This is a little different from the usual content found on High Thailand but recently the realms of cannabis and elephants crossed when someone smoked a blunt while riding one. Also, the elephant is our mascot and today (March 13th) is National Elephant Day in Thailand.
in 1998 National Elephant Day or Chang Thai Day was introduced with the purpose of highlighting the deep significance that Elephants have to Thailand’s history and culture and to raise awareness about elephant protection and conservation.
I’ve recently spent a lot of time researching Elephant tourism in Thailand, honestly It has made me quite depressed, and I’ve struggled to write anything. While there are books worth of background and issues that could be talked about, I’ll try to focus on just a few points for now as it has become obvious there’s still not enough awareness about the domesticated elephant population in the tourism industry.
Ticket to Ride
It’s easy to point the finger at a visitor and bring shame on them for riding an elephant and sharing their experiences on social media. Did they capture a wild elephant, throw a chair on it, and make it carry them through the jungle? No, they bought a ticket to ride.
As of 2023 there are still no laws protecting elephants from work in Thailand, so all around the country you can still find places offering trekking tours and shows. There are very active libel laws in Thailand however and there is a lot of money involved so that could explain why the market is still booming despite international outcry.
Thankfully, attractions that offer trekking and shows are in decline and more places are turning to more ethical eco-tourism due to international efforts exposing the abuses that these gentle giants go through. Companies like Tripadvisor no longer offer tickets for elephant trekking and hashtags on Instagram such as #elephanttrekking come with warnings about wildlife exploitation.
Elephants aren’t designed to carry weight on their spines, carrying tourists around on big steel seats every day is detrimental to their health, you may have seen pictures of Pai Lin’s deformed back circulating recently.
Less is More
When choosing a place to visit look for a rescue center or sanctuary where riding, shows, bull hooks and chains are not on the menu. Please keep in mind that the less interaction you have with the elephants the better. Less training is needed if they don’t need to be in safe proximity to humans and they also have little to no daily work schedule to maintain, leaving more time for an elephant to be an elephant.
If you were to stumble across an elephant in the wild, I highly doubt you would find it painting a picture or standing on one leg to entertain its friends. Those same friends wouldn’t greet you and lift you with their trunks for a photo op. If a herd were bathing in a river and you went to try help a baby elephant wash itself, keep in mind you would most likely be trampled to death.
The Elephant in the Room
The training that elephants traditionally receive is the hard part to talk about. Phajaan is a spirit breaking ceremony where baby elephants are separated from their mothers and isolated to undergo fear-based training until their spirits are crushed and they become submissive to human command. That’s the nice way of saying it anyway, search ‘Phajaan’ or ‘elephant crushing’ if you want to know more. This process hopefully doesn’t exist in the same brutal form today but in my eyes it shouldn’t need to exist in any form anymore.
Bull hooks are still widely used to coerce an elephant to respond to command, elephants have thick skin and people using the hooks will tell you it doesn’t hurt. This may well be true but elephants do have sensitive areas such as behind their ears and armpits where you might witness them being poked by a handler. Rescue centers such as Elephant Nature Park now have a no hook policy and founder, Lek Chailert teaches food as reward based training to their Mahouts.
Sanctity of Sanctuary
While there are many places that operate as ethically as possible there are others bearing similar ethos in their marketing to jump on the band wagon in hopes of drawing in more crowds. Please be wary of this and use due diligence before choosing your elephant experience in Thailand.
One sanctuary that stopped offering bathing with elephants suffered a 50% decrease in ticket sales directly after as many visitors opted for a more hands on experience at nearby attractions. Another that stopped Trekking tours and started taking a more ethical approach has since switched back to trekking seemingly because it couldn’t compete with the other attractions still offering trekking in their area.
It’s easy to see there is still high demand for more hands-on elephant experiences and more education is needed for elephants to have a sustainable future in Thailand’s tourism industry.
The photos in this article were taken at Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai in 2013. The day I visited, founder Lek Chailert, life long elephant advocate was there tending to her children. So if you want to be close to elephants, please choose a more ethical path and visit for example the Elephant Nature Park Website to get an awesome experience for everyone! Or if you already in the car, ready to go..here is the link to Google Maps.