Elephant Riding in Thailand: Please don’t do it. Here’s why.

elephant camp thailand

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Getting close to elephants is a dream come true for many tourists traveling to Thailand. And it’s so easy to get in touch with those majestic animals: There are tours to elephant camps at almost every corner! As soon as I had the chance I booked a trip to an elephant camp, because I was so excited! But everything turned out a little different than I thought…

Elephant riding: Day trip to an elephant camp near Chiang Mai

Maybe I should have done some research on the subject before. I just imagined how I could spend a day with elephants, feed them, see them from close up and eventually cuddle them a little. (And maybe to ride on an elephant – which I thought would be an amazing idea by then. But back to that later.) So I went off with an organized tour to an elephant camp outside Chiang Mai, somewhere in the mountains.

Elephant Camp, North Thailand

Elephants at Elephant Camp, Northern Thailand
At an elephant camp you’ll get the chance to get close to these huge animals.

Elephant riding in Thailand: The first steps

Unfortunately, the first impression already gave me a bad feeling. The camp itself was quite small considering the size of an elephant. Shouldn’t they have more space and big fields of green grass to walk around? The camp was squeezed between mountains and neighbouring farmers. A bit strange, I thought. You drive into the middle of the jungle and still there is no place for the animals. Elephants aren’t exactly small, they need exercise, don’t they? I was overwhelmed by a strange feeling of confinement, when I saw the first elephant. He was rocking back and forth with one foot in chains and clearly not feeling very comfortable. He didn’t look happy. I pushed what I saw aside. After all, there were elephants here I would see from close.

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Being a Mahout: Taming elephants at an elephant camp in Thailand

We threw ourselves into our Mahout clothes. Mahout, that’s the elephant tamer who tells the elephant what to do by his body language. Oh, how beautiful, and I really wanted to believe that you can make an elephant your friend just by using the right body language. How nice.

Mahout at Elephant Camp, North Thailand
The mahout is teaching the basics of elephant language.

Elephants at Elephant Camp, North Thailand

Natural soap including sponge for the elephant bath...
Natural soap including a sponge for the elephant bath…

First there was an introduction into the elephant language. We learned how to use sign language and the elephants did what they were supposed to do. Very cute. Until the first hook came to use: If an elephant didn’t follow, one of the mahouts pulled out a long pointed metal hook and poked the elephant with it. I was slightly shocked. Our guide probably already knew this disbelieving look of frightened tourists and immediately explained that it wouldn’t bother the elephant at all, they wouldn’t feel much either through their thick skin.

Bathing and swimming with an elephant

What should I say? A part of me really wanted to believe him, because I had the most unique experience afterwards: I rode barefoot without anything on an elephant! I bathed with “my” elephant! I was so fascinated by the size and calm of such a big animal that I put every hard feeling aside for the moment.

bathing with elephants
Swimming with an elephant was a mind-blowing experience – however, it came with a price.

Animal cruelty in elephant camps: My experience

But I just couldn’t get rid of the negative impressions. I felt as if I had been part of something very, very bad and had helped to make such great animals suffer. Somehow it didn’t feel right. Although I am not an elephant expert, I knew that happy animals look different. The metal hook that was used all the time, the foot chains, the sad elephant eyes, the scraped skin… Anyone from my group who didn’t want to ride the elephant without everything was strapped to a rickety metal chair on the elephant’s back. Later I learned that these chairs are the reason for awful injuries and the elephants hardly recover from them.

Choosing the right elephant camp in Thailand

I wouldn’t want to miss this experience, yet I would advise anyone not to be as stupid and ignorant as I was and take part in such an excursion. There are supposed to be elephant camps that take much better care of their elephants. There’s no metal hook. No foot chains. You won’t have the opportunity to ride an elephant there – but that’s not really necessary! You can still enjoy the proximity of these great animals and have a clean conscience at the same time!

Please do a bit of research before you book a trip to an elephant camp in Thailand. Near Chiang Mai, I’d recommend the Elephant Nature Park or the Elephant Retirement Park – I heard only positive feedback about it, apparently the elephants are treated a lot better there.

Book your trip to Elephant Nature Park here!

Book your trip to Elephant Retirement Park here!

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  1. Danke für diesen interessanten und aufklärenden Beitrag! Ich muss zugeben, dass ich mir über die Elefanten noch gar keine Gedanken gemacht hatte – dass die “zahmen” Tiger in diesen Parks unter Drogen stehen und ich dort niemals hingehen würde, nur um dann ein lustiges Bild für Facebook zu haben, war für mich selbstverständlich. Aber das Elefantenreiten hatte ich mir nur auch toll vorgestellt… Danke dass du mir die Augen geöffnet hast, das werde ich definitiv berücksichtigen wenn ich mal nach Thailand reise!
    Liebe Grüße
    Sabine

    1. Hallo Sabine,
      freut mich, dass mein Post Dich zum Nachdenken angeregt hat. Wie gesagt, ich war vorher ja ganz unbedarft. Elefanten sieht man in Thailand ganz oft in ländlichen Gegenden, vielleicht hast Du ja Glück und siehst dann einen mit seinem Besitzer und darfst ihm so mal näher kommen. Ist mir mal auf Koh Lana an ‘nem einsamen Strand passiert – besser als jedes Camp! :)
      Liebe Grüße,
      Tatiana

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