Updated: 08/01/2018 | August 1st, 2018
Elephants have long been important in Thailand, where they are a symbol of religion, history, royalty, and power. According to Buddhist legend, Queen Maya of Sakya, Lord Buddha’s mother, dreamed that a divine Bodhisattva on a white elephant touched her side. She later became pregnant, and since then, elephants have had a strong connection to divinity and royalty in Buddhism. As Thailand is a Buddhist society, elephants are held in high esteem (the old kings of Thailand rode around on white elephants). Additionally, elephants were used in the logging industry to help clear trees, so there was a practical nature to their importance.
As the logging industry dwindled in Thailand, all these elephants had no “purpose,” and owners were left needing a way to make money for their families and the care of the elephants. Since most tourists came to Thailand thinking “I can’t wait to ride an elephant,” it was a lucrative transition.
Elephants were taken into cities and fed by tourists who wanted a photo. In the jungles, riding camps were set up where visitors could ride an elephant through the jungle, take their photos, and return home with tales of their cool experience.
When I lived in Thailand, I finally learned about the true nature of elephant tourism. I learned how those elephants roaming the streets were drugged and often starved. It was illegal — elephants in cities had been banned for years, but, as is common in Thailand, officials turned a blind eye or were paid off. I was always torn: do I ignore them, hoping this will eventually end the practice, or do I feed the elephant out of kindness but perpetuate this cruelty? It wasn’t until a few years ago after an accident that left a child, a driver, and an elephant dead that officials in Bangkok finally cracked down and made it elephant free.
I rode elephants in the past. When you ride an elephant, you get glimpses into their poor treatment. I remember once yelling at the mahout (trainer) for swinging his hook a little too hard at the elephant. It left me very perturbed. There are no good elephant riding parks in all of Thailand. All abuse and mistreat their elephants despite what they say. I regret my experiences riding them but I didn’t know better. There wasn’t a lot of good information about there about how to see elephants in Thailand in a socially responsible way.
Luckily, there’s a growing movement to protect the elephants, led by Lek Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park. Elephant Nature Park (ENP) has been around since 1996 and is the biggest conservation and elephant rescue organization in Thailand. Located outside of Chiang Mai, it is currently home to 75 elephants (plus a menagerie of other animals).
Demand is so high, not only for visitors but volunteers too, that you have to make reservations in advance to visit (for volunteers, that might mean up to a year in advance). When I tried to visit two years ago, they were already booked for the next month.
This time, I booked ahead and was able visit and see all the good they do:
The more you learn about elephants in Thailand, the more you realize the need for change. It was heartbreaking listening to the stories of each elephant and seeing so many with broken backs, legs, and missing feet. Luckily, because of organizations like ENP and more socially conscious tourists, things are changing. ENP has started to work with the riding camps to give up riding and move toward more animal-friendly practices. Thais are learning that people will pay big bucks to feed, bathe, and play with elephants and that this can be more lucrative and popular than offering rides.
ENP has started a huge movement and now there are a lot of places around Thailand where you can see and play with Elephants in a responsible way! The tide is finally changing thanks to more social responsible tourists. Here are some other places worth visiting:
- Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand – A full day visit is 1,600 THB ($48 USD) per person and a half day visit is 1,100 THB ($33 USD) per person. wfft.org, 108 Moo 6, Tambon Tha Mai Ruak, Amphoe Tha Yang, Chang Wat Phetchaburi.
- Elephant Hills – Tours range from 2-4 days and cost between 12,580-25,790 THB ($378-775 USD). elephanthills.com, +66 5200 1186, 170 Moo 7 Tambon Klong Sok, Panom District, Suratthani.
- The Surin Project – You can volunteer for up to eight weeks. The price is 13,000 THB ($390 USD) per week. surinproject.org, +66 84 482 1210, Ban Taklang, Surin.
- Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary – The cost to visit is 6,000 THB ($180 USD) per night, and reservations must be made in advance. blesele.org, 304 Mu 5, Baan Na Ton Jan, Tambon Baan Tuek, Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai.
The elephant camps aren’t gone yet. They won’t be for a long, long time. But with more educated tourists and an economic incentive for locals to treat the elephants better, hopefully, we can severely reduce these camps in the next few years (and eventually eliminate them).
So the next time you’re in Thailand, please don’t ride the elephants. If you want to see an elephant, visit Elephant Nature Park or a similar program and help protect these amazing creatures. You’ll get a closer and more personal interaction with the elephants, and you’ll be doing good.
It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
Logistics for Visiting Elephant Nature Park:
- You can do a single day visit for 2,500 THB ($75 USD) or an overnight visit for 5,800 THB ($174 USD). You can also commit to a week of volunteering for 12,000-15,000 THB ($360-450 USD).
- They’ll pick you up from Chiang Mai! You’ll ride there in a comfortable passenger van. The trip takes approximately 90 minutes.
- Meals are included in your visit and meals are vegetarian.
- If you are staying longer than one day, overnight guests stay in private huts, with mosquito net bedding and attached bathroom. Volunteers stay in shared twin rooms, with mosquito net bedding and shared bathrooms.
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