Most visitors to Thailand have a good-sized list of things they want to experience in the country and riding an elephant is usually one of them, but if they knew the treatment those elephants are forced to endure, most would probably make a new list. The problem isn’t the riding itself, though. Unless, you top the scales somewhere around the ‘morbidly obese’ range (that’s a global unit of measurement, kind of like the metric system; in the US we call that range ‘average’), carrying humans all day causes relatively minor suffering when compared with the ‘training’ the elephants endure to prepare them for a life as an over-sized, lumbering horse.
You can ride elephants in a lot of places, but the north of Thailand, centered around Chiang Mai, is probably the most popular. Travel agents and hotels in Chiang Mai offer a whole range of package tours, often at rock-bottom prices. The tours generally include a trek to a hill tribe village, an overnight stay in that village, an elephant ride and some kind of rafting, either whitewater or bamboo or both. Many of these tours, especially the cheaper ones, can be very touristy, but that’s not always the case. They range from basically following a long line of other tourists through the jungle to not seeing another white face for days. The tour we signed up for was much closer to the former.
Apart from the elephant riding portion, our package included a jungle trek to a village on top of a hill, a bit of whitewater rafting and bit of bamboo rafting. The trek was a great experience; both forms of rafting amounted to little more than floating down the river for a few minutes. I won’t go into any of that here, but will probably end up writing a post about the trek at some point in the future.
If you’ve read some of my other posts, like the one about the demon camel they forced me to ride in India, you’ll know that sitting on an animal is not exactly my idea of fun. It’s also not my idea of an efficient transportation method. In other words: it is pretty much pointless. I could have done without that portion of the package, but it was important to some of the people I was with, so I went along and figured it wouldn’t be so bad. And the actual riding wasn’t bad, to be honest. It was mainly just boring.
Two people at a time sit on a hard wooden bench that has been affixed to the elephant’s back. A handler sits further forward on the animal’s neck or walks alongside. He carries a stick used to hit the elephant when it doesn’t do whatever it is it should be doing. The stick is small and probably doesn’t hurt all that much, but serves more as a reminder of the pain humans can inflict, if the elephants choose to disobey.
Our elephant apparently had a short memory; it misbehaved quite a bit, so we got to see the stick in action more than once. Rather than trudge along single-file behind the other elephants, our ride kept leaving the path and heading into the jungle for a snack. It would reach out with its trunk and grab a bunch of branches to munch on while walking. Every time it tried to pause for a quick refill on branches, it got whacked with the stick. We told our handler we didn’t mind the detours, but apparently he minded them.
If this doesn’t really sound that bad to you, that’s because it isn’t, although I’m sure carrying around tourists on their backs all day is not ideal for the animals’ spines. I didn’t think much either way of riding an elephant at the time, but I was happy when it was over. It was only later that I learned what these animals are put through behind the scenes.
Before elephants can be put to work serving humans, their spirit needs to be broken. To accomplish this, a baby elephant is put through the phajaan or “the crush.” It is confined in a small space for a week during which it is deprived of sleep, starved and beaten with clubs and sharp metal hooks and spikes. It sounds pretty terrible, but it’s actually worse than it sounds. I won’t go into more detail, but here’s a video if you’re interested. Be warned: it’s not pretty.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t ride an elephant in Thailand or elsewhere. The elephants people ride have been through their torture already and they’re going to keep carrying tourists for as long as they can walk. One person more or less won’t make a difference. I do think it’s good to know what the elephants are put through to get to that point, though. If I had known any of this beforehand, I definitely wouldn’t have bothered with the elephant trekking portion of our tour. I mean, I wasn’t even all that excited about it in the first place, so it really makes no sense for me to support this industry in any way.
You do have alternatives, if you want to spend time with elephants, but don’t want to support their cruel treatment. You’ll find a number of elephant camps around Thailand that take care of rescued animals and allow visitors to help out for a day or longer and spend time up close with the giants. Do your research if you plan on visiting one, though. Not all are legitimate and many treat the animals almost as poorly as those who train them. I’ve never been to one of these camps myself, but I’ve heard only good things about the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai.
A week before we rode the elephants, we actually stumbled onto an elephant camp in the jungles of Koh Phangan. It was dark, so we couldn’t tell if it was a place that rescues elephants or one that trains them (I kind of think it was the latter), but whatever they were doing there, they invited us in and let us play around with the elephants and take photos. To me, this short encounter was much more enjoyable than the riding. More accurately, it was enjoyable and the riding wasn’t, but I know much of that is probably due to my general aversion to sitting on animals.
For many visitors to Thailand, riding an elephant is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For the elephants, it’s just a small part of a long workday in an endless string of long days, and every one of those days is preferable to the brutal week they suffered as babies. We can’t change what these elephants went through, but perhaps we can reduce the number of them that experience the brutal phajaan in the future by reducing demand today. I didn’t, but perhaps you will.
I’ve never ridden an elephant and, now, never will. I had no idea. Thanks!
Daniel McBane says
I had no idea at the time either, but I did get a disapproving email from Laura when she found out I rode an elephant.
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You are an idiot. Any elephant you have come in contact with has been tamed, whether you ride them or not. Otherwise they would kill you on the spot.
Daniel McBane says
Who the idiot is in this case is definitely debatable: me for not pointing out the obvious or you for feeling the need to do so. Of course no tourist is going to come into contact with the few remaining wild Asian elephants and even if they did, I highly doubt they’d to try to hoist themselves up onto them.
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Lawrence Michaels says
Elephant camps have been a real hot topic in Thailand lately. It’s a cruel practice, but the question remains, where would all the elephants go if the camps were suddenly shut down. I’ve ridden on an elephant exactly one time in my life and that number will not change. All ethics aside, the ride was very uncomfortable and kind of screwed up my back. I don’t know how anyone could possibly enjoy it.
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Daniel McBane says
You’re right, there’s not much anyone can do with the elephants that have already been tamed. They are unlikely to survive in the wild and are pretty much restricted to living out their days in a camp. It’s more about reducing, or even ending, the brutal training methods for future generations of elephants. And I’m with you on the ride itself: not my idea of fun.
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The Elephant Nature Park just outside of Chiang Mai is amazing and I highly recommend it to anyone that wants to come into contact with these amazing creatures without actually supporting the awful industry of elephant riding. Lek (the owner) has made it her mission to rescue abused and over-worked elephants from trekking camps and loggers and give them a sanctuary where they can grow old.
At the risk of being called an idiot by the commenter above, I should mention the obvious; these elephants are not wild and have undergone the “taming” process by their previous owners.
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Daniel McBane says
I didn’t know you went to this camp. I wish I’d known about it when I was in Chiang Mai, but that would have required doing a tiny bit of research on the area beforehand, which is not something I can usually be bothered with. And thank you for including the idiot disclaimer; I really need to get into the habit of appending one to the end of my posts.
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The Guy says
Well done on highlighting this Daniel. It is true that elephant rides are a big tourist attraction and that means money. Sadly money can drive people to evil things.
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Daniel McBane says
Elephant rides are a big attraction, but I think if people knew what those elephants went through and if they knew of alternatives like the elephant rescue camps, they happily would forgo the riding experience. I didn’t care about riding an elephant anyway, so I definitely would have preferred to visit a camp, but even the people I was with who wanted to ride an elephant would have certainly changed their minds had they known what I know now.
Elephants Need Us says
At first read, we thought you were glorifying the elephants ride, so pleased to know that you came to understand the pain and torture behind the few minutes of “fun” for humans to ride them. I hope you reach out to as much media and sites that offer elephant rides or shows to educate others on the pain and abuse that goes on to make this happen. It’s shameful for the gentlest kindest animal on earth to be tortured for a few minutes of perceived fun. And those stick hits do hurt the elephants, no matter how lightly you thought they were. Please join the cause to stop elephant rides and circus performances. They need and deserve a normal life. Be the difference, do not support these places with your business. Thanks!
Daniel McBane says
Your last line is the key: stop supporting these businesses and remove the profit motive and the incentive to continue “taming” elephants vanishes as well.
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It s really sad to know abot the elephants suffering and not to do anything , not even to say a word to the guide who was using the stick..You should have got off the elephant on the sot and tell him to stop hurting him!. There are thai peole who do not hurt even a spider or a mosquito, very concern about the law of carma, whatever we do it ll come to us , good or bad,sooner or later ..There are other thais very rough and cruel, these are the elephants torturers, dogs eaters, who would do anything for the Money..
lIKE ANYWHERE ELSE, GOOD EOPLE ARE ALWAYS GOOD.. BAD ALWAYS BAD, INDEPENDENT OF THE RACE OR COUNTRY..
IF WE DO NOT ANYTHING OF THESE , THEY WOULD NOT OFFER.. WE HAVE TO ACT, TEACH AND ENLIGHTEN OTHERS IN ORDER TO STO ALL THE ANIMALS SUFFERING.. IS TERRIBLE,THEY DON T DO ANYTHING TO US WHY ARE WE DOING THAT TO THEM.!?.SO PLEASE WRITE MORE, OPENNING THE MIND AND THE HEART OF THE PEOPLE ,MAKE THEM SEE HOW SAD AND HOW PAINFUL IS THE LIFE OF THE ELEPHANTS OR ANY OTHER ANIMAL..IF THEY WOULD SEE THE TORTURE , THEY WOULD NOT RIDE EVER..
JOIN THE CAUSE , HELP THE ANIMALS..!
Daniel McBane says
Actually, we did ask the guide to stop using the stick and told him we didn’t mind if our elephant stopped to eat for a minute, but he insisted it was necessary. I did mention in my post that had I would have happily skipped the elephant riding portion of our package, had I known what the elephants are forced to endure for our entertainment. I believe most people would do the same, but as you wrote, the problem is a lack of information. Most people who ride elephants are like me: they don’t know the suffering these animals endure and if they did, I don’t think they would continue to support the industry.
I don’t think it’s fair of you to lump together “elephant torturers” and “dog eaters” though. Some cultures eat dog meat just like other cultures eat beef or pork or anything else. It is a form of sustenance for those people and it is nowhere near the same as torturing an elephant so that it can be exploited for our entertainment.
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Alex Brown says
Besides the brutal ‘training’ aspect, it should be noted the strength of the elephant is in the neck, not the spine. So, when they put those heavy chairs on the back of an elephant, you can imagine what it does. There have also been several cases of elephant miscarriage due to the tight belts/ropes around the belly that support the chairs.
Daniel McBane says
I figured the weight of the chairs plus the people (some of whom outweigh smaller elephants) couldn’t be good for the animals’ spines, but I wasn’t sure, so I only briefly touched on it in the post. Thanks for the added info—makes the whole riding thing even less appealing than it already was.
Thanks Daniel for talking about this horrifying torture the elephants have to go through to satisfied the mass tourist demand. I’ve been at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai where riding elephants isn’t possible and I learnt a lot about what they do to this amazing animals, if more of us know about this maybe one day those poor animals can be left alone living their life in the wild where they belong to.
Daniel McBane says
I agree that many, probably even most, people wouldn’t ride an elephant if they knew what they went through during their ‘training’ and especially if they knew there were better alternatives. The Elephant Nature Park is clearly a much more enjoyable and rewarding experience than riding an elephant. I really wish I had known about it when I was in Chiang Mai. I definitely would have gone there instead of doing the stupid elephant trek.
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