Elephant riding in Thailand
Let’s address the elephant in the room
Let’s address the elephant in the room – the harsh reality of elephant riding in Thailand
The classic backpacker, a twenty something graduate soul seeking in South East Asia as they embark on their 'gap yah' armed with camera and 50% deet to guard against dengue fever. That insta-worthy shot of their first elephant ride through the Thai jungle is sure to bring the likes in. Yet, sadly, this supporting of unethical elephant tourism fuels an incredibly malicious and abusive industry that will continue to thrive unless the Western tourist decides to simply say no.
As I sit in my hostel dorm, a week and a half into backpacking round Thailand, I can't help but think about how naive some tourists must be to agree to an elephant ride, or any cruelty based entertainment for that matter. I have seen chained monkeys, tigers that can barely lift their own heads up, and reptiles with their mouths shut with cable ties. Surely it is obvious the only thing funding this industry is travellers' money? I'll be completely honest and admit I have never been a huge "animal lover" aside from adoring the dogs I've had as pets. Much to my plant based sister's distaste I'll confess I'm very much a "wannabe vegan" who makes regular (far too often) slip ups, shovelling guac into my mouth whilst realising that shop-bought guacamole apparently isn't vegan. It's really not that easy being green. Despite this, or rather ironically some might say, I really struggle to see animals being physically, or mentally hurt. This was something that was all too real when exploring further the elephant industry.
I owe no disrespect to the beautiful Thai culture, one that in my understanding sees the elephant as an enduring symbol of history and faith. Yet what canchange is how the traveller spends their money on elephant tourism. Medically speaking, an elephant's spine is not designed like a horse with round discs building the vertebrae. Rather, the spine is formed from bony protrusions that can separate and fracture if too much pressure is forced upon them. Most disturbingly, "wild elephants won't let humans ride on top of them. 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". (Expert Vagabond) This was all too real for me when spontaneously finding myself at an elephant trekking camp in Koh Samui. A tiny elephant, chained to its mother and with ropes round its legs tried desperately to pull away.
Though my heart is not completely swayed to believe this is 100% ethical, as a wild animal should be exactly that, wild, and not domesticated, I spent some time at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai and saw just how different their mental state was compared to the elephants I had seen chained to trees with chairs strapped to their backs. Sanctuaries like the one I went to, make it their mission to protect endangered elephants, often rescuing them from the riding industry or circus trade, helping them to escape a lifetime of abuse. I chose to spend my money on caring for the elephants through Elephant Jungle Sanctuary by feeding them bananas, helping to make medicinal balls, bathe them and exfoliate their skin in a natural mud spa. I strongly feel like unless travellers choose to spend their money on this kind of elephant tourism, the riding trade and endless abuse will continue to thrive. Unless this kind of tourism can replaceriding entirely, then the mistreatment will continue. I learnt at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary that within the vast mountain range and deep into the jungle there are 9 elephant camps, which are home to over 65 elephants. This is to allow the elephants when not on tours to simply "be elephants", free from human interjection.
To read more about the specific elephants at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary see here: https://elephantjunglesanctuary.com/our_elephant/
I hope that this blog will have changed the mind of at least one reader who may have thought about riding an elephant. I think it is especially important for travellers like me, to inform everyone possible on the harsh reality of the elephant industry that dominates much of Thailand. Spend your money wisely, and never go anywhere that claims to support elephants without significant research before hand. Many places that still promote riding simply string "orphanage" or "rescue sanctuary" to the end of their name to keep up with the demand of Western travellers who are aware of the cruelty towards these gentle giants, but are too flippant to realise the harm and lifetime of abuse that is parallel to such an experience. I would recommend visiting Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which has ethical bases in Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Pattaya, or Elephant Park Chiang Mai.
If you’re planning on travelling in this beautiful country, make sure not to miss Pai, a charming village in Northern Thailand that can be reached easily from Chiang Mai. Don’t be afraid to try street food, it’s often fresher than food you’ll find in restaurants, and make sure you head to Koh Tao, a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand that is one of the best (and cheapest) places to get a diving licence in the world!
Wherever you go, never forget to practice #noriding.
We absolutely love this blog because we have so much love for Elephant's and a soft spot for Thailand. It really brings to the forefront of your mind the cruelty and issues we still face in today's world. We've all made mistakes or just been unaware of issues and goings on but it's all about educating one an other and making sure we as travellers aren't funding Elephant cruelty. If you know anyone that is going travelling or to Thailand please please share the love and tell them about this blog or just tell them to research the animal sanctuaries that they plan to visit. The only way that we can help is by spreading the word and getting as many people as possible to boycott these places. There are places like these all over the world it's not just elephants and I'm afraid it's not just Thailand. A massive thank you to the lovely Georgia for doing her bit in helping to save the elephants, keep up the good work. Follow her travels on instagram @georgialeighbrown
Please feel free to comment below if you have had any good or bad experiences you'd like to share.