Last Updated: 1/29/23 | January 29th, 2023
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 predominantly Buddhist, elephants are held in high esteem.
Additionally, elephants were used in the logging industry to help clear trees, so there was a practical nature to their importance as well.
After a government-imposed ban on logging in 1989, the industry dwindled and suddenly all of these elephants had no “purpose.” Their 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.
Elephants became big business in the country. After all, as a tourist, who wouldn’t want a chance to see or ride one? It’s a dream come true for many.
When I lived in Thailand, I learned about the true nature of elephant tourism. I learned how those elephants roaming the streets were drugged and often starved.
And it was illegal too.
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.
And then there’s the riding? I mean riding an elephant sounds amazing!
Until you realize how the animal is treated.
When you ride an elephant, you get a glimpse 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 — and wishing I hadn’t ridden that elephant.
Riding an elephant requires elephants to be physically abused. Moreover, it’s not good for elephants to be constantly carrying people around as it can damage their back.
Unfortunately, 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.
But the more time I spent in Thailand, the more I learned that there are no good elephant riding parks in all of Thailand. All abuse and mistreat their elephants — despite what they say. Riding elephants is actually terrible for their growth and development as well.
To be clear, there is no such thing as ethically riding an elephant.
Luckily, there’s been a large movement in the last few years to protect the elephants and, now tourists, have a lot more ethical options when it comes to elephants in Thailand.
The pioneer is Elephant Nature Park. Led by Lek Chailert, 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 dozens of elephants (plus a menagerie of other animals) that have been saved from the tourism and logging industries. It’s a “retirement” home for elephants
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 a few years ago, they were already booked for the next month!
This time, I booked ahead and was able to 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, more popular, and more sustainable than offering rides.
As such, there are now a lot of places around Thailand where you can see and interact with elephants in a responsible way throughout the country:
- Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand – A full-day visit is 1,600 THB per person and a half-day visit is 1,100 THB per person (excluding transport). wfft.orgl
- Elephant Hills – Luxury jungle camps with two-day tours that cost between 14,000-16,500 THB. elephanthills.com
- The Surin Project – Home to upwards of 200 elephants, here you can volunteer for up to eight weeks. The price is 13,000 THB per week (7 days is the minimum volunteer period). surinproject.org.
- Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary – The cost to visit is 6,000 THB per night, and reservations must be made in advance. blesele.org.
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).
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.
How to Visit Elephant Nature Park
Short visits to ENP last 6-7 hours and cost 2,500 THB per person. This includes a vegetarian lunch buffet as well as transportation to/from Chiang Mai.
Their popular overnight visit (2 days, 1 night) costs 5,800 THB per person and includes meals, transportation, and accommodation.
For a 7-day volunteer experience, expect to pay between 12,000-15,000 THB depending on which branch you visit.
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