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)


What Do You Think?

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

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

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

Want To Travel More?

Hi! My name is Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for 3 years. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel more with entertaining stories, beautiful images, and money saving tips. Please join thousands of others who receive exclusive monthly updates!


Comments & Questions

150 Comments

  1. 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.

    Reply
  2. 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?

    Reply
    • Feyton
      September 20, 2014

      Try Singapore zoo.

      Reply
  3. 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.

    Reply
  4. 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.

    Reply
  5. 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?

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  6. 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

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
      • 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

        Reply
  7. 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 :-)

    Reply
  8. 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.

    Reply
  9. 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!

    Reply
  10. 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.

    Reply
    • DSF
      August 24, 2014

      HI

      Reply
  11. 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! :)

    Reply
  12. 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 :-)

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      July 23, 2014

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

      Reply
    • 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… :)

      Reply
  13. 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.

    Reply
  14. 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.

    Reply
  15. 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.

    Reply
  16. 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.

    Reply
  17. Lydia Danceon
    May 5, 2014

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

    Reply
  18. 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.

    Reply
  19. 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 :)

    Reply
  20. 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.

    Reply

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