Why Our Family Won’t be Riding Elephants in Thailand

Photo credit: ElephantVoices.org, Petter Granli

Photo credit: ElephantVoices.org, Petter Granli

The idea of travelling to Thailand conjures up many romantic and exotic images – from the frenetic streets of Bangkok, to gilded temples and giant Buddhas, to palm-fringed islands, and of course, elephants, Thailand’s national symbol. All of these scenes in one way or another make the “Land of Smiles” a bucket list favorite for many, including our family. This summer, we’re heading to Southeast Asia for three weeks, with most of our time being spent in Thailand.

One activity we won’t be doing, however, is riding elephants – or seeing elephants dance, paint, or engage in otherwise non elephant-like activities. As unfazed as this gentle giant may appear with a human on its back, the distressing truth is that elephants that are tame enough to carry people have had to endure abusive training to behave that way.

Call me a party-pooper for denying my children this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but all it takes is a few minutes of research to uncover the cruel tactics that are regularly used to prepare elephants for life as a tourist entertainer.

How to Make an Elephant Paint

Elephants in Thailand were once the workhorses of the logging industry, until logging was banned in 1989. Out of a job and expensive to keep, many of these elephants literally ended up on the streets or in the tourist trade. Unlike the earlier mahouts, or elephant handlers, who grew up around these majestic animals and inherited their profession, many handlers today have little knowledge about the nature and survival needs of elephants. They have themselves or families to support, and using elephants to entertain visitors is a reliable source of income. Who can blame them for wanting a slice of this lucrative market?


Photo credit: ElephantVoices.org, Petter Granli

The sad reality is that making an elephant people friendly and obedient requires an arduous training process that involves chaining the elephant to a confined pen, jabbing it constantly with a sharp instrument (if you saw the bull hook scenes in the movie “Water for Elephants,” you know what I’m talking about), and leaving the poor animal without food and water for days. The goal is to break the elephant’s innate “wild” spirit so that it can be trained to do what its handlers want and what tourists like to see.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Wild animals are by their very nature “wild”, and thus not necessarily safe with humans, especially those without years of hands-on experience. For an elephant to be able to paint a self-portrait in front of a cheering crowd, or to calmly carry multiple riders on its back, they have to be taught to do so. Tourists might attribute this ability to sheer intelligence; after all elephants have very large and complex brains and are recognized as being among the smartest mammals on earth. But painting? Intelligence can’t be the whole explanation since art is not something elephants naturally do in the wild. Would you force your child, just because he’s a good learner, to be a tight rope walker in the circus if he doesn’t also have the aptitude and desire?

A More Humane Alternative

Photo credit: Jesse & Teresa, Flickr

Photo credit: Jesse & Teresa, Flickr

With this new perspective, I was determined to find an opportunity for our family to still see and interact with elephants in Thailand, but in a way that supports their humane treatment. I enlisted my daughter to do some research, and within 10 minutes she came back with a place called the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. ENP’s sprawling preserve, surrounded by a river and forested mountains, is home to about 30 injured and abandoned elephants – as well as over a hundred dogs that were rescued in the aftermath of Bangkok’s devastating 2011 floods. In addition to offering unique opportunities to visit the park and even volunteer for extended periods, ENP is committed to educating visitors and locals alike about the plight and needs of Asian elephants.

As far as I can tell, ENP is one-of-a-kind. Their elephants do not give rides, paint pictures, or perform tricks. They do what elephants do best – play in the mud and socialize with each other. When we visit ENP this June, we’ll be able to get “up close and personal” with members of the herd, by touching them, feeding them, and bathing them in the river. My family couldn’t be more excited for this truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Learn about Elephant Nature Park for yourself, www.elephantnaturepark.org, and check back here in July for a written and photographic report on my visit.

“The beast which passeth all others in wit and mind.” Aristotle on elephants


40 thoughts on “Why Our Family Won’t be Riding Elephants in Thailand

  1. I was there in January. It was truly an incredible experience. Plus, a baby girl was recently born there so you will be able to see her! Have a great time in Thailand.

  2. My 12 year old son and I loved our day at ENP last Christmas. We have posted pictures to our blog as well and will do so again soon along with a narrative. Thanks for a great posting.

  3. I volunteered there for 7 days last year (2012). It’s worth every penny and every minute you spend there. The people who run it are very integral and are doing fantastic things with elephants, dogs, cats, buffalo, etc, and also with people (many of their staff are refugees) and with the local hill tribes. I can’t say enough good things about this place. Go – you will love it! I’m going back, and I know that many volunteers are repeat visitors. Well done for wanting to make an ethical choice. And thank you on behalf of the elephants. Deb.

  4. My wife and I have just got back from our Honeymoon in Thailand. We visited ENP for a day trip and I have to say, it was absolutely the best thing thing we did all holiday. It really raises awareness to sad truth of what these poor animals have to go through, a real eye opener, and deeply disturbing. We had an amazing time spending a day in the life of these beautiful characters, I’m sure you will enjoy the same experience. Have a great time. Steve.

  5. You’re going to love it! Driving in and watching an unchained elephant wandering across an enormous grassy field…breathtaking! The stories are brutal but the work being done is fantastic. This was the highlight of 6-weeks we just spent in Thailand. Enjoy!

  6. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary is another sanctuary where there is no riding, and elephants are free to be elephants; guests (6 at most at a time) follow the elephants’ schedule. Lots of rescued cats and dogs, a few cows; it’s a delightful and peaceful family business near Sukothai in Northern Thailand.

  7. Great blog which reflects exactly how we felt about spending time with elephants in Thailand. We spend a wonderful day at the Elephant Nature Park last month and it was the highlight of our trip. I’m enjoying getting all the updates on Facebook

  8. I have volunteered (along with 20 high school students) at ENP for a week. It was a great experience. Several students called it a “life changing experience.” Spend a few days, volunteer and contribute. It is a wonderfully worth cause!

    • Hi Debbie,

      What a fantastic experience! I wish we could volunteer this time, but unfortunately, this visit is part of a bigger trip across Thailand and Cambodia. I have it in my mind though to go back in a couple of years and stay at least a week.


  9. GREAT blog! It’s wonderful to finally see someone else do a little research BEFORE traveling. You are a great example to your daughter– and to other tourists– on how to be an ethical traveler. I thank you!

  10. Thank you for posting this. It’s great to see fellow travelers doing their homework BEFORE visiting a country– and NOT on how to save a buck on a hotel room or where the best restaurants are, but how to travel ethically. You are a great parent and a shining example to your daughter on how to be a good person. You will live the Park, and yes, it truly is a one-of-a-kind place. You will want to return to volunteer for a week, I promise you!

    • Thank you! I wish we were going for more than a day visit, but hopefully sometime after, I will have the opportunity to volunteer. That’s the plan! I hope you have that opportunity next year. Karen

  11. You will love it. The valley is magical. The people is so kind and good natured and the animals are so beautiful. No better way to see them than in their natural environment.
    Thailand was such an experience for us, we encountered many sad stories about animals (tigers, baby gibbons and elephants, really made an impression on us) but you will also encounter a magical place, beautiful nature sights and awesome people. Good luck and enjoy it!

  12. Thank you for writing this post! It’s so important for people to know why they should avoid elephant ‘entertainment’. I’ve been to ENP and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

  13. You took the words right out of my mouth 🙂 I am on my way to ENP in just 6 days to volunteer for a week from the 22nd April. A friend of mine is a repeat visitor and volunteer, her son actually raised enough money 2 years ago, (after visiting the year before) and they went back and they rescued an elephant named Kwan Jai, sadly who has recently passed away 😦 They were just like you, they did research before they went to Thailand, and young Jack, 9 at the time, said he didn’t want to see elephants doing tricks etc, but he wanted to see them in their natural habitat doing normal ele things, and they found ENP. I have been a follower myself for a few years and have always wanted to get there, and now I am, finally 🙂
    I have started a blog of my own to show friends, family and the world of the experience and to hopefully educate the masses too. I know it is going to be life changing and I know I will go back every year!! Thank You so much for a great blog!
    I hope to see you there!!

    • I’m sure you will have a fantastic time . . . and I will follow your blog to read about it! I read about that boy Jack when Kwan Jai passed. What a wonderful thing he did. I hope that after our visit, I can go back someday to volunteer for a longer period of time.

      Have a wonderful trip!


  14. Hi,Good to see that there is a growing awareness about the cruelty involved in domesticating a wild animal for human entertainment. You might find the speech made by Dr Joyce Poole (Elephant Voices) made when she was with ATE very interesting read (rides are also mentioned), you might have already read this one – made in the context of SAfrica but applicable all over the world where they capture these magnificient poor creatures for human entertainment. The link is given here http://www.elephanttrust.org/node/376

    • Good tips! Also, there are several new and very good documentaries out to see. How I Became an Elephant is an award-winning documentary about an American teenager’s efforts to raise money to buy an elephant to rescue for the ENP, and HBO just broadcast An Apology to Elephants this past Monday, and will surely rebroadcast it over the coming weeks.

  15. Just got back from volunteering at ENP – thanks for posting about it and I’ve shared your blog on FB. I’ve written about a little bit of such an awesome experience in my blog, hopefully it can spread some awareness and help some elephants. Happy travels!

  16. I’ve just been volunteering for a month at the ENP dog shelter and loved it especially considering that at the same time I learned so much about the elephants only by observing them. There is really no need to ride elephants or watch them doing something unnatural as you said. Happy travels! 🙂

    • Sounds fantastic! I’m now wishing we could volunteer for a longer period . . . maybe someday. Where’s the dog shelter by the way? I thought it was part of ENP outside of Chiang Mai, but do they have another dog-only location, maybe in Chiang Mai? If so, I’d love to visit that as well.

      • The dog shelter is within the ENP, it’s in the same park as you thought, you can pop there anytime you have some time and give some fuss to the dogs, they’d love that 🙂

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  18. let us know how your vacation goes!! glad there are responsible parents out there researching these things before sending kids for the seemingly harmless experience.

  19. On our way there in just a few days, and consider me a schooled tourist. A year ago, I had pie-eyed thoughts of being with elephants, riding them, and experiencing everything they do….. Then I started my research. My enlightenment on this, CONVINCED my husband and I, that we NEED to go, not to have the touristy show experience we started out with; but to support facilities (sanctuaries really) for these elephants and the situation in Thailand. We plan on visiting 3 at this point, starting with ENP, and are happy, more then happy that our tourist dollars are going to help these wonderful beings, and not hurt them. Knowledge. If people really knew, I bet they would boycott on a much larger scale and NOT participate in “shows” or “elephant massages”. I have to believe in humanity that much. I am apprehensive of learning even more about the abuse, which I know we will, it’s part of becoming aware, but I watched/read about only one story of Phajaan and haunts me still.
    I will thank each and every elephant that allows me near him/her, for their strong spirit that survived whatever abuse they experienced. As with all animal abuse, awareness begins with me.

  20. Pingback: Our most popular pins for planning Thailand travel

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