Riding an elephant had never really crossed my mind. I really hadn’t come across any on my trip around the world except for during my time in India, but even then riding one never crossed my mind. It wasn’t until I got to Thailand that I had heard a few people talk about their experience riding an elephant in Chiang Mai. I thought about it and thought why not I mean where else will I ever be able to do this and thought it would be an amazing experience and that it was. It wasn’t until after I posted a photo on my Facebook fanpage did I become aware of the dark side of the elephant tourism industry in Thailand. So I thought I would write about my experience and then write about what I think about it overall.
We had arrived in Chiang Mai after a long hot 17 hour train ride from Bangkok. My friend and I were both happy to leave Bangkok because Bangkok didn’t impress us much and were ready for something else. Upon arriving in Chiang Mai the charm hit us and we knew we were going to love it. I was so excited… we arrived to our hostel and since my friend only had a few days went ahead and booked the elephant tour with the hostel. I didn’t know what to expect so honestly I didn’t ask many questions. The lady let us know what we would be doing our entire day with the elephants and let us know that they took very good care of the elephants. We were sold so carried on and were excited for the next morning.
The next morning we woke up bright and early and made our way to the park. We arrived at Maevang Elephant Park and were introduced to the trainer. The trainer introduced himself to us and the day began. We sat at the table and he started teaching us how to speak to the elephant by teaching us the main words:
“PY” means “GO”… “PY” like “PIE”
“QUAY” means “TURN”… “QUAY” like “QUAY” like it sounds
“HO” means “STOP” … “HO” like “HO” like it sounds
“TOY” means “REVERSE”… “TOY” like “TOY” like it sounds
I couldn’t stop giggling, because I never thought I would ever be speaking to an elephant and just the thought of it made me laugh. Then he told us a bit more information about the elephants and then it was time to meet them. We walked across the dirt road to a big open filed where you could see two elephants roaming freely. My friend was a bit scared and told him there was no way she would get on that huge thing. So the instructor told us we would go meet the most recent addition to the family a 2 year old baby elephant. We made our way there and spent some time with the baby elephant. It was so damn cute and we were able to pet him, touch him, play with him and then were able to feed him. We both warmed up to the elephant and were both less scared of going to the big ones. We met our elephants (mine was a girl) and started by doing the same petting her, playing with her and feeding her. I had a strange sensation standing next to her… I felt so tiny next to her and just in awe of her presence and how calm she was. I gave her a hug and some love. I couldn’t stop smiling.
—Hugging my big girl.—
The next step was actually getting on the elephant. We were told we would be getting on bareback (without a chair), because it was safer and better for the elephant. I was so scared; I mean really she was twice my height and just so huge, but the trainer helped me on and so the training began. We walked around the big open field and I practiced the commands I was taught at the beginning. I couldn’t stop laughing and smiling… this actually wasn’t as scary as I thought. The elephant walked around so slowly and so calmly and I felt comfortable. I then was given more food to feed her. We had already fed her so much, but they eat so much… so we fed her some more. After a while I got off the elephant and my friend practiced as well. We did it a few times until we got the swing of it and by that time it was lunch time. We had an amazing home made Thai lunch and after that the real adventure began.
—Getting on the elephant for the 1st time.—
—Riding around the open field learning how to command the elephant.—
We both mounted our elephants and it was time to make the long journey through the forest and down to the river. As we made our way through the thick forest guided by our trainers I felt a rush of excitement… I still couldn’t believe it, but was loving it. I was scared many times the elephant would fall over as it made it’s way up narrow paths, but it didn’t. The elephant would stop every once in a while to eat and not once would the trainer hit it, but instead would yell the commands a bit harder than I would and the elephant would listen and carry on. We finally arrived to the river and I was scared once again, because the elephant just walked in like nothing with us on the back. We were than given a bucket and brush to bathe the elephant. My elephant just sat there as I brushed her and cleaned her and gave her more tender loving.
—My girl & I making our way up a narrow path.—
—In the river bathing my girl.—
—Heading back to the park.—
Then just like that it was time to head back to the park because our day was coming to an end. We fed the elephants a few more times and then that was that. Even though we had been with the elephants over 6 hours it seemed like only minutes. I was so sad to say goodbye to my girl, but did so by giving her a huge hug and sending her back to her open field. It was a long day in the sun and we were both exhausted, but so happy with the amazing experience we had. I was so happy and excited to share some amazing photos with my friends and readers on Facebook and then that’s where it all changed.
One of my good friends left me a comment informing me of how most of the elephants in Thailand are treated to get them to do all things they do for the tourist by sharing a video and a blog post with me that gave more details to this other side. I started watching the video and couldn’t finish it… it was gruesome. I then read the blog post and now saw “elephant tourism” in a whole different way. I felt so guilty and confused. I remembered hearing about this, but because how the tour was presented to us it didn’t even cross my mind and now I kept thinking “Did I just support this? Did I see them do anything bad to them while I was there?” I kept flashing back… and didn’t see anything bad going on.
I mean honestly I have gone over and over every detail in my head of my day with the elephants and can’t remember seeing anything bad. The elephants were always being fed, they were in a huge field roaming freely and never hit with anything, but yelled at when not listening (like any animal on Earth). I know not all elephant parks in Thailand abuse their elephants like the video and blog post mention. So the truth is I still have mixed feelings, about my experience riding elephants in Chiang Mai. It makes me think about any other animal I have ridden… should I feel guilty for riding a horse in Texas/Mexico or riding a camel in Morocco? In the end all animals any human rides is a wild animal and should be left in the wild, but since the dawn of time humans have used and riden animals for a million reasons. Is riding an elephant for pleasure more wrong then riding any other animal for any other reason? In the end I or any other tourist will never see how the elephants are treated behind closed doors and that is something I have also thought about as well.
So as I sit here trying to end this I really have no damn clue how to end it, because I really don’t know how I feel about this. It reminds me so much about how I felt when I watched my 1st Corrida de Toros in Madrid and questioned if it was animal cruelty or tradition. In a way I want everyone to experience this amazing experience spending a day talking to, loving, feeding and riding an elephant, but then a part of me wants to make sure know no one ever does it again because of how the elephants may be treated. So instead I will just say if any of you reading this plan on riding an elephant in Chiang Mai or anywhere else in the world ask a few more questions about the safety and treatment of the elephants before booking the tour.
Have any of you riden an elephant, what are your thoughts on it? Did you know about the “dark side” of elephant tourism?