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A typical elephant ride in Thailand. We were shocked to see the way that these incredible, gentle animals were being treated.

A Firsthand Account of Elephant Abuse in Thailand

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We normally try to avoid things like this, and in the past we have been successful. It all started very innocently.

We booked a tour package that included a number of things…one of them being an elephant ride. It was nice to do the tourist thing for once and just pay someone to take us to see things, so I got complacent and justified it in my head by telling myself that it was probably just going to be a short ride and that it seemed like the elephants were well cared for, so we went.

A typical elephant ride in Thailand
A typical elephant ride in Thailand. We were shocked to see the way that these incredible, gentle animals were being treated.

The day started out with an elephant show. The elephant mahouts (handlers) rode on the elephants and gave demonstrations of how they were used in logging in the jungle, as well as tricks that they had been trained to perform such as painting and kicking soccer balls into a goal.

Edit: While I was not offended by these “tricks” at the time, the consequences of these seemingly innocent, cute actions performed by the elephants have become  more and more apparent to me.  Since my return home, I have been reading about the brutal training methods that are used to get these animals to paint pictures and kick soccer balls, and I no longer think of these shows as harmless.

We went for a bamboo raft ride down the river, followed by a visit to a touristy tribal village and lunch. After lunch, we returned for our 30 minute elephant ride.

First of all, the ride seemed like it was longer than 30 minutes, and the elephant did not seem happy. When the mahout (elephant handler) rides on the elephant, they ride right up near the front and without a saddle, so it is comparatively little weight and it is close to the elephants body, so the load is easier to carry.

When you get an elephant ride in an elephant camp, you sit on a bench that is strapped to the elephant’s back, 2-3 feet above the elephants center of gravity, so it makes the load very hard, especially when going up or down hills. There were a lot of steep hills on the trail, and the elephant seemed to be struggling on these.

The mahouts carry a stick with a sharp hook on the end. While we did not see them using the sharp end of the stick while we were around, he did use voice commands and held the stick up so that the elephant could see it, which gave me the impression that the elephant associated the voice with the stick and the stick with pain. It was pretty obvious that the sharp end of the stick had been used in the training process to make the elephant scared enough to keep them under control enough to haul people through the jungle.

Our elephant ride in Thailand

The mahout was constantly kicking the elephant behind the ears and on the head (the mahout generally sits on the elephants head) which gave me the impression that the elephant wasn’t going willingly. The only thing that kept the elephant placated during the ride was the constant feeding of banana and sugar cane treats.

When we asked our tour guide how many times a day the elephants have to do each day, and she said that she thought that they did this 7-10 times each day. I think that our ride was about 45 minutes, so when you add all that up, it is very hard on the elephant and it does not give them much time to rest in between.

I was further saddened by the fact that we saw that when they are not working, the elephants are not left free to roam around. They were chained under a shade canopy, standing on hard dirt or concrete with a pile of food within reach, unable to move around much. It was truly horrible.

We saw some other people while we were on our elephant ride that had gone to the other kind of elephant camp in Thailand where they get to spend a day or more with the elephant, learning to be a mahout and they were riding the elephant without the bench (right behind the elephant’s head). These elephants seemed happy to be going on a ride through the jungle, not like the poor beasts that were hauling us up and down steep hills, visibly struggling.

I would have been completely happy seeing the elephant show, taking some pictures with the elephants and having some time up close to them to feed them bananas ans sugar cane. The ride itself was very uncomfortable, as an elephant’s gait is not smooth. It rocks significantly from side to side, and this effect is amplified by sitting up so high above the elephant’s back.

I will add a disclaimer: this is just my experience from one elephant camp.  There are many elephant camps in Thailand and I can’t speak for all of them.  I am just advocating for asking questions and making informed choices about the type of elephant experience that you want to have.

If you are looking for more information about how brutal and harmful elephant tourism is, please read this excellent article from the Expert Vagabond about the subject.  This was even more of an eye opener for me.

If you want to come to Thailand and have an elephant experience, please spend the extra money to go to a reputable elephant camp for a whole day or more, for which I give a suggestion for below.

I am not suggesting that you avoid elephant camps all together, as tourism money is the vehicle that the real elephant conservation centers use to promote the preservation of these incredible creatures. I am just suggesting that you should be selective about which camp you go to and which experiences you choose to take part in.

Check out this elephant conservation camp next time you are near Chiang Mai: Elephant Nature Park

elephant sanctuaries in thailand 18,000/37
elephant camp thailand 880/38
chiang mai elephant tour 880/32
things to do near Chiang Mai 70/39
elephant rides chiang mai thailand 40/35

Shanna Schultz

Hello, my name is Shanna, and I am a detail obsessed travel addict on a mission to make planning your own family trips fun and easy! I offer tools, guides and resources to help you through all of the steps of planning meaningful, memorable family vacations. Come over and check out our Facebook community where I share real tools and resources to help you move the needle on your travel goals. Let's start making those travel dreams real, y'all! Life is too short to spend dreaming...let's start DOING!

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. I’ve been reading a lot lately (since arriving in Thailand) about animal tourism and the abuse the animals are put through. Apparently most working elephants (even those just painting or kicking a soccer ball) are put through the “crush” to break their will. The mahouts beat them and keep them chained and restrict their food until their compliant. So sad.

    I definitely don’t judge your decision to ride the elephants here, though! When we were in India our tour guide told us that to get to the Amber Fort, waaaay up on a hill, we had to ride an elephant up there. I was sort of uncomfortable at the time, but we went along with it. The experience was unique, but I spent so much time feeling bad for the elephants that I didn’t enjoy it.

    I hear the Elephant Nature Park just outside of Chiang Mai is a great option – the elephants have all been rescued and are in rehabilitation, and you can feed them and bathe them. I think we’re going to try to visit in a few weeks. 🙂

  2. Andrea

    This is really sad! I love elephants and they don’t deserve to be mistreated. I wish there was more regulation over this…

  3. Shanna Schultz

    I was pretty saddened by it. It was amazing to be that close to these amazing animals, I jsut wish that it has been under better circumstances.

  4. Jenny

    When I was a child (back in the 50’s) we rode an elephant at a visiting circus and I felt so sorry for the poor thing. That big old wooden box was filled to brimming over with wiggly kids….even I could see he was over worked and sad with his job..later I slipped away from my family and went to the barn area where I saw him chained with some dry hay. I was wondering where his water was hidden…. What I remember most was his big eyes…filled with wisdom, encased in sadness..if you have ever looked deep in the eyes of a happy horse and found the universe you know what I expected to see, but instead found reflections of longing for his family …I ran my tail back to my family and asked to leave the circus!…seems in all these years, people have not learned how to treat our four legged cousins very well…thanks for speaking out…XX-J

    1. Esther

      I am going to have tough time getting this out of mind 🙁 Poor thing. Animals should be free and only be with humans if they choose.

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