My experience and thoughts on riding elephants in Chiang Mai.

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.

Riding Elephants in Chiang Mai

—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.

Riding Elephants in Chiang Mai

—Getting on the elephant for the 1st time.—

Riding Elephants in Chiang Mai

—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.

Riding Elephants in Chiang Mai

—My girl & I making our way up a narrow path.—

Riding Elephants in Chiang Mai

 —In the river bathing my girl.—

Riding Elephants in Chiang Mai

 —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?

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  1. I’m glad you’re raising the question on your blog. We went to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai which is a sanctuary for injured elephants that have been rescued from tourism or working. Although you might not have seen anything bad when you were there, we learned at ENP that the way they have to train the elephants as babies to be ridden and respond to those commands is very cruel. We watched a video at the ENP and learned a lot about the conditions the elephants have been in.

    Even if they feed them enough (although elephants need A LOT of food so they are often under-fed), many of the tourist places don’t have any use for the elephants if they get injured or old, so keep working them hard when they should be allowed to retire. Many at ENP have very bad injuries because of this, or are even blind because the people who they worked for poked their eyes to force them to work.

    I am not saying this to make you feel bad, and of course I am sure a lot of the mahouts do love their elephants, but I just want to share what I have learned. Also, it’s good to hear you rode them without the seat as that is much better for the elephant.

    I would certainly recommend visiting Elephant Nature Park over the others. You don’t ride elephants there, although the trainers do ride them, but you see how much care goes into looking after these injured elephants and how much good the sanctuary is doing. It’s WELL worth the money.

    Also, please avoid going to any tiger temples. Although the tigers aren’t necessarily drugged like many say, I have been reading many reports of volunteers who were initially so happy to work with the tigers having to leave because they were so disgusted at the way the tigers were treated behind the scenes. All this is hidden from toursits who feel they are getting a once in a lifetime experience. I missed out on the experience of having a photo with a tiger because I just don’t think my small experience is worth all that suffering for the animal.
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    • Jaime Davila says:

      Oh wow Ruth thank you very much for sharing this information with me. Don’t ever feel bad for telling me the truth even if it may make me feel bad. I honestly just didn’t know so much about this and am slowly finding out more through others. I can only imagine what they must be put through to be able to do what they do for us (the tourist). The more I learn about this the more I don’t want anyone to do it, even though I did have an amazing experience. If I’m ever back in Thailand I will try and visit the Elephant Nature Park to see all this 1st hand. Oh & yeah I saw the tiger temple advertised everywhere but had heard about them drugging them to make sure they are tame so chose not to go. It’s crazy to hear that they are treated so badly. I am happy I at least didn’t do that and support that and don’t feel like I missed out on much. Thanks again for sharing all this with me & my readers.

  2. I totally understand your dilemma here, I felt the same way after I did a camel tour in Tunisia. Though it was a lovely experience, I regretted it afterwards because when I gave the animals a closer look I could see they were not being well cared for. I went horse riding in the Sierra Nevada once and that was a completely different experience, I spent some time at the riding school before I went and could see that the horses were treated with love and care, which made me feel a little easier about the situation.

    I’m going to Thailand in a few months and though I would love to ride an elephant (it’ll be a unique experience indeed, when I see your photo’s it makes me wanna go even more!), I’m not sure if I’ll do it. I’d first want to see how the animals are treated before I make the decision to go on or not.

    Then again, even if the animals are treated right, I guess every company that exploits animals for tourism or any other profit related business has a dark side per definition… So where do you draw the line?
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    • Jaime Davila says:

      Michelle, gosh I have riden camels a few time and never really paid attention to how they are treated… it never even crossed my mind because I keep thinking oh people have been riding camels in this part of the world forever so they must be used to it. I guess that is not the case. Next time I ride one I will think twice about it and also give it a closer look. As for riding an elephant in Thailand I know exactly how you feel because that is how I feel now. Had I known all this before hand I don’t know if I would have done it. It really is a very unique experience, but at what expense? You should visit one of the parks my reader left in the 1st comment. That too would be a unique experience if you can care for a hurt elephant. In the end though what you mention is true… about any company exploiting animals to make a profit must have a dark side. It’s hard to know where to draw the line… and that is why I love the saying “ignorance is bliss” I’m not saying you or I are, I’m just saying it to think about it. The less you know the more blissful things are because the more you learn the more you see the dark side about many things and have to start drawing lines. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be informed… I’m just using it as an example.

      • That’s the thing, you accept it because it’s a custom in the country you’re traveling in.. But as soon as tourism gets involved it can become a whole different thing. Same with dolphin shows, for example… Many people see dolphin shows and swimming with dolphin programs as a highlight of their trip, not seeing the dark side of dolphins in captivity (which can cause depression and worse).

        About the elephants, I came across this post the other day about the Elephant Nature Park, I think it’s the same one that Ruth mentioned above. This girl volunteered there, I thought it was really interesting: http://whirlwindtravel.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/thailand-volunteer-work-the-elephant-nature-park/

        It really does look like it’s a more responsible choice so I’m keeping that one in mind before I visit.

        I’m glad you wrote this post! I hope it makes more people think twice about the choices they make while traveling.
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        • Jaime Davila says:

          So true Michelle, and man oh man… now you mentioned dolphin shows and I too had never thought of those being bad. Oh man what world do we live in where so much is done to animals for our pleasure and entertainment??? Yeah if I am ever back up in North Thailand I am going to check out the volunteer Elephant Nature Park. I’m glad I wrote about this too and am glad I’m learning more about this and the treatment of other animals around the world. I’m hope I make people think twice about the choices we make while traveling.

  3. I am so glad you wrote this post! I often talk to people who have experiences similar to yours regarding elephant riding. The elephants SEEM cared for, and free from abuse. The important thing to keep in mind regarding any sort of wild animal domestication is that these animals have been domesticated. Domestication is not something that happens with lots of love and treats, it happens with abuse. Even horses are broken in order to be ridden. So, when you go to ride a horse, it may seem happy now and its living conditions may seem great, but to get to that point was painful and abusive. I wrote a piece on why you shouldn’t ride elephants, maybe this can help shed some additional light — particularly in the comments. http://journals.worldnomads.com/responsible-travel/story/81053/Thailand/Why-Elephant-Riding-Should-Be-Removed-from-Your-Bucket-List
    Diana Edelman recently posted..Daily Wanderlust: Morning glow at Elephant Nature Park

    • Jaime Davila says:

      Hi Diana, ah it was your post that opened a whole can of worms in my mind and I’m thankful for it. Everything you said in the comment is true and has now made me think even more about everything. I also just read the post you linked here and wow… had I read that and known all this before hand I would have never done it. It’s so scary to learn about all this in more detail.

  4. Well, as you can imagine, we’re guys who are against zoos 🙂 Having said that, we had no clue (until the last few years) about what goes on w/ the elephants. Also, so glad that Diana said that about horseback riding.
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    • Jaime Davila says:

      Oh Kent why did you bring that up… I am one of those people who also doesn’t know how he feels about Zoos. If it’s for conservation and helping the animals I am okay with it, but the rest for display not so much. I will tell you this… NEVER VISIT the CAIRO ZOO… most depressing Zoo in the world. I felt sick to my stomach and would love to have that Zoo closed, but anyway that’s a story for another time. As for horseback riding… i honestly never put much thought into that either until it was mentioned. Crazy… crazy crazy!

  5. This type of thing can be a dilemma. I took an elephant tour in Chitwan National Park in Nepal. thought it was great at the time, but heard stories of how the elephants are treated after I got home. I’m still a little torn on this. Regardless, awesome experience….
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  6. I’m glad you wrote this post, Jaime, and that you’re acknowledging that there may be another side to this than what you saw.
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    • Jaime Davila says:

      Thanks Amanda, yes it’s sad that even though I saw nothing bad I really have no clue how they are treated behind the scene and that makes me feel bad. I wish I had done a bit more research before booking the tour, but I honestly didn’t know about the DARK SIDE. So am glad I am sharing this with people and hope they understand it’s our responsibility to be informed.

  7. The fact that you didn’t research the tour before participating but are now talking about it pretty well guarantees that most people reading this will inform themselves and tell others to do the same. Much better outcome than if you had researched, not gone on the tour and not written about it. You should not feel guilty about that.
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    • Jaime Davila says:

      That is a great way to look at it Nat, never thought of it. That makes me feel less guilty. I hope people do share this and do let others know about this.

  8. Oh how I understand your pain!! It’s such a complicated world where ethics are concerned. Elephants are my favourite animal. I love them. I have them all over my house (not real ones, obviously). And I’ve always distrusted riding on one for some of the reasons you talk about. When in India though I ended up in a farcical situation where our jeep ride to watch for tigers, identified said tigers but they were off the road. So what did we do? We jumped on elephants to ‘chase’ after them. And I had to think about my ethical dilemma’s in a heartbeat and over rode them in an effort to see a tiger who was wayyyy smarter than us stupid tourists on elephants hurtling through the jungle. What I saw though was some of what you describe, the awesomeness of their character, look into those eyes and you lose yourself, and all I could see was love. I guess you have to hope for the best from human kind as with many things. Thanks for sharing your story. Sorry for the long winded response!!

    • Jaime Davila says:

      Jajaja Victoria “not real ones, obviously” made me laugh. It really is a complicated world we live in where ethics are concerned… like big time complicated. It makes simple things so much more complicated. Crazy what you did in India.. that sounds like fun, but then again you think about the ethics and ugh it hurts your soul, but then when you are right there next to them looking into their eyes you get lost and feel nothing but love and are in awe standing next to one of the biggest animals on earth. It just reminds of our role on earth… oh & don’t apologize for a long comment. I love all comments short or long & will respond to each.

  9. It’s hard for me to comment because I have so many thoughts and I kinda blame myself for not talking about the elephant tourism in Thailand when we hung out in India or any time we skyped. I remember how we came back from a day trip one night and passed one of the Elephant Parks near Chiang Mai where people can ride the elephants. All the elephants stood there with big iron chains around their legs, their heads hanging, and I felt so sorry for them. Of course they are treated well when the tourists are around – if there is one thing these parks want to avoid it’s bad press – but I don’t even want to think about how they get treated when no one’s around. I also think that while they might seem fine, the process to break an elephant and make it accept people on its back is what really disturbs the animal and what they will never forget. And also, what Ruth has already said- even though they seem to get enough food: elephants eat between 220 to 440 lb of food every day! And many of the parks do not feed them that much.
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    • Jaime Davila says:

      Its okay Dani, I know what you mean… and I know I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this while we were in India either. Y’all always tell me the good & the bad about just about everywhere I am going. I’m glad though that you did tell me and am happy that I am also spreading this info. I hope more people read this and become aware of this. I didn’t know elephants ate so much… that’s a lot and I know they were not fed that much while I was there. Sucks that we will never see how they are really treated behind closed doors. I’m happy for the experience but I will never do it again… and I will also not be visiting the tiger temples and other animal tourist things.

  10. I think anyone who has traveled a lot looks back at some point and realizes they did something they shouldn’t have done. And frankly there is a lot in South East Asia I wish I had thought about before doing.

    I didn’t ride an elephant there because I heard such conflicting reports, I also didn’t do the tiger thing. But I have done lots of other stuff that I wish I hadn’t.

    If you want to know one more thing you shouldn’t do it’s swim with dolphins. Watch the documentary, The Cove, and you’ll see why. I had to stop it in the middle because it was so emotionally draining but I am really happy I watched it.

    At this point I think any form of tourism that involves animals probably isn’t wise.
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    • Jaime Davila says:

      Yeah Ayngelina I so get what you are saying about SEAsia. Their is so many things here that just don’t seem right like at all. I do question some things and others for some reason just don’t think about… it’s crazy though. Oh & I have seen The Cove… it’s a crazy movie. I learned alot from that and will never support that type of tourism too.

  11. I just went there and I can tell you that even with an open mind I was quite disturbed. The Mahouts were very nasty people, even the ones that were on the elephants with people did not smile and gave you dirty look as they jabbed the elephants. They made the elephants do tricks to they could hit you up for money and they ‘demanded’ the money. It was such an awful experience. They would command these elephants with such ugliness. Some looked tired, old, and just miserable. Believe me, it ruined the most part of my day. I too didn’t want the animals painting or doing tricks, but they made the elephants do things anyway without me realizing at first. Just don’t waste your money.
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  12. Dude! I was living in CM for the first half of this year! spewing i couldnt be there the same time as you and see you on your way through. Glad to see you’re loving your time there though, im missing it heaps..

  13. hey great post and photos! it looks like you found a good one to go to!?? and yeah i went to CM last year.. loved it! wanted to go back this year but did not have the time to! sadly! did go to the tiger temple last year. watched that video link and it made me sick! would like to do the same to those guys ! those poor elephants!!!

    • Jaime Davila says:

      Thanks Bernie, it’s hard to say if I found a good one to go to or not because the truth is I don’t know what happens behind closed doors. It’s a mix feelings I still have about this experience… as for the tiger temple yes I have heard about them, but won’t be going for sure.

      • Yeah your right about not knowing what goes on.. By the way have you heard Gary Allans song smoke rings in the darl? think you would like it.. all the best.

  14. sorry that should be smoke rings in the dark.. lol

    • Jaime Davila says:

      I used to like Gary. What ever happened to him? Is he still around? I just heard the sng on youtube. I like it.

  15. It sounds like you had a better experience than we had last year outside of Bangkok… The handlers had no problems using a small pic axe on our elephant’s head instead of using the commands you listed above. That was done right in front of us so who knows what they do behind the scenes. We left the park feeling like crappy tourists that day. I guess you live and you learn, I think I will be doing some more research on this stuff before signing up in the future. Thanks for bringing the topic up.
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    • Jaime Davila says:

      Adam, ah that is horrible. I would have walked out feeling the same way too. I just don’t think I will do anything in the future involving animals.

  16. Great pictures. I loved Chiang Mai. Riding and playing with the elephants was so much fun. I highly recommend it to anyone and also highly recommend going to play with the tigers in their cages.

    • Jaime Davila says:

      Thanks Katie… CM was nice as for riding and playing with elephants I still have no clue how I feel about it.

    • Hi Katie,
      I know this is an old post but I want to encourage you to research elephant riding and caged tigers in Chiang Mai. These are both very bad lives for the animals and elephants are beaten and abused to train them for tourist rides. Please don’t encourage people to do either activity. Animals deserve our love and respect. Thank you 🙂

  17. Hi, I had a similar experience to yourself in Laos last year. I had heard about the elephant tourism and we tried to do our homework amd choose a tour that was what we wanted but that cared about the elephants. We chose a mahout training day with a fairly new company and had a blast. All the elephants and mahouts had previously been in the logging industry. I truely had an amazing experience. The elephants were fed regularly and in large proportions. We rode on them bare back as well. I felt like i had a bond with my elephant. Although, while we were their another tourist group went on other elephants with the chairs on their backs. This i don’t agree with but it wasn’t long before that group returned and those elephants were free to roam around the park for the rest of the day. While i enjoyed my experience i too am torn. I have also ridden camels and today i rode a horse for the first time. Also today a friend posted online saying that riding elephants is absolutely disgraceful and horrible. It made me feel really guilty. The lines are such a blur. All these animals have been beasts of burden or ridden in some way by humans for many years. They had already been trained to obey commands from an industry not related to tourism and are already domesticated. I feel like I can’t share my positive experience because it will be frowned upon. I think it’s down to education. Educating yourself as much as you can and educating those in the industry to truely take care of the animals.

    • Jaime Davila says:

      Hi Heather, I totally understand and for the same reason we relate because we are both torn. It is an amazing experience but at what cost to the animals? I mena we really don’t know how they are treated behind the scenes after we leave. I don’t know it’s just hard to share for the same reason. I am often ashamed I did this and don’t mention it when others talk about it. So it’s just an experience we have and one maybe that stays with us. That’s okay too. This is something I wouldn’t recommend the more I read into it just doesn’t seem right at all.

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