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Why I won’t ride elephants in Thailand

Close encounters of the elephant kind in Chiang Mai, and why I’ve decided romping with the elephants is way better than riding them.

His kiss was wet, warm, but sloppy.  He had aimed for my mouth, but there was no way I was letting him do that, so in an awkward dance, I had given him my forearm instead. There was a loud slurping noise as he pulled away, the suction action causing my arm to pucker.  I squealed from the sensation, then from the sight of the sticky saliva spread thickly on my arm.

“Eww!”

I shuddered, drew my arm back as though it had been touched by an open flame… then laughed.

It’s totally not what you think, by the way.

No, I wasn’t auditioning for some bad after school movie, and no, the offender wasn’t a pimply-faced teen trying to get lucky.

Instead, I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and my suitor was an elephant named Pituk.

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Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Thailand is one of my favourite countries, and living in Hong Kong for nearly 5 years afforded me the opportunity to travel there fairly often.  On previous visits I had explored the big city (Bangkok) and the beach (Koh Samet); I had eaten my weight in pad thai and overdosed on Thai-style massage (sidebar: you haven’t lived until you’ve have one).  But this time, during my first visit to Chiang Mai, I wanted to do something… different. 

That something different involved making a number of new, pachydermal friends.

The locale was the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary,  an ethical and sustainable conservation center dedicated to their rescue and rehabilitation.  About an hour’s drive outside of Chiang Mai, the sanctuary is home to around 20 rescued elephants who were formerly mistreated.

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The mistreatment of elephants is a problem that exists on a large scale in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia.  Life is grim for the gentle giants: despite a ban on the international trade of ivory, they are still poached for their tusks, and are frequently overworked and physically abused by their owners.

Moreover, unsuspecting tourists also contribute to the issue by riding the large creatures– many don’t realize that elephants’ spines are not made to support the weight of humans.

And since elephants found in the wild won’t even let humans sit on top of them (it simply isn’t in their nature), trainers torture them as babies in a bid to “break their spirit”– and increase profits.

Elephants and Ethical Eco-tourism 

I love animals, but am learning that animal abuse is often rampant in what is known as the “captive animal industry”, which is oriented almost exclusively to human entertainment.  There is big money to be made but it is often at the expense of the health and safety of the creatures involved; worse still is that many tourists aren’t well-versed enough to know that the “fun” activites they’re engaging  are highly detrimental to animals and in fact perpetuate the cycle of abuse. 

Thankfully, places like the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary give animal-lovers like me the opportunity to to interact with them in a more responsible and ethical fashion!

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My travel companions and I paid 1,700 baht each (about $50 USD) for the half-day visit: this included pick up and drop off from our hotel, a tasty lunch (mmmm Thai food!), and a long session where we got to feed the elephants, observe them, play with them, and get into the water and help bathe them(!).  Throughout the visit our guides gave us more education about this highly sensitive and intelligent species.

To be honest, this extended time getting to know and interact with then elephants was waaaay cooler than if we had ridden them for 10 minutes at a circus somewhere. Ethical travel doesn’t have to be any less fulfilling than its sinister counterpart.

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Committing ourselves to travelling responsibly

One of the tenets of responsible travel is to try to make only a positive impact on the environment, society and economy of the places we visit. This means that we should endeavour to not harm or perturb the natural and physical environments we find ourselves in.

Thus, in my eyes, ethical and responsible travel are active choices, but not always easy ones when we have limited resources or competing interests (I mean, getting an awesome photo atop an elephant for the ‘Gram is high on many a traveller’s bucket list, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain a few years back for a blogging campaign).

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Photo credit: Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Still, they are choices that we should at least consider when we travel.  One of the easier ways to do this is to partner with companies who have a proven commitment to sustainable tourism; Exodus Travels is one such company. A longstanding advocate of ethical travel since its founding in 1974, they offer a wide range of tour packages that take the guesswork not only out of itinerary planning, but out of figuring out whether that “must-do” activity is really on the up and up.  For those who don’t have the luxury of making weekend jaunts to Thailand like I did (Hong Kong is only a cheap, 2.5 hour flight away), Exodus offers a 14 day tour of country that’ll take you through its most salient sights. I’ve not gone on a tour with them yet, but have recently partnered with them and am hoping to do one soon!

The takeaway

Two things: 1) Responsible travel is where it’s at and 2) You need to get yourself to Thailand, stat (check the poetry! “at” and “stat”… well, never mind).  But seriously, you should make travel to Thailand a priority. Because if the food, beaches, and culture don’t lure you, the elephants surely will. Just look at their faces!

Do you consciously try to travel responsibly? Is Thailand on your travel radar?

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13 Comments

  • Reply
    Barb@ThatWasVegan?
    August 30, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    This place looks amazing. When I was in Thailand I went to Elephant Nature Park which I LOVED, it was very similar I think. No riding, just enjoying being around those amazing beasts 🙂

  • Reply
    Nicole
    August 30, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    This article is everything! Thailand has been on my radar and i am now even more excited to visit. I appreciate your insight on ethical travel. Honestly, when i planned my trip in my head and looked through pictures, i really wanted to ride an elephant to as you put it “stunt on the gram.” After reading this, i definitely won’t but instead i am inspired to play, bathe and learn more about them at the sanctuary. Thank you and Happy Birthday!!!

  • Reply
    Ann
    August 30, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    Cool post! Thailand is on my list and I almost went there last year. I’ll take a trip there some time soon. I also want to have an elephant encounter and eat as much Thai food as possible!

  • Reply
    Daisy
    September 1, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    I do try to be conscious when I travel but in order to be successful you have to do research. I’m also an avid diver and one of the principles enforced is to not touch or remove anything we see in the ocean. One of the areas where I struggle though is with my use of plastic. I often travel to countries where the water quality is very poor and I’m therefore forced to buy bottled water. The consumption of it is horrible for the environment but I haven’t yet found a stable alternative option. Also I’ve been to Thailand and agree it’s a great country and I hope to explore more of it throughout my life. I too visited an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai and did the same activities as you. It felt incredible to be standing near an elephant and to bathe them. I will never forget that experience.

  • Reply
    Zoom
    September 5, 2016 at 4:22 am

    I went to this SAME PLACE! I love them! So happy to see someone else promoting enjoyment of elephants in a non-riding way. Bathe don’t ride!! Great post ?

  • Reply
    Zoom
    September 5, 2016 at 4:24 am

    I went to that SAME PLACE! They were wonderful! Thank you for promoting the enjoyment of elephants in a non-riding way. Bathe, don’t ride!

  • Reply
    Victoria
    September 7, 2016 at 7:48 am

    Tutorial on how to tie up a headscarf like that please? Love it!!!!

    RIDE BIKES NOT ELEPHANTS!

  • Reply
    Victoria @The British Berliner
    September 8, 2016 at 6:15 am

    Thanks for this post Oneika,

    I love Thailand, and have been a few times now mainly to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, as I’m not really into beaches, unless there’s a volcano nearby lol!

    I try to travel responsibly as much as I can, and the first time that I went to Thailand way back in 1999, I observed elephants walking down the streets in Bangkok, and elephants drawing, painting, running, and doing tricks! I’m utterly against animal cruelty and abuse.

    However, in Thailand elephants are not categorised as “wild” animals but as part and parcel of Thai culture, as much as horses and cows are part of ours. I thought hard and long about whether to ride elephants or not, and chose to support a conservation park called the Baanchang Elephant Park in Chiang Mai.

    We were taught how to communicate with elephants, how to stroke, and how to talk to elephants. We were also taught about the lifestyle and behaviour of Thai elephants, the basic commands for elephants, and how to ride bareback!

    We paid $130 per adult and $109 for a child. This payment goes towards paying for the upkeep and protection of the elephants.

  • Reply
    Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life
    September 8, 2016 at 10:22 pm

    I feel terrible now that I didn’t realize that riding elephants was so bad for them. We had gone and researched ethical rehab preserves where they teach you about elephants and you spend time with them, but they also had us ride for a short distance. We’ll find better ways to support the elephants that doesn’t include riding them if we get back to Thailand.

  • Reply
    Gap Year for Grown Ups - Vaycarious.com
    May 10, 2017 at 10:34 am

    […] First, koalas have very sharp claws, and they smell like menthol. Second, people should not ride elephants. It’s cruel. […]

  • Reply
    Sonia
    July 18, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    Great article, I love it. It is great how you are bringing awareness not to ride elephants and how to travel smart, Bravo to you. I will definitely share this one on my twitter accounts. Thanks 🙂 http://www.jetsetterssuitcase.com

  • Reply
    Agness of eTramping
    July 29, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    I really enjoyed reading about your experience! I love elephants. Do you have any advice for visiting the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary?

  • Reply
    Nomusa
    October 1, 2017 at 7:21 pm

    Please stop being one sided by singling Thailand…all zoos in America (“captive animal industry”) practices animal cruelty
    Why are you not mentioning all angles, shouldn’t that horse riding and Polo playing be also animal cruelty. Let us not judge
    when it’s only convinient for us.

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