Most visitors to Thailand have a good-sized list of things they want to experience in the country and riding an elephant is usually one of them, but if they knew the treatment those elephants are forced to endure, most would probably make a new list. The problem isn’t the riding itself, though. Unless, you top the scales somewhere around the ‘morbidly obese’ range (that’s a global unit of measurement, kind of like the metric system; in the US we call that range ‘average’), carrying humans all day causes relatively minor suffering when compared with the ‘training’ the elephants endure to prepare them for a life as an over-sized, lumbering horse.
You can ride elephants in a lot of places, but the north of Thailand, centered around Chiang Mai, is probably the most popular. Travel agents and hotels in Chiang Mai offer a whole range of package tours, often at rock-bottom prices. The tours generally include a trek to a hill tribe village, an overnight stay in that village, an elephant ride and some kind of rafting, either whitewater or bamboo or both. Many of these tours, especially the cheaper ones, can be very touristy, but that’s not always the case. They range from basically following a long line of other tourists through the jungle to not seeing another white face for days. The tour we signed up for was much closer to the former.
Apart from the elephant riding portion, our package included a jungle trek to a village on top of a hill, a bit of whitewater rafting and bit of bamboo rafting. The trek was a great experience; both forms of rafting amounted to little more than floating down the river for a few minutes. I won’t go into any of that here, but will probably end up writing a post about the trek at some point in the future.
If you’ve read some of my other posts, like the one about the demon camel they forced me to ride in India, you’ll know that sitting on an animal is not exactly my idea of fun. It’s also not my idea of an efficient transportation method. In other words: it is pretty much pointless. I could have done without that portion of the package, but it was important to some of the people I was with, so I went along and figured it wouldn’t be so bad. And the actual riding wasn’t bad, to be honest. It was mainly just boring.
Two people at a time sit on a hard wooden bench that has been affixed to the elephant’s back. A handler sits further forward on the animal’s neck or walks alongside. He carries a stick used to hit the elephant when it doesn’t do whatever it is it should be doing. The stick is small and probably doesn’t hurt all that much, but serves more as a reminder of the pain humans can inflict, if the elephants choose to disobey.
Our elephant apparently had a short memory; it misbehaved quite a bit, so we got to see the stick in action more than once. Rather than trudge along single-file behind the other elephants, our ride kept leaving the path and heading into the jungle for a snack. It would reach out with its trunk and grab a bunch of branches to munch on while walking. Every time it tried to pause for a quick refill on branches, it got whacked with the stick. We told our handler we didn’t mind the detours, but apparently he minded them.
If this doesn’t really sound that bad to you, that’s because it isn’t, although I’m sure carrying around tourists on their backs all day is not ideal for the animals’ spines. I didn’t think much either way of riding an elephant at the time, but I was happy when it was over. It was only later that I learned what these animals are put through behind the scenes.
Before elephants can be put to work serving humans, their spirit needs to be broken. To accomplish this, a baby elephant is put through the phajaan or “the crush.” It is confined in a small space for a week during which it is deprived of sleep, starved and beaten with clubs and sharp metal hooks and spikes. It sounds pretty terrible, but it’s actually worse than it sounds. I won’t go into more detail, but here’s a video if you’re interested. Be warned: it’s not pretty.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t ride an elephant in Thailand or elsewhere. The elephants people ride have been through their torture already and they’re going to keep carrying tourists for as long as they can walk. One person more or less won’t make a difference. I do think it’s good to know what the elephants are put through to get to that point, though. If I had known any of this beforehand, I definitely wouldn’t have bothered with the elephant trekking portion of our tour. I mean, I wasn’t even all that excited about it in the first place, so it really makes no sense for me to support this industry in any way.
You do have alternatives, if you want to spend time with elephants, but don’t want to support their cruel treatment. You’ll find a number of elephant camps around Thailand that take care of rescued animals and allow visitors to help out for a day or longer and spend time up close with the giants. Do your research if you plan on visiting one, though. Not all are legitimate and many treat the animals almost as poorly as those who train them. I’ve never been to one of these camps myself, but I’ve heard only good things about the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai.
A week before we rode the elephants, we actually stumbled onto an elephant camp in the jungles of Koh Phangan. It was dark, so we couldn’t tell if it was a place that rescues elephants or one that trains them (I kind of think it was the latter), but whatever they were doing there, they invited us in and let us play around with the elephants and take photos. To me, this short encounter was much more enjoyable than the riding. More accurately, it was enjoyable and the riding wasn’t, but I know much of that is probably due to my general aversion to sitting on animals.
For many visitors to Thailand, riding an elephant is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For the elephants, it’s just a small part of a long workday in an endless string of long days, and every one of those days is preferable to the brutal week they suffered as babies. We can’t change what these elephants went through, but perhaps we can reduce the number of them that experience the brutal phajaan in the future by reducing demand today. I didn’t, but perhaps you will.