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“Look at me!” she shouted. “Take a picture! Look!” Her voice screeched with annoying enthusiasm as she flailed her arms in the air. She was a toothy English girl with a smile the size of a quartered honeydew.
Straddling the elephant’s spine, she widened her eyes, beamed a smile, threw her arms above her head and cast two peace signs into the air. I think, at this moment, she had reached the very pinnacle of her life.
I tried to contain myself.
On one hand, this girl was traveling to new places, learning exciting things about the world, experiencing the globe and, hopefully, a new culture. On the other hand, she was contributing to a very cruel facet of tourism in Thailand.
In her defense, she probably didn’t know any better. Not that ignorance is an excuse, but it’s allowable.
I ask myself, where are the ethics in tourism anymore? Where are the real travelers? Is the world nothing more than everybody’s personal amusement park?
Southeast Asia is rife with beer-guzzling 18 year-olds who love to party, party, party. Thailand, in particular, has become a hotspot for gap year tourists on holiday who drink cheap beer, lay on beaches and, often without realizing, rub their riches in the faces of the locals. Sometimes the culprits are cultural differences and sometimes it comes down to booze-fueled loudmouthery. But, either way, the current state of tourism in Southeast Asia is not a responsible one.
The impact this type of tourism has on the local communities can be devastating. It breeds greed and violence among locals. If you travel, I guarantee you’ve heard at least one story about someone getting ripped off by a local. Do you think this happens because so many people travel to their destinations, acting polite and respectful, responsibly spending their money within the community? Think again.
I’m frustrated. Can you tell?
Riding Elephants in Thailand isn’t Responsible Travel
The idea of responsible travel or tourism is not one to glaze over. If you travel, it’s something you really need to think about. What are your dollars going towards? What do they support?
Do you give money to homeless people on the street? Probably not. Why? Most people would say, “because they’re just going to buy drugs and alcohol.” But, I’m willing to bet you’d buy them a meal because I believe that, inherently, people are good.
In Cambodia I visited a shelter which teaches underprivileged children the skills necessary to work in the hospitality industry. In being a part of this program, they acquire a fundamental skillset with which they can improve their lives. By eating a meal here, and paying a couple dollars extra ($7 instead of the $4 it probably would have been), visitors are voting in direct support of helping disadvantaged children from a third-world country to improve their lives.
Vote with your dollar.
If you are against animal cruelty, can you really travel and, with that very same moral compass, pay money to ride an elephant?
Did you know that elephants who perform tricks and offer rides on their back have been domesticated through a breaking process? This process is called ‘phajaan’ and it, quite literally, breaks their spirit. They are chained and beaten within inches of their life. It depletes their soul to the point that they will do anything their master tells them, for fear of abuse.
This is not a sometimes thing. This is how it works. Elephants are wild animals who roam in jungles and forests. In order to take the wild out of the animal, they must be broken. Baby elephants are taken from their mothers, who are often killed, and beaten almost to death. Then, they are brought back to life as domesticated animals.
Elephants belong in the pages of National Geographic, not in chains giving rides to tourists. This disparity alone should be testament enough.
How Asian Elephants are Getting Help
In Chiang Mai, Thailand, the Save Elephant Foundation operates the Elephant Nature Park, a shelter for abused elephants who have been rescued from the tourism industry. They are offered a safe home where they are shown love, not abuse, and are allowed to roam free, as wild elephants are meant to. Lek Chailert, the founder of the organization, has been rescuing elephants since 1992, and oversees all operations of the park. Today, the park houses 36 Asian elephants. Three are babies and four have gone blind from abuse (captors often go for their eyes as punishment).
I visited the Elephant Nature Park in November, and I saw the effects of irresponsible tourism first-hand. I saw elephants with broken backs (too many years of giving elephant rides), broken legs, punctured skin and blindness. It was difficult, knowing that so many of my friends had ridden elephants and have contributed to this abuse.
But I also found relief, knowing that a cause and a reserve park like this exists. It acts as a springboard for awareness about the cruelty to animals, and as a safe haven for more than 1000 different animals who have been in need of rescuing (namely elephants, but also dogs, cats, water buffalo, pigs, and more). The Save Elephant Foundation does more than just rescue elephants—they rescue every animal who needs help.
In a show of support, more than 20 travel bloggers banded together in a grassroots charity project to support the Save Elephant Foundation. Last year we supported an orphanage in Nepal and a community in Bohol through a global organization that fights poverty through volunteerism. We used our blogs to leverage awareness about responsible travel and to raise donations for the Elephant Nature Park.
We wanted Lek to be able to rescue more elephants, and she couldn’t do it without us. Now, she can’t do it without you. A visit to the Elephant Nature Park helps to fund this incredible NGO and is a vote towards helping not just elephants in Thailand but all animals all over the country.
When you visit Thailand, please remember to practice tourism responsibly, and please recognize the importance of voting with your dollar.