The Ethical Way to Visit Elephants in Thailand

Baby Elephant flinging dirt

An activity that tourists are always looking forward to is riding elephants when they visit southeast Asia. But, what you should know is that this is not harmless for the elephants. Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand, which is arguably the most popular place for elephant tourism in the region all use captive elephants. There is a better choice and more ethical way to visit the elephants in Thailand and for the rest of southeast Asia.

Elephant Tourism

Thai man riding an elephant for touristsElephant tourism is a multi-million dollar industry where elephants are used to entertain tourists by watching them paint, do circus-style acts, and sadly ride them. The long days giving tourists rides on their backs leave the elephants overworked, dehydrated, and can cause long-term health issues that lead to their early demise. Elephant’s spines are not made to support the weight of humans riding on their backs.

In 2017, the World Animal Protection put out a report that said that “Elephant welfare routinely came in second place to turn a fast profit, with three-quarters of Asia’s captive elephants were kept in conditions that were rated poor or unacceptable. When not giving rides or performing, the elephants were typically chained day and night, most of the time to chains less than three meters long. They were also fed poor diets, given limited appropriate veterinary care and were frequently kept on concrete floors in stressful locations,” the report stated.Mom and baby elephant eating

Most of the captive animals are stolen from the wild when they are babies. Ripped from their mother, the process to tame the baby elephants is called Phajaan, also known as “the crush.” This process involves confining the babies in a tiny space where they’re unable to move. Then they are then beaten into submission with clubs, pierced with sharp bull-hooks, and at the same time starved and deprived of sleep for many days. This is done until the elephant’s spirit is broken to the point they will allow people to interact with them. I also forgot to mention that during the process of removing them from the wild and their mother, sometimes the mother will be killed trying to protect her baby. All in all, this is a ruthless process that is continually being followed today.

Ethical Way to Visit the Elephants in Thailand

The best and ethical way to visit the elephants in Thailand is to book a tour with the Elephant Nature Park. Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in Northern Thailand where you can volunteer and visit to help. There are numerous assignments for you to volunteer your time and visit with the elephants. You can sign up for a day trip or even stay overnight. There are several choices so if your first choice isn’t available check out the other options. I chose to participate in a Saddle Off project, “Elephant Freedom – Single Day” which is located in a different village South of Chiang Mail and not at the Elephant Nature Park.

Elephant Freedom Project 1

The Elephant Freedom Project is a unique, small group “saddle off” program in cooperation with a Karen tribe to the south-west of Chiang Mai city. They aim to improve the life and treatment of the elephants under the care of these independent owners. Supporting the ‘Saddle Off’ project allows them to provide a caring home for elephants where they can socialize, roam and forage.

The day starts with being picked up at your hotel and being driven to the satellite facility. This particular “saddle off” project from the Elephant Nature Park has eight elephants, and two of them were babies. This is a great experience to interact with multiple elephants up close. After changing into the appropriate Karen tribe colors that the elephants know are friends, you start by learning how the food is prepared for the elephants. Then actually make it yourself from cutting the bamboo to making the elephants’ rice balls.Heather cutting up the bamboo

Feeding the Elephants

Heather feeding the elephants bamboo

Feeding the elephants is one of my funniest moments while interacting with them. Their personalities definitely came out in force. The one I was feeding above wouldn’t just take one stick of bamboo. She kept her trunk by you waiting until you packed it overflowing with bamboo and then she would raise it to her mouth to eat.Elephant eating bamboo The other fun moment happened when I was trying to take a selfie and worrying that they would take my hat, my friend, Karilyn, was standing next to me when I took the selfie below. The baby elephant had a bamboo stick in his trunk and whacked her on the head with it. For some reason, that baby elephant had it out for Karilyn the entire day. We couldn’t stop laughing about how funny and unexpected it was even though the bamboo stick was hard.Selfie with the elephants We fed these elephants in Thailand the bamboo sticks we cut up, the rice balls we made, then gave them stalks to eat. Elephants need to eat a lot of food all day long. They may spend 12-18 hours a day feeding and can eat between 200-600 pounds of food a day. This is a great way to interact with the elephants up close to alleviate any fears you might have being up close to these giant pachyderms. Plus, these elephants look like they are enjoying themselves so much.Heather feeding the baby elephantCian feeding the elephantsElephant smiling

Watching the Elephants in Their Natural Habitat

After feeding the elephants, we walked with them to see them forage for more food in a ravine. The adventurous visitors got to pet them while the others stayed afar and just took photos. The baby elephants were adorable rubbing themselves in the dirt. I braved the hill and climbed up to pet one of the babies. I was enjoying myself immensely until he got a little antsy and I had to climb higher quickly to not get my foot trampled.Baby elephants hugging each otherHeather petting baby elephantHeather getting out of the way of the baby elephant

Elephants Playing in the Mud

The next place we got to interact with the elephants is the mud hole. We got there before the elephants to pick our spots for taking photographs. I wish I were more on the side of them instead of facing them, but it was such fun to watch them frolic in the water and spray it all over including on us if you weren’t careful. At one point I moved around the mud pit, and it was at the same place where one of the larger older elephants was getting out, coming right toward me. I was so focused on taking her photo that I didn’t move until the last minute. After they were done playing in the mud, the elephants all started walking back to the camp. One of the baby elephants got a little antsy and started to run amuck and very quickly toward us. So much so, that we had to jump out of the way fast. Beware of the baby elephants! They can turn on a dime!Elephants entering the mud bathElephants lounging in the mud bath

Bathing the Elephants

One of the unique experiences with elephants in Thailand is bathing them in the river. With a short walk from the camp to the river, we were able to enjoy a quick romp in the water while throwing buckets of water on them. When we arrived at the bathing spot, the little stinker thought he could cause some trouble and walked up the hill to stomp on the buckets used for bathing and topple them down the hill. I could almost see the smile on his face as he was doing this. These baby elephants are filled with surprises, and you definitely have to keep an eye on them just as if they were a small child. Baby elephant playing with the bucketsElephants in the riverHeather bathing an elephant

Truly a Unique Experience

Visiting and interacting with the elephants in Thailand can be a gratifying experience, and your conscience will thank you when seeing them at a rescue sanctuary. Instead of riding elephants when you are in southeast Asia, come and see them in their natural habitat. I highly recommend scheduling some time through the Elephant Nature Park and better yet, through the Elephant Freedom Project. You will walk away from this adventure understanding the plight of the Asian elephants and having some amazing memories that most people only dream about.

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Further Reading

If you would like to see more of my nomad travels, check out my post on my first month of traveling full-time: One Month of Nomad Travel or if you are interested in reading about more animals in the wild check out:

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