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. 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 :)

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.


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