Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand

Why You Shouldn't Ride Elephants in Thailand

“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.

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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?

elephant ride

Toothy English girls

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?

Elephant Rides

Tourists riding chained elephants in Thailand

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.

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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?

Chained Elephant

Elephant in chains, giving rides to tourists

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.

Still not quite sure? Click here.

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.

Elephant Nature Park

A happy elephant who was rescued from the tourism industry!

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. I had a hard time there, knowing that so many of my friends had ridden elephants and have contributed to this abuse.

Jeremy at the Elephant Park

I'm saying hey to Lucky, a blind elephant who lost her eyes to her captors.

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.

Unfortunately, there is no more room left at ENP. The Elephant Nature Park has reached capacity and Lek is no longer able to rescue any more elephants. They need more land.

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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’re using our blogs to leverage awareness about responsible travel and to raise donations for the Elephant Nature Park.

We want Lek to be able to rescue more elephants, and she couldn't do it without us.

Jeremy Foster and Lek Chailert

Hanging with Lek, talking elephants and responsible tourism!

Win a $3,300 Trip to Thailand to Visit the Elephants

NOTE: Our fundraiser and project raised more than $7,500, which went directly to the Elephant Nature Park so they could buy more land to house the elephants. A huge thank you goes out to every single person involved, and everybody who donated and helped to raise awareness about responsible tourism in Thailand!

In support of the Save Elephant Foundation, every person who donates will be entered to win a $3,300 trip to Thailand! A donation of $20 could potentially snag you a free trip for two and a visit to the Elephant Nature Park to visit the very same elephants you’re helping. Your chances of winning increase exponentially, depending on how much you donate, and there are more chances to win, once you’re inside!

Flight Network has donated a USD$2,000 flight voucher towards round-trip flights to Thailand and positive-impact tour operator Where Sidewalks End has provided an 8 day/7 night tour for two valued at USD$1,300. For more information about the prize, please click here.

On top of this, every person who donates will receive access to an exclusive blog in which we highlight different holidays, events and festivals happening around the globe. We showcase worldly destinations in photos and words, and we give you plenty of new reading material. And, of course, you get photos of elephants every week!

Baby Elephant

A happy baby elephant playing at the park!

I hope that you can help to support the elephants as well as myself and the many travel bloggers who have come together for this initiative. If nothing else, please remember to practice tourism responsibly, and please recognize the importance of voting with your dollar.

It’s the most important vote you can make.

READ NEXT: The Floating Villages of Siem Reap: An Inside Look at Poverty in Cambodia


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39 Responses to Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand

  1. Lisa Imogen Eldridge December 23, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    Such an insightful article. I completely agree with you and think that more travellers need to wake up to this. It happens all over the world and Right Tourism are also trying to raise awareness. We need more bloggers like you to help support these courses. Well done for the calendar and to the other bloggers who are on board.

  2. Sand in my Suitcase December 26, 2013 at 12:58 am #

    It’s so incredibly sad to see these Asian elephants chained and with their spirits broken. We noticed the difference between the passive, docile creatures we saw in Thailand and the wild elephants in Zambia – and, yes, elephants shouldn’t really be ridden. But it does take awareness. Thanks for the great post…

    • Jeremy Foster December 26, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

      Thanks for clocking in. I haven’t seen other elephants, but it’s interesting to note that you could actually see a difference in their demeanor. They’re incredibly smart and personable animals and I’m not at all surprised to hear this.

    • Sarah Brinkerhoff December 29, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

      I’ve watched national geographic videos on elephants and these poor elephants (till the end, they look better there) look unhealthy and very un-lively in comparison.

      • Jeremy Foster December 30, 2013 at 12:48 am #

        The first photos are from an elephant camp where people ride the elephants, so they would be depressed and emaciated. The latter photos are of rescued elephants who were once in captivity but have been brought back to health under the care of the Save Elephant Foundation and the Elephant Nature Park. This is the organization that we are supporting!

  3. Sarah Brinkerhoff December 26, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

    Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned. I’m traveling to China in a little over a month and have started my research. I’m really glad I came across this.

    • Jeremy Foster December 28, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

      China is such an interesting place! Where will you go?

      • Sarah Brinkerhoff December 29, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

        I’ll be teaching in Ningbo, China for nearly five months. I will have some travel time and want to plan out the places I want to visit most and the things I want to do. Have you been to Ningbo or around that providence?

        • Jeremy Foster December 30, 2013 at 12:46 am #

          I haven’t, but I do highly recommend the Yunnan province if you get some time to travel. Ancient towns and beautiful mountains!

  4. Crazysexyfuntraveler December 27, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    Love what you put together in this post! I really hope more people will become aware of all this and help the elephants.

  5. Barbara Benham December 29, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    Thanks so much for this article, Jeremy. It taught me so much. Good luck with your efforts to educate travelers about responsible and with this particular project, too. I plan to donate $20.

    • Jeremy Foster December 30, 2013 at 12:49 am #

      That’s fantastic! Thank you so much for the support and the donation, Barbara! I’m glad you learned something and that you are able to relate to our cause!

  6. Green Global Travel December 30, 2013 at 4:11 am #

    Education is the most important thing when it comes to the ethical treatment of animals. Thanks for putting all this together and sharing it!

  7. Marysia @ My Travel Affairs December 30, 2013 at 7:20 am #

    Education, education and awareness! I think big travel guide shouldn’t put such attractions on their list! Elephants are such a lovely creatures, how can you can enjoy such trip seeing all those chains and a stick in the hand of a driver?

    • Jeremy Foster January 3, 2014 at 2:44 am #

      I know what you mean. But not everybody knows the behind-the-scenes info! One of our biggest goals is to educate. Thanks for your support, Marysia!

  8. Angie Away January 4, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    I love hearing how the animals all get to walk or play about as they were born to. It breaks my heart hearing of abuse but it’s great knowing that we all can make a change. I will donate and I will support! Great post!

  9. SeeTheWorldInMyEyes January 11, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    Hi Jeremy, I had a similar experience in Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Riding on an
    elephant was the thing to do there because it was supposedly getting you closer
    to actual wildlife in the jungle. The rational was that the elephant was
    disguising the smell of the human beings on its back…

    In reality the whole thing was nothing but a big circus with one broken, domesticated elephant
    after the next leaving with a trigger happy bunch of tourists on a pre-determined
    path though a local forest. But the worst of it all was that the elephant
    drivers were constantly hitting their animals with a little stick on the top of
    their ears to make them walk…

    This constant hitting had eaten a deep, sometimes bleeding groove into the ears of the
    elephants and they were screaming in terror every single time when another hit
    came down in the exact same spot. For me it was quite an eye opening event and
    after that whenever the topic came to elephant rides, I told people definitely not
    to support this kind of business…

  10. Graefyl January 15, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

    Hi Jeremy, just saw this. Let’s just say it pisses me off and leave it there.

    Interestingly, I found out my great niece is at an elephant refuge in Thailand, as a volunteer for a bit. Her sister stayed with us in London some days back and told us about it.

  11. Emily Marie January 21, 2014 at 6:48 am #

    This is very true! I missed Lucky ..been there last month and it is really saddening but inspiring at the same time to hear about each rescued elephants story. Thanks to Lek!

  12. Seema Chauhan April 3, 2014 at 2:50 am #

    Hi Jeremy, as I accepted one thing that you are a such a brave man really!! I don’t have any doubt about you and your adventurer work as you are doing right now. I love wild life too much and as long as I don’t talk about wild animals, I can’t remain silent. I appreciate you
    with Lek. Thanks

    • Jeremy Foster April 12, 2014 at 3:43 pm #

      Thank you so much, Seema! It was hard work, but totally worth it in the end 🙂

  13. Samantha July 28, 2014 at 11:51 am #

    Oh my… this is absolutely heartbreaking. The ignorance of humans will destroy this world and everything beautiful but luckily there are still some good humans beings left. These kinds of things just sickens me, seeing animals abused and tortured for human entertainment. What an amazing woman Lek is and I hope to meet her in person one day.

    • Jeremy Foster July 28, 2014 at 6:05 pm #

      It’s true. We really need to consider our actions before simply believing that the world is ours for the taking. We need to live harmoniously and act accordingly. I hope you can make it to the Elephant Nature Park some day!

  14. Concerned Citizen March 10, 2015 at 1:43 am #

    Thx for the insightful article Jeremy. We have like problems here in Nepal with Safari Riding atop Captive Elephants. For more on that, please see http://www.elephantwatchnepal.com. Thx again!

  15. Menno September 25, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

    So glad that even the young guys like yourself find it critical to travel responsibly and create an awareness of how animals are treated & fit into the tourist industry. Well done. Even us “midlifers”, that are new to this, can learn from young travelers like you. We’re never too old to learn & never too old to go backpacking. 🙂

    • Jeremy Scott Foster September 27, 2015 at 3:21 pm #

      What is it they say? The children are our future? 😉

      It’s so important to recognize the impact that we, as people and travelers, have on the world. It’s easy to turn a blind eye, so as long as I can help to raise some awareness, then I’m doing my job.

  16. Amanda November 30, 2015 at 3:12 am #

    Well… I clicked on the “still not sure” link and I’m not only horrified but completely heartbroken. The terrified look on that poor baby elephants face is just horrible. I wish I could help. How is this legal anywhere in the world??? The “animal tourism” industry needs to be stopped! Elephants are social, intelligent and spiritual animals, and it’s devastating to know that this is happening. Although my heart is hurting a bit, I do want to thank you for writing this and creating awareness for these beautiful creatures.

    I am heading to Thailand for 3 weeks in January, and I’ll do my part – I will not be partaking in any tourist activities that involve animals being held in captivity.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster December 5, 2015 at 6:43 pm #

      I know, I know. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s the truth. Sometimes it takes a rude awakening to make an impact. I can only hope that what I’ve written encourages some sort of change.

      If you’re heading up to Chiang Mai, I do recommend visiting the Elephant Nature Park. The fee to enter helps keep the park running, pays for food, medical supplies, etc., and you can feed, bathe, and play with the elephants one-on-one. They’re lots of fun 🙂

  17. Kaara February 2, 2016 at 9:06 pm #

    WOW! This is so sad! I am so thankful I stumbled upon your blog. I am planning a two week anniversary trip in Bali and Thailand and you have given so much to think about in terms of being a responsible tourist. Thank you for opening my eyes to the cruelty that takes places and how tourists can do something to change it.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster February 4, 2016 at 8:40 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Kara, and for thinking about different ways to travel! Have an amazing time in Bali and Thailand 🙂

  18. Clara February 18, 2016 at 5:40 pm #

    I believe that education is the best weapon of all, i have to confess that i have “riding an elephant” in my bucket list and right now i feel so guilty, i love traveling and experience everything that a culture as to offer and you are 100% right we should be traveler that promote a responsible tourism.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster February 22, 2016 at 7:19 am #

      Don’t feel guilty! That won’t help anybody. Just help to spread the word and do what you can to prevent people from contributing to this awful practice.

  19. Renne Simpson May 29, 2016 at 11:16 am #

    Favorite travel blog post I’ve read in a long time. Thank you so much for doing this! It reeeeaaally bothers me whenever I see photos of people riding elephants, taking tiger selfies, etc. I’m glad you are using your blog to bring awareness to this issue. I wrote about it too, but my blog doesn’t have the same reach yours does, so it makes me happy to see a big blogger like you reaching so many people.

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