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. Alexa Johnson
    November 19, 2015

    Hello! I know this post was written quite a while ago, but I’m hoping you may still see this. I’d love to get your thoughts on one aspect of the ENP.

    We are planning a trip to Chiang Mai next summer, and I’d like to take my children to the ENP. It sounds like an amazing place! However, I’m concerned about my young children hearing too much about the abuse the animals have suffered, or still suffer from the trekking companies for the ones that are still there. We don’t need convincing – we’re already on board with no riding, no trekking, no tourist companies – so I want them to just enjoy the day with the elephants. It’s not that I want them to be oblivious; I am trying to raise them to be good stewards of the earth and to care for animals deeply, and it seems to be working. My youngest recently and accidentaly saw a shocking picture of a dog that was being neglected and abused, and he was a mess for several weeks. They love animals very much and are very upset by atrocities towards them.

    I guess what I’m asking is whether the ENP has a healthy message that isn’t too graphic for young children. Thanks in advance!

    • Matthew Karsten
      November 19, 2015

      It’s a great place to bring children with a healthy message.

      • Alexa
        November 20, 2015

        Ok, great! Thanks for getting back.

  2. jude
    October 30, 2015

    Omg! The linked pic and video are nauseating. I’ve boycotted circuses for 30 years because of the abusive “training”. Had to share on Facebook. I had a discussion on Facebook awhile ago and was surprised at how many people never gave it a thought. When I provided links and tried to educat these people, some of whom are rescuers and animal advocates!!, they either didn’t believe me or care. Maybe because they aren’t small and cute and fluffy. Ok. Then what about the big cats?! Even if the training wasn’t horrible, their living enviroment is cruel! Oooooh! Why do “humans” have to treat living creatures this way!!!

  3. Kevin Wagar
    October 30, 2015

    Thank you for posting this. It was a great read and very entertaining.
    As a parent who travels often with his young children, elephant rides would have been a top draw. Your article pointed out the dark side of what is otherwise thought of as a token of the tourist industry.
    I’ll look up some lists of sanctuaries for our travels in the future. This give us and our children a much better angle of approach for our travels and the amazing feeling of giving back.

    Keep on travelling!

  4. greg clark
    October 16, 2015

    Hi Matthew great post. I orginially wanted to ride an elephant in Asia but after visiting Thailand and Cambodia twice and visiting Phnom Tamao in Cambodia and talking to the people there about how badly some elephants are treated, I refuse to ride one now. I’m going to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai next month and getting to feed and bathe these amazing animals, and have actually convinced some friends and work mates why you shouldnt ride them. Keeep up the great work

  5. Sarah
    September 17, 2015

    Thanks for this brilliant article Matt. As you mention, these problems exist behind the scenes and hidden from tourists across many countries in Southeast Asia.

    Save The Asian Elephants (STAE) is campaigning to save Asian elephants from terrible abuse in captivity and tremendous decline in the wild.
    STAE is currently collecting signatures on a petition to the Association of British Travel Agents, the Prime Minister of India and the Prime Minister of the UK, as we enter crucial meetings with the UK Foreign Office and Defra and need maximum public support to strengthen our hand.

    I encourage everyone to please add their name to the petition and help to end this cruelty. http://stae.org/help-us/

  6. David
    August 21, 2015

    I am going to Chiang Mia this October and I was looking forward to riding these magnificent animals but after reading all this information on how cruel the elephants are treated I certainly will not be riding them, instead I hope to visit this place or a similar one where they are taken care of, I only hope that my money goes 100% for the protection of the elephants, they are beautiful animals and deserve to be treated well like all animals with passion and love. Elephants have had a terrible time over the years with the Chinese using their tusks for so called medicine and the evil people who poach them for profit, I for one will not add anymore missery for them and I hope I am not alone.

  7. karen
    August 15, 2015

    I to am in a dilemma as to the ethics of elephant tourism in Thailand. I think the old taming techniques are disgusting and more newer animal friendly ways of taming could be the answer. In a perfect world, all animals should be wild and running free and people wouldn’t have to go to work but we don’t live in that world.
    It’s the same with horses, people ride them, old fashioned techniques were also disgusting but the newer kinder ways are much better. I don’t think the answer is to ban elephant camps because what would happen to the elephants then. The answer is education. I was recently in Thailand at Phang Nga and went on a short elephant trek and bathing elephant. It was great and the elephant was aloud to just wander where it wanted to and eat grass and branches with a few guiding words from the mahout who was walking along side. Both the elephant and us enjoyed the wander and never once did the mahout hit the elephant. Then we gave one a bath and it was just like a dog having fun in the water and enjoying being scrubbed.
    I don’t agree with shows like Fantasy and would never want to see it but I think the elephant camps are ok as long as the elephants are well looked after and trained in an ethical and animal friendly manner.

    • NEYNEY
      September 21, 2015

      What would happen to the elephants? They would be left in the wild you bloody drongo. LOL!

  8. SJ
    August 4, 2015

    I’m not a fan of riding elephants or the process that they go through to make them “suitable” for riding at all. But am curious as to the strong support for places that allow other interaction, such as washing / feeding etc. Surely these elephants have been tamed in a similar way for tourists to be so close to them? You wouldn’t walk up to a wild elephant with food in hand and start trying to wash it – so why the support for places that offer these experiences yet the condemnation of those that offer riding? All elephants that are safe to approach have been tamed to some degree. Using the argument that these have been rescued from worse conditions is a little, in my opinion, useless, as many places that offer riding have also rescued their elephants from worse places. I don’t know what the solution is, and am neither in support of mistreating any animal nor removing the livelihood from people within a society that has had the elephant at a central role for hundreds of years and is now seeing a rapid decline in the wild population numbers. Am just curious why so many people are in support of interacting with these huge creatures yet condemn those who ride them? Cheers.

    • andy k
      August 15, 2015

      good point

    • harry
      August 22, 2015

      i fully agree with you. if tourists not go to elephant parks (and tiger kingdoms) than there is no money any more for these very profitable businesses. an alternative is going to the true Thai elephant hospital in Chiang mai/Lampang TECC. Entree costs 200 baht for adults and 100 baht for children…..

      September 15, 2015

      Hi SJ, Just to clarify, in the article it said: “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.”

      So they’re used to humans constantly around them. And elephants do remember who treat them good or bad. With new caring people around them, they’re not hostile, but live in a worry- free zone so they automatically are happy to interact with those caring people.

  9. the_traveller
    August 3, 2015

    How can you criticise elephant riding and defend cock fighting? Surely animal welfare is animal welfare, regardless of the size of the animal.

    • Matthew Karsten
      August 4, 2015

      For me it’s not so black & white. If I was the ultimate animal-rights warrior, I’d be vegan. I’m not.

      Please re-read that post. I’m not a champion for cockfighting. I’m indifferent to it. Roosters kill each other naturally. They’ve developed weapons for it. A bunch of poor farmers putting a ring around it to watch because they have nothing else to do is VERY different (for me) than the kidnap & torture of a highly intelligent & social elephant for profit. It’s not even the same ballpark. Just my opinion.

      I also kill mosquitos. And go fishing. I’m totally going to hell.

  10. Julian
    July 13, 2015

    Very nice post and great to hear about people actually taking care of their wildlife and helping to preserve it. I will probably travel to Thailand end of the year and will definitely drop by this place when heading up North – time to live up with the name of my travel blog :)

  11. mel
    June 24, 2015

    Thank you for your article. We also visited the very same elephant sanctuary when we went to Thailand in 2013. Absolutely beautiful there! One thing we learned there that I didn’t notice you mention in your article though was that the elephants that you ride in Thailand provide the locals with money to feed and take care of them. If tourists would stop riding them, they wouldn’t have money to take care of them. They would then be abandoned, and because the elephants grew up in captivity, they don’t know how to live in the wild and would in most cases die. It’s a vicious cycle. So sad. It was good to hear both sides of the story when we visited the park. I would definitely recommend going there if anyone decides to visit Thailand!

  12. Laura
    June 23, 2015

    Finally, someone else who feels the same was as I do.

    I just went on a trip to Krabi, Thailand and was shocked and upset by the treatment of the Elephants used for animal Trekking. So much so, I wrote an article on my blog to make as many people aware of it as possible and to urge people to think twice about animal related tourism.

  13. Nadia
    June 21, 2015

    @prasit putajak.
    Thank you for your story, its important to know the other side of the blade. I never been to thailand before. I’ve never known poverty, hunger, a lag of money or no roof above my head. So I never know how it must feel to do a job that seems wrong in western eyes and what many consider as animal abuse. Ofcourse i believe many people care about their elephants, and many people take good care for them. I dont believe the thai people who use the elepahnts are at fault. Many dont have money to go to school, to learn something else than their family business. Ofcourse not everyone but the ones that do,if they are learned by their fathers to hit and break an animal, how can they know better? The western tourists are at fault. They demand cheap rides, to be entertained. Its their job to spend money in the right area ( wildlife and animal friendly tours, elephant shelters). When that branch grows there will be more job opurtunaties in this field. This means food and a good life for the elephants and work for the locals. You can also help to make a difference, talk to people who dont treath their animal right. Learn them what is right and wrong. Make people aware of the problems. That is already a begin for a better future.

    I wish you the best of luck and i hope for a better future for the locals and the animals.

  14. Mirela S
    June 14, 2015

    Great article. It made me cry even if I didn’t considered to ride an elephant, but they do look very sad in captivity, didn’t knew about the crash.
    I misses the Sanctuary while in Asia, unfortunately

  15. Randi
    June 12, 2015

    Thank you for writing this article and spreading the word about why riding elephants in Thailand (and anywhere in the world) is a really, really bad idea. I saw so many of these places in Thailand last year and since the elephants appear to be well taken care of it can be easy to assume there is nothing wrong with riding them.
    I think we have a certain responsibility as travelers to educate ourselves and travel responsibly. These articles are really helpful to anyone who wants to be informed!

  16. James Bowyer
    May 27, 2015

    This is a really interesting article.
    After a visit to Northern Thailand this year and booking a two day trekking activity in Chiang Mai, our group spent two days at an elephant camp run by a company called “Jumbo Trekking Tours”. It was horrific! The elephants were made to perform tricks and living in disgusting conditions and immediately I decided not to ride one when I arrived. The guides were drunk and high and were mistreating the elephants right under our noses and banned me from filming anything when I was arou d them or the elphants. I made contact with Lek about this place (which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere..but possible not far from her sanctuary) and I hope that she and her team will be able to track down these guys.
    If it is helpful for your article-topic or to inform people who may be planning to visit South East Asia to NOT ride elephants, then I have two or three videos via my Youtube Channel that I was able to take in the Elephant Camp. It just gives an insight into these kind of camps and the conditions for the elphants. So I hope they will encourage people to avoid such tours and raise more awareness of why not to ride elephants.
    (Youtube:The Hunter Traveller)

    *Visit Lek’s Elephant Sanctuary where elephants are encouraged to create herds, are treated responsibly, and able to live amongst natural surroundings* :)

  17. Jimmy
    May 27, 2015

    Great article for awareness! I’ve never heard of “The Crush”… this is really concerning. I plan on taking a trip to Thailand because it is the heart of where elephants live – I will now refuse to ride elephants. Thanks for the info!

  18. 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!

  19. Elliott
    May 12, 2015

    Sometimes, I just hate humans.

  20. 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… :-)

  21. 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?

  22. 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?

      • harry
        August 22, 2015

        yes like tecc in chiang mai/lampang. the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. government controlled entree 200 baht and children 100 baht. The live inside the national Park.

    • John
      August 27, 2015

      Prasit, thank you for sharing your inside perspective on this. I realize that as Westerners we may seem like we’re always judging others and telling others how to run things but one of the main points of the article was the training of the young elephants and how cruel it is. You didn’t really talk about this. However, your view of training and how/what happens would be very welcome and gives us another perspective. I’m glad you took the time to comment.

      • Snowpea
        August 29, 2015

        As I’m sure Prasit is too modest to say, he and his colleagues are actually at the forefront of changing training techniques for all Thai elephants. By working with mahouts and traditional elephant owners (not blaming them), they have affected great change in not only training techniques, but mahout techniques, in elephant handling and elephant welfare. The training used is a hybrid of positive reinforcement techniques mixed with traditional beliefs. All cultural and spiritual aspects from traditional techniques are included, but the actual training technique is positive reinforcement.
        Think about it….
        It is easy to buy 40 elephants, change the mahout and tell them how to treat the elephant. You have helped 40 elephants have a better life. BUT, the far greater challenge and what Prasit and others have dedicated their lives too, is to change hundreds of years of mahout culture, to educate them, to show them better ways. Slowly over time, you can affect change for thousands of elephants in this manner.
        My hat off to you Prasit and all my other elephant colleagues on the ground in Thailand working everyday to affect REAL and sustainable change to Thai elephants.

  23. 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! :)

  24. 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!

  25. 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.


  26. 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.

  27. vanessa
    March 28, 2015

    Thank you for this information.. I absolutely had no idea. Shocking.

  28. 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.

  29. 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!

  30. suree
    February 26, 2015

    I felt pity for the beautiful creature as well. Definitely not gonna ride one.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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!

  35. 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.

    • Tee
      March 29, 2015

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

  36. 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.

  37. 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!

  38. 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.

  39. 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!!

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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!

  43. 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.

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. 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!

  47. 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.

  48. 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 :)

  49. 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.

  50. 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/

  51. Phunawa
    December 2, 2014

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

  52. 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!!!!

  53. 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.

  54. Joan
    November 18, 2014

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

  55. 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.

  56. 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!


  57. 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.

  58. 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.

  59. 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.

  60. 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.

  61. 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)

  62. 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!

  63. 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.


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