had been rescued and were “already trained” so it was ok to do this. Thats when i started looking it up and found this article. Im confused because, are there two elephant parks in Chaing Mai, Thailand called ENP? If not, this couple on IG, who are currently there, are riding elephants at this place in your article. Or so it seems. I am completely against this practice.

    • Tee
      March 29, 2015

      Hi, must be a mistake – we were just in Thailand at ENP and they don’t allow riding on the elephants (absolutely none). Was a perfect natural experience with the elephants.

      Unfortunately, there are countless elephant trekking places in Thailand where riding is allowed (one very close to the ENP area) so I assume there is some mistake.

      All we can do is support those places who do the right thing. We spent 4 weeks in Thailand and the 1 day at ENP was the highlight. Absolutely magnificent.


      • Dee
        March 30, 2015

        No they don’t allow riding on the elephants at Elephant Nature Park.

        Elephant Nature Park used to allow riding (on the neck) but moved away from that. In any case, it wouldn’t be practical these days with the number of visitors.

  15. Rose
    February 10, 2015

    Thank you for sharing this information, I have always wanted to swim and ride on a Elephants, but now I am disgraced that they would do that to Elephants.
    Recent Post: Stars of Game of Thrones

  16. Sam Parsons
    February 9, 2015

    Thank you Matthew for awareness raising. My husband and I also visited ENP last week and now have an understanding of the violent and cruel process elephants go through to be broken for human use. So glad to know this. We are at Kantiang Bay on Koh Lanta now. There’s a young elephant chained here 24/7 to advertise elephant trekking. Lots of people stop to get their photo in front of it. When they know how it suffers we hope they will stop participating.

  17. Siddhartha Pudasaini
    February 9, 2015

    I was planning on going to Chitwan (In Nepal) for some jungle safari atop elephant. Now, I don’t think so. Maybe I will take the jeep ride instead! By the way, come to Nepal. I can’t believe you haven’t come to Nepal and shared your experiences about being here! March is the tourist peak season and the best season for all touristic activities. I hope you will come here someday. I would love to meet you when you are here! Hehehe!
    Recent Post: Nepali Movie Review: Nai Nabhannu La 2 (नाइ नभन्नु ल २) By Rachita Dhakal

  18. Little Jack
    January 30, 2015

    Thank you for this post. I’ll probably be (rightly) strung up for this but I’ve ridden 3 elephants in the past two and a half years at what I believed to be ethical and nurturing places. I am currently in Phuket and had booked to ride my fourth for my birthday this weekend. I have now cancelled this trek and definitely intend to visit ENP when I head up North this summer.

    I think it’s very easy to read good reviews/turn a blind eye and convince yourself that the elephants are well treated in these places when the reality is often so different, as you’ve rightly pointed out. I’m just a little gutted it’s taken me this long to realise this and act upon it.

    If your elephant experience is about getting your next great profile pic, your stunning photos alone prove that riding an elephant isn’t necessary to get amazing photos and appreciate the beauty of these amazing creatures.

    Thanks once again for the impact this post has made.
    Recent Post: Paradise

    • Tee
      March 29, 2015

      Thanks for doing the right thing. Do the ENP, it’s wonderful.

  19. Anna Hobbs
    January 22, 2015

    I was able to take a gap year in 2014 with a friend and we decided to go to an elephant santuary in Chaing Mai. At the time we knew little about how elephants were treated however, when visiting the santuary it was clear the elephants that we’re being rescued had something visibly wrong. I found getting to know the elephants and the sanctuary so enriching and just that day of feeding, riding and bathing the animals was the best day I had in Thailand. I see now maybe riding the elephants can be avoided the next time I go, but when I was riding them with my friend I felt so close to the elephant and it was an absolutely amazing trek that I don’t really regret. I hope to go and do ENP the work sounds amazing !

    • Leah
      May 16, 2015

      I would like to turn what you wrote in your post into a question. Does your feeling so close to an elephant and experiencing an absolutely amazing trek justify or detract from anything that Matthew’s article just illustrated? Enough to ignore the possibility that you were bearing weight on a tired hungry animal who had his spirit crushed in order to be aptly trained in carrying you (which his body was not designed to do) across a distance? Granted that would be a worse case scenario, but I believe it to be true that this is also a sadly common one.

  20. Amy Skinner
    January 21, 2015

    Amazingly written Matthew. People need to know more about this.
    I taught English in Thailand for 6 months and my orientation group went to an elephant camp that was a terrible experience. I then decided to stay at ENP for a week in my last month in Thailand and it showed me how moving a humane elephant experience can be.
    It’s incredible what people will choose to ignore when it makes them uncomfortable (like hearing about the “breaking” process), ignorance truly is bliss.
    The change of this treatment of elephants starts with us since we are the tourists coming into these places and spending all our money on riding elephants and getting pictures with them. If we redirect that money we can start to change how elephant tourism works in these countries.
    Thank you for helping spreading the word, brother!

  21. Britt
    January 21, 2015

    Great post and very diplomatically put! Unfortunately I’m not so diplomatic when it comes to telling my friends off whenever they post a picture riding one on facebook. I seriously don’t care that it was the best experience of their life and they thought the elephants were ‘happy’. All of that came at the expense of that poor animal. And even if there were ‘humane places’ with free elephants you aren’t meant to ride them- they suffer for it, and any humane place comes at the expense and at making tourists think its ok to go to the other hugely inhumane places.

  22. ellie
    January 19, 2015

    I go to enp every 6 months…not only for the amazing views and the beautiful elephants but mainly because of the 400 dogs there!!

  23. T Bentley
    January 18, 2015

    please tell me what’s your view on the Thai elephant home in Chaing Mai, as I was thinking of seeing the elephants there. They are wonderful animals and I would hate to participate in anything that was cruel.

  24. Lydia M
    January 14, 2015

    Thank you so much for writing this informative, thought-provoking, and non-judgemental article, Matthew. I’ll be sharing it with my friends before we go to Thailand so they’ll understand why we will not be supporting this industry! (Unless we make it to the wonderful sanctuary :) )

    • Matthew Karsten
      January 15, 2015

      No problem Lydia, I was un-informed when I first traveled there, want to help inform others so they can make their own decisions.

      • Jennifer
        March 20, 2015

        I believe your article should be reworded a bit. I have spent time at elephant sanctuaries who allow tourists to ride elephants bareback, as they are able to physically hold their weight. It is the weight of the metal seat that is painful due to the four points that dig into the skin, as well as the pain it causes on the elephants spine. Bareback riding, on the condition that the elephant is not beaten or confined, can be humane. Elephants who have been rescued from trekking companies can be trained using vocal cues, and from my experience enjoy the bonding.

        • amanda
          March 28, 2015

          where was this place you went to ride bareback? im tryng to find the perfect place in Thailand to visit and spend time with the amazing animals that live there and I don’t want to end up going to a bad place where they are crewel to them.

  25. ivonne
    January 12, 2015

    Hi Mathew, I was at the ENP and realy enjoyed it. Even wrote a blog about it and put a referral on my site. I LOVE elephants and you can’t find better places for them and better caretakers then Lek and her team. Fantstic that you are promoting them with this great article!

    • Matthew Karsten
      January 13, 2015

      Woooo! Lek (and her mission) is awesome. Glad you had a good time with the elephants there Ivonne!

  26. Emily
    January 9, 2015

    I’m eleven years old. My family is traveling the world. We were just in Thailand. And before that we were in South Africa on a safari. We are in Cambodia and we are going to go to the Elephant Nature Park. It sounds really fun. It literally breaks my heart, how they tame elephants. They are my favorite animals. I think people need to raise awareness. Thanks for expressing that.

    • Matthew Karsten
      January 13, 2015

      Hi Emily, glad you’re going to ENP! You’ll love it. Say hi to Lek for me.

  27. Kathryn Burrington
    January 8, 2015

    I did know about this but not in so much detail. Great post. Would love to have this kind of experience one day.

  28. Cindy
    December 29, 2014

    I am looking for a true animal friendly location close to Bangkok (okay to drive for a few hours). Please provide your recommendations.

  29. Vicki LLoyd-Smith
    December 8, 2014

    Thank you Matthew for your bright insight to The Elephant Nature Park!
    I cant believe its exactly 6 months since I was there! I cant wait to go back and do it all again. It was a life changing experience to work and play with these majestic and gentle creatures and a true blessing to meeting my inspiration, Lek Chailert!

    I truly recommend this wonderful experience to any and every animal lover. And it is not expensive! All the money goes directly back to the park in supplying the elephants with the copious amounts of food they need and helping to rescue more elephants, and you get to have a life changing experience along the way, so its a ‘win win’ in every way! Thank you Lek and Darrick and I look forward to my next trip to see you all again!

  30. Don
    December 8, 2014

    Thank you so much for posting this, Matt. I am taking my family to Thailand in February, and planned to take my kids on an elephant ride. This story broke my heart. I love animals, and would never support this abuse knowingly. Obviously, I will head for the sanctuary instead. Luckily I found your article in time. I will spread the story as much as possible.

    • Sarah A
      December 26, 2014

      For my eighteenth birthday, I will be traveling to Phuket, Thailand. By educating myself on the harm done to these wise animals, I have absolutely no desire to ride one. I would absolutely LOVE to visit your sanctuary when I arrive next month. Thank you so much for informing me. It’s unfortunate that humans would abuse such a beautiful creature just because of their economic motive. I will definitely spread the word! Keep doing what you’re doing! See you in January!

    • Linda
      December 31, 2014

      Thank you for educating yourself before you go! Pass it on you are making a world of difference.

  31. Vicky R
    December 8, 2014

    Hi Matthew!

    Thank you so much for this post. I am planning a trip to Thailand and its hard to find “true reviews” stating facts from veterinaries or animal experts. I have a 160lbs Great Dane at home and some humans think their kids can ride my dog as a horse I am always telling them NO. Would they love to have me on their back? I don’t think so…Anyways great review and will definitely put this on my bucket list :)

  32. PeterB
    December 7, 2014

    .So if the Elephants camps are closed,what happens to the Elephants,when using Elephants in logging was banned it lead to a decline in the Elephant population.
    Thailand’s current population of domesticated elephants is about 2,700. After a precipitous decline from about 100,000 domesticated Elephants. Wild elephants in Thailand are very difficult to count given their dense, forested habitat, but most experts would agree there are between 2,000-3,000. In 1989 the Thai government banned all logging in protected areas, effectively closing all remaining natural forests. While undoubtedly a very wise choice, one unfortunate side effect was that it threw many logging elephants out of work. Luckily, that loss coincided with a rapid rise in tourism, which was able to employ many elephants. Today, probably more than half of Thai elephants work in tourism. Disturbingly, some overseas animal rights groups have argued that tourists should not visit elephant camps, claiming it promotes cruelty. In fact, most Thai elephants are very well cared for, partly because most Thai people are intrinsically kind and humane but also because elephants are simply too valuable to abuse. (A beautiful calf or a healthy, young breeding female is worth as much as 700,000 baht or US$22,000.) Although the camp to be visited should be carefully selected, the kindest thing that ethical, elephant-loving tourists can do is to visit a camp and enjoy elephants. Without work in tourism, elephant owners will have no means to care for their animals.

    • Matthew Karsten
      December 7, 2014

      Precisely because elephants are so valuable for tourism, babies are ripped from the wild, tortured, and smuggled in from Myanmar to meet the demand. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy elephants without riding them and watching them paint — at a sanctuary, not a trekking camp.

      • christel wiles-riley
        December 23, 2014

        thank you for the info, had no idea, it is an eye opener, iam german, living in florida and invited to go to Thailand with my best friend who was born and raised there. I love those creatures and just learn a value lesson.

    • Ros King
      January 25, 2015

      Sadly, I agree that elephants will only survive in Thailand if people can make money from them. And in essence, this means earning money from tourism. However, this does NOT mean that the elephant tourist industry, as it stands at the moment, is the best that we can hope for, and I’m not sure where you get the idea that most elephants are well-treated. They are usually fed and cleaned, but that is as far as it goes. Elephants are long-lived and have complex social systems, which has led them to develop some of the ‘highest’ cognitive skills known in non-human animals. Many of the camps keep elephants chained up which means that they are unable to socialize. Elephants are not able to play, nurture their children, comfort other elephants, or just hang out with their friends, and the psychological effect on them is just as devastating as it would be for humans.
      Matthew also mentioned the phajaan. Almost EVERY elephant you will see in Thailand has been put through this brutal training process. The threat of violence is always there even if a mahout does not often use the hook. Sadly, the use of the hook and other ways of inflicting pain – the nail hidden in the hand, the slingshot in the eye – are common and often not that noticeable, so tourists might not realise what is happening – or else they are told, as the blood trickles down the elephant’s forehead – that ‘elephants have such thick skin that it doesn’t really hurt them’.
      It is worth pointing out here that elephant workers are pretty much the lowest of the low in Thailand. Many of the workers are illegal burmese immigrants that can’t get any other work, and have no previous experience of working with elephants. Of course they are going to use hooks and nails to control the elephants, because they don’t know any other way to protect themselves or to get the 4 ton animal to do what they want.
      ALSO, the back issue, as Matthew mentioned. Elephants’ backs are not designed to carry weight in the middle, where the seats are placed. They cope much better with weight around the neck and shoulders, where mahouts traditionally sit.
      So, I agree that tourism is probably the future for elephants in Thailand. The challenge now is to make it as elephant-friendly as possible. The cool thing is that these elephant-friendly experiences tend to be more authentic and personal, and tourists actually prefer them to circus shows and treks. The ENP has been a pioneer for these types of experiences, but more and more parks are opening up that follow this kind of model. The ENP has also recently started a home-stay program in Surin (the home of elephant training in Thailand) so that Thai families can bring their elephants back from Bangkok, where they were begging to make money. So things are really starting to change, it was quite slow at first but it has really started to move quickly over the last few years.

    • Bob Stauffer
      April 26, 2015

      PeterB , wow that was some of the most asinine garbage I have ever read. You have to be either ignorant or just plain stupid to think that animals working in treks overseas would be treated with the utmost respect. They beat these animals within an inch of there lives to protect the paying customer. An animal is very replaceable, injuring tourists will ultimately leave the company out of business not the other way around. Maybe get informed or stop trolling you jackass.

  33. jen
    December 3, 2014

    Hi Mat
    I have also experienced ENP and do you realise how much you are helping the elephant by the positive comments you have received here by informing with the bare facts? Awesome work and hopefully more people will read your blog and realise how brutal tourism is for the elephant the way most operators are running their business. A couple of businesses outside Chiang Mai have changed their way of thinking and are now looking after their gentle giants and no more riding.

    • Matthew Karsten
      December 3, 2014

      That’s great to hear Jen! It’s possible to enjoy hanging out with elephants without riding them.

      • Sarah
        December 7, 2014

        I would love to volunteer! How would I go about doing this?

        • Pelote DELAINE
          December 8, 2014

          Hello Sarah, I was volunteer at ENP and can help you. You have to buy a flight ticket from your home to Chiang Mai Thailand. The week begins every monday to sunday afternoon and your accodomation for a week is around 300 euros (please convert) . You can stay several weeks more, if you want… you can contact me on fb english french group “Elephants de Thailand et d’ailleurs” or on website “Elephant Nature Park” http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/

  34. Phunawa
    December 2, 2014

    Great post about how we can save and help these magnificent creatures.

  35. Lynne
    November 22, 2014

    Hi Matthew,
    I am so grateful to you for posting this. We are going to Thailand next month and I had no prior knowledge of this treatment! I found this post upon looking for a place to ride an elephant, also a dream of mine (as of others that commented above)….but no longer! Thank you for the info and God Bless both you and Lek!!!!

  36. Herman
    November 21, 2014

    Great read! I always wanted to ride an elephant while I’m in Thailand but after reading this article, I am definitely reconsidering.

  37. Joan
    November 18, 2014

    A controversial aspect about tourism in Thailand. Thanks for shedding light on this issue!

  38. Karen
    November 14, 2014

    Fantastic post Matthew. I’ve also just written a similar post about our experience at ENP. Like you I never realised the suffering elephants have to go through so us humans can ride them and it horrified me to learn the truth. The thing is spending time at ENP and interacting with these majestic beings in a way that doesn’t exploit them made the experience far more meaningful than any elephant ride ever could.

  39. rowena schuster
    November 11, 2014


    Thank you for writing this article, as many dreamers wanting to ride an elephant clueless how they get tamed, I will just enjoy watching and touching them how the Universe created these wonderful giants!


  40. Georgio Valentino Rayala
    November 10, 2014

    Thank you for the article.Riding an Elephant was on my Bucketlist,but now after reading your article I would never do that.Thank you once again.

  41. KT
    November 7, 2014

    Thank you for the article. I absolutely had no idea about what people did to the elephants in order to ride them until I read this. I don’t know about Thailand or other elephants parks that offer elephant riding but I was raised in a place where people used to travel around by elephants and I’m pretty sure that they didn’t torture the elephants or did anything brutal to them but I definitely agree with what you wrote and hope that more and more people know about this.

  42. Kamalala
    November 7, 2014

    I’m with ya brother. They have over 40 elephants behind my house at FantaSea that perform in the show. Interesting, they’re all female. That doesn’t bother me.

    I hate to see the elephants walking beside the busy highway carrying people, that gets me.

    Don’t go for elephant rides when you come to Phuket…Please.

  43. Scott
    November 6, 2014

    I had no idea.

    Thanks for writing Matt. I’ve raised and trained horses and dogs my whole life and just figured elephants were trained the same. I’ve never seen an elephant in the wild or known a trainer. It never occurred to me they were abused. People talk about “breaking” horses, they’re fools; all you have after you break a horse is a broken horse. What you’ve described is unconscionable.

  44. Frank
    November 6, 2014

    Good article Matt. We were there a few years ago and was a learning experience for us as well. Feeding and washing the elephants was fun, but the craziest thing was watching them all playing in the pond – I wondered if humans were ever put in danger? Because these elephants, especially the young ones, were running around the same way dogs chase each other…and I could just see one of these things accidentally running over a few tourists. Its the only time we got nervous. Other than that was a great time.
    Frank (bbqboy)

  45. Nomad Revelations
    November 4, 2014

    Great article. I’m on my way to Thailand and I’ll definitely visit Elephant Nature Park natural sanctuary. Thanks for the tip. Greetings from China!

  46. Karianne Di Salvo
    November 1, 2014

    Thanks so much for this post Matt. I’m currently in Thailand and am getting sick of hearing people telling me how much fun they have had on elephant treks. And then there is the people that are so proud of their photographs with tigers.

    I think some of it nativity but I think some people are happy to put aside any animal welfare concerns to get a photo of themselves to put on Facebook.

    We are planning on visiting ENP when we are in Chaing Mai next month and this post has made me even more excited.

  47. nana
    October 31, 2014

    Hi ive been in hatyai where my kids n I went for elephant riding. Yes they hit the baby elephant on the head so hard when the elephant trying to drink at a small pond. It was an awful experience for us especially my kids to watch the poor elephant treated that way. But at the same time im afraid of my family’s safety too.

  48. ThatAwesomeNomad
    October 30, 2014

    Hey Matt, thanks for sharing! What camera did you use to capture those beautiful stills?

  49. Rhijja
    October 18, 2014

    Hello, thnx 4 the heads up. Traveling to Thailand in a few months and now I know I’m not gonna take this rides. Thanx.

  50. Somwang Boonson
    October 15, 2014

    1. I do not agree of using tools, sharp metal, to hot elephants on their heads
    If they con not control elephants, let them go to sanctuary.
    2. Elephants need to eat food, farmers whose crops were eaten by elephants
    can go to Elephants Association, where I and many people have donated money, to redeem their loss.
    3. Elephants have good memory, better than human beings.Regarding the complaint that elephants hurt people, they shouls stay away from them, keep a distance. People have hurt elephants first and they do not forget. Will you get near lions and tigers when you see them?

  51. Darren C
    October 11, 2014

    Excellently written article Matt, I’ve read many similar articles, and wrote one on my own blog, despite their popularity the tourists masses just don’t seem to be getting it.
    A disturbing thought is, what happens when they do get it, what is to become of the institutions that offer elephant tourism when the tourists turn their back on them ?. What are the cash strapped owners going to do, what will become of the elephants.

    Introducing them back to the wild is not an option, Thailand’s wild herds now rely on the introduction of domestic blood because they are inbreeding. Man made barriers such as roads railways and urbanization prevent elephants from intermingling, hence the herds can’t refresh their bloodlines.

    I think it would also be nice to see a new angle added to the articles, a behind the scenes look at what goes in these establishments. Maybe the fact that there is no such information re-enforces the current overview of cruel treatment, but it might also be unfair to tar all elephant tourism establishments with the same brush.

    I think the Thailand tourist industry, the elephant tourism establishments and maybe even the government need to discuss options which will be favorable to everyone, even if it takes some amount of subsidizing.

  52. rachel
    September 13, 2014

    Hi, thanks for sharing your lovely photos. Your post was a bit of an eye opener and I’m glad I read it before my trip to Thailand later this year.

  53. zac
    September 13, 2014

    Man I am really bummed is there anywhere you can ride elephants that haven’t been tortured or hurt its spine, like i really really wanna be able to ride an elephant but can’t go through with it after reading this?

    • Feyton
      September 20, 2014

      Try Singapore zoo.

    • Georgia
      November 5, 2014

      No. Put your selfishness aside — you can’t ride one without being unethical and threatening their health. Up to you :).

    • Anna
      November 6, 2014

      I understand that you really, really want to ride an elephant (actually, I don’t understand, but never mind), but what you think is better: riding the elephant or giving an elephant a bath? Adding that, bathing is ethical, and riding is not, the choice for me is obvious. And for you? Regards.

    • Ros King
      January 25, 2015

      If you still really, really want to ride an elephant, find a place that will let you sit on the shoulders, just behind the ears, and not on a platform seat.

  54. Dannielle
    September 12, 2014

    Loved this post! My visit to Lek’s nature park really opened my eyes to the reality of elephant tourism in Thailand too.

  55. Sandra
    September 4, 2014

    I just saw H&R Block Australia’s latest advertising campaign featuring a live “trained” elephant. PeTA Asia-Pacific has started a petition to tell the company that this cruel exploitation of innocent elephants in Thailand is unacceptable. Please take a moment to sign and share the petition, you can see more details here: http://ow.ly/B1cPi.

  56. Ariel
    August 30, 2014

    hi, i would like to help the elephants and take care of them, when i am in thailand next year. unfortunately i only find programs which cost like $700 for volunteers..how come i have to pay so much for volunteering? are there any other possibilities to help?

    • Matthew Karsten
      September 1, 2014

      Hi Ariel, the reality is labor is cheap in Thailand. If it was just about work, it would be cheaper for them to hire local people than house & feed a bunch of western volunteers.

      They don’t really need your hands, rather they need monetary contributions to pay for expensive food & medical care for the elephants. As a volunteer you are donating both time & money.

    • HowToBeAThaiDad
      September 11, 2014

      I feel exactly the same. I would love to show, teach my son that these animals deserve a better life, and enjoying these animals can be done in different ways. Sadly enough, the prices are just TOO much, especialy for the average Thai. It seems those organizations are catering to a Western audience only, while I believe it would be so important to teach us (Thai) locals this cruel practice can’t continue in a modern society. Sometimes I feel it’s just a business like any other… agree, they’re doing something good along the way, but are we really changing something if the average Thai can’t see the difference? So where do we go? To the local Elephant attractions and sadly enough see baby elephants do circus trics.

      • Ros King
        January 25, 2015

        When I was there a few years ago Thai people could visit for free. I’m not sure if this is still the case as perhaps it is more well-known in Thailand now.

        • Pear
          February 22, 2015

          My visit on November 2014 was free (i’m Thai) but I was suggested to make donation by purchasing suvenior at the shop and I would recomend all Thai visitors to do so : )

        • Matthew Karsten
          February 22, 2015

          Great to know Pear! Thanks for sharing. I didn’t realize it was free for locals. That’s awesome.

    • Courtney
      October 1, 2014

      The Elephant Nature Park charges only $77 for a single day visit and only $370 for a week-long stay. This includes meals and accommodations.

    • Anek
      October 12, 2014

      hi, you can watch them as a day trip which free them in jungle.

  57. Darth..animal lover..Vader
    August 27, 2014

    Thanks so much for this info i just went to a animal rehabilitation sanctuary in Kerala,India. I saw they had the hooks and sticks but i didn’t see them using them. I don’t know if they went through the training process but they where let loose in a confined jungle and didn’t hurt us. It looked like they where treated well but i didn’t exactly know because most of them didn’t speak English. Again thank you for the info

    • Matthew Karsten
      September 1, 2014

      If they were using hooks, it’s because they’ve been trained with them. Elephants are not domestic animals, they get domesticated, and it’s usually a brutal process.

      • Patrick Berlandi
        September 10, 2014

        Hi im traveling to Thailand near the end of this month.
        i was wondering if you have any advice to share with me on mostly everything?
        I know this is a long list so be brief and maybe point me in the right direction.
        also when you say that the Elephants get domesticated and it is usually a brutal process, what other way is there? just curious.

        Thank you

  58. Paula Martinelli
    August 18, 2014

    Very good article. I am starting to put together my vacation to Thailand, it will be my first time in Asia – and I couldn’t be more exited. I learned something knew today, reading this page, thank you again for sharing your experience with us. I already made notes, and I will go visit this place. I love traveling, and photography….and I sure I will have an amazing time in Thailand. I am trying to put my whole vacation together by myself, since I don’t like to buy packages when I travel. I am studying and trying to learn as much as I can. Again, thank you for sharing your experience here, very valuable information for the people that are travelers and not tourists :-)

  59. Sarah
    August 13, 2014

    I just started doing my research on Thailand for a trip next year with my brothers. I was looking into riding elephants and when I googled it, your site was the top link – and I’m so glad it was! I am completely content with just being able to touch one or observe them up close (which I’ve never done). Now I’ve begun to read through more of your site and it’s greatly informed my trip! I just want to say thank you because I had no idea where to start! I just know I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand and experience the culture more than the tourism. Your site has made that a much more secure and easy process for me! GREATLY appreciate it! :)

    If it’s alright, I’d like to add a link to your site to my travel blog (more of a scrapbook). I’d love to share it with my family and friends that read it.

  60. SammyC
    August 7, 2014

    I have always dreamed of riding/swimming with elephants in Thailand; however, now that I have read this article, I will NOT add to the mistreatment of those precious animals. Instead, I plan to visit ENP for a week. :) thank you so much for posting this article; not just for people like me, but for the elephants too!

  61. Tom
    August 3, 2014

    Very good story. People won’t be disappointed by a trip to Elephant Nature Park where you can interact with elephants in a compassionate way. And Lek is somebody really special. I saw dogs all start howling/barking when she arrived one day. She is a real St. Francis sort of person.

    • DSF
      August 24, 2014


  62. MissCaswell
    July 30, 2014

    Hi Matt! I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated this article. A few years ago I spent 2 months travelling through Thailand and never went on an elephant ride as it just seemed dodgy to me. Now I’m planning my second trip and wondered if I had missed out after seeing advertisements of “ethical elephant rides”. Your article made me feel content about boycotting such rides and now I’m in love with the idea of visiting ENP and washing the elephants which seems like a much greater experience. Thank you! :)

  63. Yulie
    July 21, 2014

    Thanks for the Information! I was planning on going to ride an elephant, but now I will do a week of volunteering at the ENP instead :-)

    • Matthew Karsten
      July 23, 2014

      Great to hear Yulie! You’ll love it there. Say hi to Lek for me.

    • Letthemjustbe
      July 24, 2014

      Good for you Yulie… I’ve volunteered to work at ENP in October… I’ve visited Thailand a few times as I have family living there… I initially got excited about seeing an elephant “up close and personal” in the town my family live, but something about the sadness in their eyes I saw, made me read up about the “tourist elephant”. To say I was ashamed I’d played into the tourist trap of keeping this poor helpless animal, yes helpless forget it’s size, it’s helpless – it’s a do or die situation… in its “job” of living this way prompted me to seek out Lek, her rescue sanctuary and her wonderful work… I’m 55 this year and feel like it’s the most positive thing I’ve ever committed to. I hope you enjoy your time at ENP, let us know how you get on… :)

  64. Carly
    July 16, 2014

    Thanks for writing this article; you’ve raised more awareness of this important issue. I’m especially glad you mentioned Lek here and the great work being done at Save the Elephant Foundation. I know of too many people who have travelled to Asia and participated in elephants rides and posed with tigers in “sanctuaries”; they are often completely misled and don’t realise they are contributing to inhumane practices and a cruel industry.

    The last thing a genuine sanctuary would do is let you ride the elephants as they know it would just increase demand for more unethical operations and traumatise the animals they have rescued even further. Incredibly sad that tourists pay to go to centres that have supposedly “rescued” elephants from the logging industry and then put them to work carrying tourists around. Some organisations actually say they let you ride the elephants so they can “earn their keep”!

    Save the Elephant Foundation gives tourists the opportunity to interact with elephants in a natural way and shows visitors that it is much more enjoyable to feed and interact with these animals on their terms in an (almost) natural environment. It is not fair to make an elephant, rescued or otherwise, carry you in a heavy Howdah around a forest so you can have a photo opportunity.

  65. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling
    July 11, 2014

    Hi Matthew, I stumbled upon this post while actually doing research for a blog post of my own about this very issue! As a long-time visitor to Thailand I have gone on many elephant rides and I only recently found out the truth about the industry, so I’m having a huge fess up to my readers and begging them not to be caught up in it like I unwittingly was. Thanks for sharing that photo of the phajaan, horrible as it was, and thanks for helping to get the word out there.

  66. David Ouellette
    June 1, 2014

    Another awesome post that should make travelers think twice before pretty much everything they do while traveling. The negative comments seem to come from people who can’t grasp that you’re actually trying to do something good. Rock on Matt.

  67. FlaG
    May 8, 2014

    A few years ago I was sent to Chiang Mai to write a travel story on luxury hotel stays, but I was grouped together with a bunch of travel agents to see all the tourist sites of the small town. We were put on a five-day whirlwind tour that included a visit to a very popular ‘elephant sanctuary’.
    I felt terrible clambering onto the back of the elephant for a ride through the surrounding jungle. And I felt even worse watching the young elephants doing tricks like playing football and painting in the ‘talent show’ portion of the afternoon. Never again.

  68. Lydia Danceon
    May 5, 2014

    This opened my mind on what is realli going on..thanks for the enlightenment!

  69. cosmo
    April 30, 2014

    Thank you for the informative article! As a preparation to my Chiang Mai trip, i have started to looking into some trekking tours there but soon began wondering how those elephants were treated there. I am glad i was able to read and educate myself before going to Thailand. Also, as a Japanese-English bilingual, I would be happy to translate and share the information with my friends. Hopefully my friends share with their friends! There are so many Japanese tourists there but clearly they don’t know how cruel this is.

  70. Travel Do It
    April 30, 2014

    Great to see more people promoting the message that not only is the riding and mistreatment of elephants wrong, but the treatment of animals everywhere for financial gain via irresponsible tourism has got to stop.

    Thank you for sharing the great message, and even better pictures :)

  71. Anglo Italian
    April 30, 2014

    Great read Mathew! It’s important to inform people about the Asian Elephants and responsible tourism in Thailand. We spent a month at ENP and loved it, I hope more and more people understand the importance of not using these amazing creatures as tourism attractions.


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