Riding elephants in Thailand: Do you have to?

Aktualisiert am: 27/03/2023

You will come across it sooner or later on a Thailand trip: Elephant riding. Almost at every corner excursions to elephant camps are offered – and clueless as I was, I participated in one. When do you ever see an elephant up close? And may even touch him? Riding an elephant? And that riding elephants should be cruelty to animals did not even occur to me. Why should you? Horses are ridden, too, and no one cries out for cruelty to animals.

Riding elephants in Thailand: this is how it really is.

But maybe I should have looked into the issue beforehand or inquired about the differences in each provider…. I just imagined myself spending a day with elephants in Thailand, in one of the many elephant camps, feeding them, petting them a bit and seeing such a big animal up close. And riding an elephant – although in retrospect I actually ask myself whether that really has to be done. But more on that in a moment.

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Hey, I’m Tatiana, a German-Brazilian living in Berlin & the author behind The Happy Jetlagger. I’ve been writing about my travels since 2014. In addition to my job as a flight attendant, this blog is my passion project!

So I took an organized tour, recommended by the owners of my accommodation in Chiang Mai, to an elephant camp outside Chiang Mai. I trusted the judgment of my hosts, a young, cosmopolitan Thai couple, after all, they had even invited me for lunch once without ulterior motives, because they wanted to show me a great insider tip in Chiang Mai and we just got along well. But as it is so often, sometimes locals have a different view on things or certain topics are not so prominent in everyday life. I inquired if this tour was one of the “good” ones – yes, yes, no problem, you can bathe with the elephants there and everything is a bit touristy, but that’s just the way it is.

Elephant Camp Thailand
Elephants at Elephant Camp near Chiang Mai, Thailand

Elephants in Thailand: life in elephant camps

Unfortunately, the first impression was already telling. The camp itself was manageable, sandwiched between mountains and neighboring farmers. Kind of funny, I thought. There you go in the middle of the wilderness, and yet there is no room for the animals there. Elephants are not exactly small, they need to run around, don’t they? In general, I was overcome by a strange feeling of confinement when I saw the first elephant swaying strangely absent-mindedly back and forth with not exactly comfortable-looking anklets. He didn’t look happy. Okay, I put what I had seen aside for the moment. After all, there were elephants here. All free! (Haha. I thought so later.)

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Dealing with elephants as a mahout: The language of elephants

We threw on our locally rented mahout outfits. Mahout, which is the elephant tamer who uses body language to tell the elephant what to do. Oh, how nice, I thought. You can make a friend out of an elephant just by using body language. They are really nice to the animals here in Thailand. (Again haha.)

Mahout with elephant in elephant camp in Chiang Mai
A mahout shows us the trunk of a young elephant.
Mahout with soap for elephants, bathing with elephants in Thailand
Natural soap including bath sponge for bathing with the elephants

So first there was an introduction to the elephant language. So something like “sit”, “down” and “give trunk”. Very cute. Until the first hook came into use: If an elephant did not track, one of the caretakers brought out a long pointed metal hook and with it it then set what for the elephant. I was slightly shocked. Our guide probably already knew this disbelieving look of startled tourists and immediately explained that the elephants would not mind at all, they do not notice anything through their thick skin. I pushed the thought of cruelty to animals aside.

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Bathing with elephants: An unforgettable experience.

What can I say? Part of me actually wanted to believe him, because what followed was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me: I rode barefoot without anything on an elephant! I bathed with “my” elephant! I was so fascinated by the size and calmness of such a large animal! It was madness.

Elephants in Thailand: The negative side

But I just couldn’t get rid of the negative impressions. I felt as if I had been part of something not so beautiful and had contributed to the suffering of such great animals. Because something was not right in this camp. Although I am not an elephant expert, I know that happy animals look different. That metal hook that was constantly used, the anklets, the sad elephant eyes, the abraded skin…. And do you really have to be breathing down an animal’s neck just because you want to ride it a few meters? For those in my group who didn’t want to ride the elephant without everything, a rickety metal chair was strapped to the elephant’s back – also a construction that didn’t look comfortable for the elephant. Afterwards I learned that these chairs cause terrible injuries to the elephants.

How can I see elephants in Thailand without a guilty conscience?

I would not want to miss this experience, yet my memory of this day will also always be associated with shame. I would advise anyone not to participate in such an excursion as stupidly and ignorantly as I did. There are said to be elephant camps that take much better care of their elephants. They don’t ride the elephants there either – there’s no need for that. The terrible hook is also looked for in vain, at least it is not obviously used. And you can still enjoy the proximity of these great animals!

How to find “good” elephant camps in Thailand

“Good” Elephant camps, however, are hard to find. Because meanwhile also the operators know that ever more tourists insist on a kind-fair attitude – and the black sheep under the elephant camps fib quite beautifully and arrange superficially total animal love. Therefore, do not be impressed by low prices! In these camps less is invested in the animals, and even if there is no riding on the animals – they are marketed as a tourist attraction and sometimes secretly kept in check with hooks and other aids.

Very famous near Chiang Mai is the Elephant Retirement Park. There you don’t ride on the elephants, but you experience the elephants in a natural, loving environment.

Book a trip to Elephant Retirement Park here!*

Elephant baby in Thailand


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