Why riding an Elephant is my biggest travel regret

Sometimes in life we have to admit when we have made a mistake. And so, I have to face up to a huge travel mistake I made years ago. I was apprehensive about writing this post. It means admitting I did something that I now tell others they shouldn’t be doing. I rode and elephant in Thailand, and it was the biggest travel mistake I ever made.

In my early twenties, I threw on my backpack and headed off to South East Asia like so many before me, my head filled with a bucket list of things I wanted to do. The “banana pancake” trail is well worn, and unsurprisingly a lot of people end up doing the same activities -Full Moon party, tubing in Laos, Halong Bay, Angkor Wat sunrise…. Something I knew I wanted to do was ride an elephant in Thailand. I guess it was always just in my head, something I perceived as a “Thailand must do”, and I thought I could do it ethically. I was wrong.

A beautiful Elephant in the wild as it should be

Chiang Mai, North Thailand, seemed like the perfect place. There were advertisements everywhere for various different companies offering elephant rides. I have always classed myself as an animal lover, and so I was adamant I wanted to find an ethical elephant riding camp, with no baskets on the animals back, or tricks and shows put on for tourists. I found one place that seemed to have great reviews, and touted themselves as being different, a sanctuary for abandoned and ex- circus elephants. It boasted that you would spend the full day there, learning about the elephants life and care, and there were absolutely no baskets on the backs of the animals. I thought to myself, this is great! A chance to interact with Elephants that have been saved.

I arrived at the camp with a mini bus full of other tourists, and we were left to roam around and feed the elephants. To be so close to such a beautiful animal was an amazing feeling. You really appreciate the size of them, the reality that they could do serious damage with just a flick of their feet, and yet they seem so calm and serene.

We clambered onto the animals bare backs and set off on a walk across the hillside. During the walk, the “Mahout” (elephant trainer) would prod the animal in certain places, mostly behind the ears, with a stick. Not particularly hard, but it would cause the animal to respond. Then I noticed sores in those places, and it started to make me think – why does this elephant respond so readily to a gentle poke? I started feeling a little uneasy, like I was doing something I shouldn’t be.

Years later, and I still feel guilty. I am now more educated, and can easily see now that these elephants were probably treated the same as every other poor animal which is used for making money. Basket or no basket, these animals were likely victims of a practice known as “crushing”, or “breaking the elephants spirit“. Baby elephants are ripped from their mothers, kepy in tiny cages and poked and prodded with a “Bull Hook”. This torture goes on for weeks, leaving the elephants helpless and at the mercy of their “trainers”. These poor animals go on to live a miserable life.

So whilst many Asian countries may tout their Elephant camps as “Ethical”, there is usually more than meets the eye. If in doubt, just avoid. If no tourist had the desire to ride an Elephant, eventually there would be no demand to “break the spirit” of these beautiful animals.

I know I have contributed to an unethical tourist trap, and it breaks my heart. And that is why I urge all tourists not to make the same mistake I did.

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7 thoughts on “Why riding an Elephant is my biggest travel regret

  • May 5, 2018 at 9:40 pm
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    I did this too before my blogging days and before I had any sense of awareness of the issue at hand. I think as long as we take those experiences as learning moments and use our blogs to raise awareness (as you are doing here), we can help to create change.

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  • May 5, 2018 at 9:59 pm
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    Experience is the best teacher. So often we have to make our own mistakes to learn from them. I think that if you simply followed someone’s advice and never rode an elephant, it would’ve just been one of the things you don’t do on your travels. But since you realized the cruelty that the elephants are subjected to through your own experience, you have become a passionate advocate against these practices. Now you are doing more good for the elephants by writing this post and making your opinion heard.

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  • May 5, 2018 at 10:23 pm
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    Awww poor elephants! I totally agree with you, the “me” from 10 years ago was dying to ride an elephant. But as I’ve been reading more and more posts about how unethical it is and how they treat the animals it totally rips me apart inside. And as cool of an experience as it would be to ride one, I also feel like it’s not worth it when I know they’re being treated in such a horrible way. Thank you for sharing your experience! It takes a lot of guts to admit to having done something that you regret so much, especially something that affects the life of another, in this case the poor elephant.

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  • May 6, 2018 at 1:08 am
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    It takes a lot of strength to admit when you fucked up. I’m so glad that you’ve chosen to use this learning experience as an opportunity speak out about animal abuse! This is something I also wasn’t aware of years ago – there is a photo of me holding a baby alligator in Miami, tied up with its mouth clamped shut. I am ashamed, but I truly didn’t know any better. Now, I do, and I use my blog and social media as a platform to speak out to educate others like me who didn’t know!

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  • May 6, 2018 at 5:00 am
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    Thanks for raising awareness of animal abuse in Southeast Asia. I would suggest volunteering at elephant sanctuaries with absolutely no riding. Heard there are a couple in Chiang Mai. I was lucky to visit one and had a great time. It takes research and education to find one, but so worth the effort.

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  • May 6, 2018 at 9:08 am
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    I totally agree. Good thing before I even traveled to Thailand, read about stuff like this online already so I saved myself from riding them. whew!

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  • May 8, 2018 at 2:07 pm
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    Thanks for sharing this. You will probably reach people with this that now will understand why to ride bikes instead of elephants.

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