While in Thailand I knew that I wanted to ride an elephant. And who wouldn’t? Elephants are cute! I could picture myself feeling very “Queen of the World” riding on top of an elephant through the picturesque background of Thailand. And surely, we would become BFF’s during our journey.
But that’s not exactly what happened.
It all went down in the northern town of Pai, Thailand , which I loved. Appearances aside, I have quite the affinity for quaint hippy towns. In the town center there are several vendors offering elephant riding experiences. I’m ashamed to say now that I wasn’t choosing a company based on any ethical concerns for the animals, I was just looking for a place that would sell a ticket for one! The vendors only offer tickets in sets of two-and I was feeling oh so very discriminated against as a solo traveler. But determination prevailed and I haggled my way into a single ride at a discounted price.
I wasn’t at all concerned about going alone, I thought for sure I’d meet up with a larger group and we’d all depart on this journey together. But upon arrival to the destination, there was no group, just me. I’m all for doing things by myself, but this particular experience seemed better shared. Loser, party of one?
I met my elephant, climbed on, and we headed out.
So there I was riding an elephant down the road by myself…well, and the trainer. My elephant seemed a little irritated to be hauling yet another person around. Overall she was a nice girl, but I knew what she was thinking, “I’d rather be lounging back at home under a nice shade tree eating peanuts.”
People would occasionally drive by staring at the girl on the elephant. Oh, and it started to rain. So just right there I felt like an asshole. But at that particular time it was more in an “I’m riding an elephant by myself in the rain, and it feels ridiculous” sort of way.
Then it got worse.
Once we returned I really started to notice the conditions and what these elephants were being made to do. Their ankles were chained up while they waited for the next tourists. No one was caring for them, they were shifting back and forth, and it just seemed like the spirit in their eyes had been broken. It made me sad and disappointed that I had paid to be there. All I wanted to do was buddy up to a cute elephant, but now I was starting to realize that my being there was the problem.
Since then I’ve done some research on elephant riding experiences. The bottom line is that they are over–worked, not taken care of, not given enough food and water, and many times abused. And carrying people all day is really more than their backs can handle. I don’t think the place I went to was the worst, but it certainly wasn’t the best.
Maybe not everyone will agree with me, but this is what I found in my own experience.
So, in my opinion, can you still have an Elephant experience in good conscious?
Yes you can! Just do some research prior to going. There are definitely good places out there.
Here are two Elephant Parks in Thailand I would recommend:
Elephant Nature Park
They are an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center where you can volunteer and learn more about the elephants and ethical practices. This is a home, not a place where they are forced to work.
About 60km outside of Chiang Mai.
Several packages from 1-14 days in length. The one-day trip includes pickup and drop off, feeding and bathing the elephants, and lunch.
2,500 baht ($79US)
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
Boon Lott’s Sanctuary is another rescue & rehabilitation operation. I encourage you to read this story on their website of how they began and the first baby elephant they rescued named, Boon Lott, meaning “Survivor” in Thai.
Sukhothai, south of Chiang Mai, north of Bangkok
This is an overnight volunteer experience and includes pickup and drop off, meals, accommodations, taking care of elephants including feeding, bathing, walking with them (not on them), and observing them in their natural jungle environment.
5,000 baht per guest per night ($158US)
Both facilities allow their elephants to roam free in a natural environment and they are allowed to socialize with their “friends”. You can’t ride the elephants but you’ll get more interaction, which is probably even better.
What to avoid when choosing a reputable company
- Avoid companies that promote any type of circus act or show. This usually includes having the elephants paint and do tricks.
- Read reviews to see if they use violent training methods.
- Avoid the cheapest operations. Paying a little higher price usually means a better run operation.
- If you do decide to ride an elephant, avoid rides where you sit in a trekking chair on top of them. These add to the weight they have to carry. Sitting bare back is preferred.
Hopefully with these tips you will have a really positive and memorable experience riding an elephant in Thailand and not feel like an asshole like I did!
I have not visited these two elephant parks. Opinions are based on my own research in wanting to recommend better alternatives. If you have been I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.