Who’s been to Thailand? Who’s ridden an elephant? Yeah, those two things have grown to go hand in hand. But I refused to partake during my three months in Thailand two winters ago. Here’s why.
Open your eyes.
Have you ever looked at the elephants giving tourists rides? While said tourists take selfies with this illusion that they have become best friends with an elephant? Those elephants look sad. They have a blank look in their eyes that if you turn your observation skills on for two seconds, will shoot daggers to your heart.
Phajaan, the crush.
This term is used to describe the taming period in a baby elephants life. Bull-hooks, starvation, and confinement to a small space are used to crush their spirits. Today, the main point of taming an elephant is to carry tourists on their backs and appear on social media platforms until they die or are, with any luck, rescued.
Now, I’m not exactly an animal activist. But I definitely have my qualms with inhumane treatment of animals, especially when it’s just for the sake of entertainment. For an animal, particularly an endangered one, to endure such abuse just for me to ride atop it is absolutely disastrous in my eyes. The taming period is referred to as, “the crush.” How can we support this as a fun bucket list activity?
Most people just don’t know the truth about what’s really going on. That’s why I’m writing about it here, just as plenty of other travel bloggers and writers have done all over the internet. The information isn’t new, it just apparently hasn’t spread far enough yet.
I didn’t know much about elephant rides when I went to Thailand two years ago. Even so, I felt uneasy about the suggestion. I definitely didn’t want to jump to conclusions, after all, these were people’s jobs and who am I to judge. But, it still didn’t feel right. So, I did what any millennial would do and went to Google.
Calm down, I also asked around to as many people I could, travelers and locals alike. Online reviews, articles here and there, and conversations with people who I deemed trust-worthy were enough. After only a few weeks of being in Thailand and looking into the topic, I had come to a conclusion. I could not support this tourist attraction.
Isn’t it the same as riding horses?
Or using oxen to pull wagons or equipment? Hmm. Right. So, why is taming an elephant different than taming a horse? I like horse back riding. Are the fine outlines of my morals getting blurry? Nope. Don’t think so.
First of all, the term for the process of taming en elephant translate to crushing his spirit. It’s more abusive and mentally intense than breaking a horse. Plus, elephants are not structurally intended to carry humans. Their spines don’t hold the weight well. Horses do fine with a reasonably sized human. However, while we are trying to find the fine lines between animal abuse and humane treatment, we can always stand to do research before we support any company that utilizes animals.
I worked on a ranch in Colorado one summer that operated as a getaway for country loving travelers. You bet there were horses and opportunities to ride them offered to the guests. But I also got to know the ranch hands who worked with the horses. There were loving relationships between horses and the ranch hands. The horses were playful, happy and healthy. They had the space they needed and they were taken care of. This felt like a good relationship between human and animal. I’m not getting the same vibe from the elephant camps we are talking about, though.
Isn’t phajaan a part of Thai culture?
It’s been happening for hundreds of years. So, who am I to say it’s bad? Well, today, elephants aren’t tamed to help with logging or carrying items too large for man to carry. Today, elephants are tamed primarily for tourism. Just for the perfect picture to show your friends back home. It’s just cheap entertainment, carried out by an endangered species.
You see my point? Wonderful. What can we do you ask?
Travelers are the consumers in the tourism industry. We have all the power. We decide the market. There are other ways to experience an up close encounter with elephants who are treated fairly. Elephant Nature Park offers an experience where you have the opportunity to feed the elephants fruit, splash around in the water with them, and hear the stories of how they were rescued.
Quite frankly, splashing around with a bunch of elephants and then feeding an elephant a papaya sounds way more awesome than just riding one. I want to play with elephants not make them carry me around like a sack of potatoes.
On the website, it says there will be no riding of the elephants. If the travelers start to choose places that advertise no riding then maybe other ‘elephant sanctuaries’ will catch on. Choosing to support the people giving elephants a happy life can and will make others change their business practices.
I didn’t actually make it to Elephant Nature Park as I’d already left Chiang Mai when I first heard about it. (Also the reason why I’m only using stock photos in this post.) But after quite a bit of research and talking to other people who had gone, I definitely want to check it when I make it back to Thailand.
This isn’t about destroying jobs for people or for elephants who make up the elephant riding portion of tourism. It’s just about demanding higher standards for the elephants with whom we all want to see and spend time with. If they treat there elephants better, I will pay just as much to feed an elephant a papaya and take a mud bath. Without doubt. HERE’S MY MONEY, JUST TAKE IT! And then, could you maybe snap a picture of me and my new buddy?
Make your voice heard.
Do not ride an elephant on your next trip to Thailand.
Does anyone have any specific experiences or opinions on this topic? Please share in the comments below. I would love to hear your stories.