Elephant Riding in Thailand: What’s the Deal?

It seems that a lot of people have “elephant riding in Thailand” on their bucket list. I did too. However, I’ve since learned that the reality behind elephant tourism is very dark and disturbing. Elephants are wild animals, and so must be tamed to make them “safe” for tourists to ride. This often involves subjecting them to a process known as “Phajaan”, which roughly translates to “breaking spirit”, whereby elephants, usually babies, are placed in a small confined space, beaten and starved in order to make them submissive to humans. As the saying goes, an elephant never forgets, and he will do anything to avoid being tortured again – including carrying ignorant tourists around a jungle for hours on end in the heat. It is also important to note that despite their size, elephant backs are not at all designed to carry weight and doing so causes them great discomfort.

So I urge you to not participate in elephant riding in Thailand, or any country for that matter. There are numerous elephant sanctuaries where elephants are treated with the respect they deserve and you can watch, feed and bathe them in a more natural habitat, rather than ride them. I feel that this is a much better way to enjoy the company of these intelligent creatures, and I’m sure they would agree.

A few days ago I visited an elephant sanctuary a couple of hours north from the Thai city of Chiang Mai called “Elephant Jungle Sanctuary”. It was set in a beautiful location, surrounded by hills, jungle and greenery, and we quickly learned that the keepers at the sanctuary had nothing but genuine respect for the resident elephants. After a brief talk about the work being done at the sanctuary and about the elephants themselves, we walked down the hill, armed with bananas, to where the elephants were hanging out. They quickly made their way over to us and happily ate the bananas from our hands.

Elephant jungle sanctuary

The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Elephant jungle sanctuary

Learning about the work being done at the sanctuary and about the elephants

Elephant jungle sanctuary

Feeding the elephants bananas

Elephant jungle sanctuary

This baby elephant was so greedy

Watching a keeper prepare elephant food

After a morning of hanging with the elephants, we had lunch and then walked with the elephants to a mud bath where they rolled over in the mud while we massaged their body. They seemed to really enjoy this! Then, we walked with them to a waterfall and watched them play and have fun in the water; standing in a waterfall with a herd of elephants was a very surreal experience. The whole day at the sanctuary was incredible and definitely more rewarding than riding them; it’s also good to know that the money we paid goes towards a good cause.

If you have read this and still decide to participate in elephant riding rather than visiting a sanctuary, then quite frankly, you are a massive dick.

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