I’ve always dreamed of riding an elephant, especially in Thailand. It’s something I didn’t even question. I never thought it could possibly be bad for the animals – I mean, we ride horses and donkeys, and elephants are much bigger! However, when I started to see other travel bloggers write about why they won’t ride elephants, it sparked my attention. Once I realized how detrimental it is to ride an elephant, I made the decision to never ride an elephant myself. Since their blog posts educated me, I hope this post will inspire others to think twice before getting on the backs of these majestic creatures.
How to Choose an Elephant Park
One of the things Chiang Mai is known for, and probably Thailand in general, is their elephants. There are many attractions centered around these beautiful animals. Fortunately, you can still have an amazing, up-close experience with elephants in an ethical way. Unfortunately (and quite shockingly), of the 70+ elephant camps in Thailand, there are only a handful of places that truly treat the elephants with respect and without any form of abuse (more about this later).
Here are 2 ethical choices for hanging out with elephants (no riding) near Chiang Mai:
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) – about an hour from Chiang Mai. They only do overnight trips.
Elephant Nature Park – the one we chose. They are extremely reputable and have a great mid-range option for a day trip.
Elephant Nature Park staff picked us up in minibuses directly from our hotels. From there, the drive to the park was about an hour and a half. During this drive, we watched a fairly graphic documentary about how Asian elephants have their spirits broken. As I’m sure you could guess, it was pretty depressing.
What We Learned About Elephant Abuse
Elephants are used for many different purposes in Thailand: circus shows, logging (forcing them to carry huge logs out of the forest, which is now illegal, but still exists), trekking while carrying humans, even painting. This may seem cute, but the way they get these elephants to perform is atrocious.
The elephant trainers, aka mahout, need to control the elephants so they’ll perform (and earn them money). As you can probably guess, elephants aren’t performers by nature, and they certainly aren’t meant for all the intense, manual labor. Their backs aren’t meant to bare the weight of a human.
So why do elephants do all these things? Well, they’re not only forced; they are completely broken. The mahouts seek out young elephants and break their spirits by a process called “the crush.” This process entails taking these baby elephants from their mothers, tying them up in the middle of the jungle and keeping them there for a week while they torture them. I won’t go into details, but you can see a video here. Also see the famous photo of the process here.
They do this to show the elephants who is boss, until they learn to obey their owners. They are put into such complete misery that they become depressed, scared, and hopeless. Something that really punched me in the gut, showcasing this hopelessness: mahouts learned they have to tie up the elephants trunks because some have tried to take their own lives by stepping on their trunk.
After they break their spirits and the elephants have completely lost their souls, the mahouts retain control by using sharp hooks and reminding the elephants who’s boss.
Setting the Tone
Right before we got to the park, we passed many other parks and saw people riding elephants. I couldn’t believe that the workers at Elephant Nature Park had to drive past these other camps every day. Later, our guide told us that many of the camps have greatly improved the past few years because of tourist demand for more ethical conditions, which is definitely a step in the right direction!
The documentary was an important precursor to the nature park experience. We had a new respect for these creatures and this park. Most of the elephants in the park were rescued from a horrible situation; most had their spirits broken already, so the guides explained they were dependent on humans and couldn’t be alone in the wild.
Our Day at the Elephant Nature Park
To be honest, my first feeling upon arrival to the park was subtle disappointment – the park was absolutely packed with people. I don’t know why I expected a more intimate experience, but I quickly adjusted my attitude when I realized it was a great thing to have all these people supporting such a great cause.
Feeding the Elephants
In the morning, we got to feed the elephants – whole watermelons, pineapples, cucumbers, pumpkins…they ate just about everything! I loved seeing their different personalities, and noticing that their trunks grasped the food much differently than African elephants.
Meeting & Greeting
Several times throughout the day, our guide would walk us to meet a different group of elephants. He would explain each one’s background, personality, and estimated age. If they were friendly & up for it, we got to pet them!
Bath time was my favorite. We got to go into the river with the elephants and bathe them by throwing buckets of water over their bodies. I liked how the elephants decided when it was over.
Man, this post was pretty depressing. Why did I write this? Until reading a few other travel blogs and getting the experience at the Elephant Nature Park, I was totally clueless. I came very close to riding an elephant because of my ignorance. However, if you do choose to ride an elephant, that’s absolutely your choice; I’m not going to judge you, and this topic is not black-and-white. I only ask that if you must ride an elephant, please do it bareback – not on a chair. And please avoid any type of elephant show, even the seemingly-innocent ones like painting.