Elephant Riding in Thailand:
The Real Story

9 April 2012

Is riding an elephant in Thailand on your bucket list? If it is, think again. These gentle giants suffer abuse during training. Learn why it’s better to care for an elephant, than ride one, and how much power we really have as tourists to help make a difference.

Story by: 

Diana Edelman


sustainable travel

The allure of the elephant is powerful. It’s hard to resist the idea of being in the presence of these incredibly intelligent creatures. Thailand, along with the rest of Southeast Asia, is known for giving visitors the opportunity to interact with these gentle giants.

However, what people who make the decision to spend time with these elephants don’t know is the abuse they suffer in the name of the tourism industry.

When elephants are young, they are separated from their mother and put through horrific torture, known as the Phajaan. Also referred to as the “crush,” this practice is designed to essentially make the elephant docile, and accepting of its owner’s instructions. This tradition has deep-seeded roots in Thai history and culture.

Tourists have a lot of power. If, as a tourist, you patronize trekking camps, attend circuses, purchase paintings or buy bananas and feed them to begging elephants in the street, you are essentially sending a message to the elephant tourism industry in Asia. You are telling owners you support and condone their training methods. As a tourist supporting the elephant tourism industry, you are perpetuating the cycle of abuse.

If you are concerned about your impact on elephants, there are other ways to spend time with elephants without causing them further harm. Instead of visiting a trekking camp or other attraction that is based on abusive training practices, opt for sanctuaries where riding, performances and other displays are not offered.

Tourists have a lot of power. [...] If you are concerned about your impact on elephants, there are other ways to spend time with elephants without causing them further harm.

Visitors can get the same pleasure from petting, feeding and bathing elephants as they can from exploiting them. If visiting Thailand, head north to Elephant Nature Park (ENP) near Chiang Mai. ENP offers a wonderful option to get up-close to elephants without causing them any additional harm.

And, if there is no removing an elephant ride from your bucket list, opt for an outfit that offers rides on the head, rather than on the back. Be sure to check and see if elephants are chained up when they are not riding and ask how many rides they give per day. See if the elephants interact with each other. A telltale sign an elephant is distressed is rocking, so if any elephant at a camp exhibits this, move on to another.

You can have a heart-felt elephant encounter without perpetuating heart-breaking practises.

To see what kind of abuse elephants are put through, watch this video, below. Warning: the images are very disturbing and graphic.


Diana Edelman

Diana Edelman is a world traveler and a travel blogger. In 2009, she started d travels 'round, an award-winning travel blog which documents her colorful solo travel adventures around the world. In September, she volunteered at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. Since then, she has dedicated a substantial amount of her time to educating the public about the reality of animal tourism in Thailand and Asia. When she's not writing for her site, she is a regular contributor to Viator, CheapOair, OneTravel , The Huffington Post, World Nomads, Vegas Seven and others.