“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.
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.
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.
It’s the most important vote you can make.
READ NEXT: The Floating Villages of Siem Reap: An Inside Look at Poverty in Cambodia
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.
I had a hard time in Southeast Asia, mostly because of how irresponsible so many of the tourists are. You might sense some very overt frustration in some of my other posts from around the same time, but I’m glad to be able to bring awareness to the issue. Have you seen the recent news about the Tiger Temple?
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.
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.
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.
Thanks for reading, Kara, and for thinking about different ways to travel! Have an amazing time in Bali and Thailand 🙂
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.
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 🙂
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. 🙂
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.
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!
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.
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!
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
Thank you so much, Seema! It was hard work, but totally worth it in the end 🙂
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!
She’s an amazing woman!
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.
Do you know which refuge?
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…
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!
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?
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!
My pleasure Jeremy! This cause is very close to my heart!
Education is the most important thing when it comes to the ethical treatment of animals. Thanks for putting all this together and sharing it!
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.
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!
Love what you put together in this post! I really hope more people will become aware of all this and help the elephants.
Me too! Thanks, Alex!
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.
China is such an interesting place! Where will you go?
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?
I haven’t, but I do highly recommend the Yunnan province if you get some time to travel. Ancient towns and beautiful mountains!
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…
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.
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.
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!
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.
Thanks for your support, Lisa!