I don’t have many travel regrets. Occasionally I think about ways that I could have travelled better or cheaper, perhaps by drinking less alcohol or letting go of a set itinerary and ‘going with the flow’. These aren’t regrets though. They’re just observations, and ones that I can only make with hindsight and the experience of travel under my belt. No, my single biggest travel regret, is choosing to ride an elephant in Thailand, and I’ll tell you why.
Let me set the scene for you. It’s 2012. I’m in Thailand with two of my closest friends, having embarked on our first round-the-world trip together. I’m a huge animal fan, so naturally my bucket list contains various activities involving animals; swim with dolphins, hold a monkey, and ride an elephant. Of course, a big part of any travel plan is to tick these desires off of the ever-growing ‘things to do’ list. Being in Thailand, riding an elephant is a commonplace tourist activity.
Now, also being an animal lover, I’m completely aware of the fact that not all animal encounters are good. There are many that treat the animals poorly, and therefore, I point blank refuse to visit Tiger Kingdom, or any form of circus or zoo. My friends and I also agree on the fact that we should only ride an elephant without a seat strapped to its back, in a camp that lets these beautiful creatures roam free.
So, when we book onto an elephant camp experience in Chiang Mai, we’ve read the online reviews and know that these conditions are being met. As far as we’re concerned, we are taking the ethical option. This view is quickly supported by the camp owner when we arrive, who makes a point of telling our small group that this camp differs from many others, because the elephants are not tied to anything. They are legally bred, and kept happy as a priority.
The thing is though, each of the elephants has their own trainer, called a Mahout, and only this trainer can control the elephant. As we ride our chosen elephants bareback through the surrounding bush, we are given a small black stick, which we should place at certain points on the elephant’s head to indicate which way they should turn.
It never occurs to me how the elephants might have been trained to recognise the stick signals. After all, we don’t use the tool with force, so it can’t hurt them, right?
Looking back, I can see now that I was wrongly informed and naive. An elephant is, after all, a wild animal. Wild animals need to be domesticated, and how elephants are domesticated in South East Asia, is not humane. I spent that entire day feeling amazing, and it was one of the most memorable days of my life. I must have taken at least 100 photographs.
Now though, greater online discussion has spread knowledge of how every single elephant ride can only happen because of a technique called ‘Elephant crushing‘, in which the elephants are basically tortured to the point that their spirits break and they become submissive. They are stuck in cages, prodded and poked with sticks, tied by chains so they cannot move, beaten, and worse. Since learning this, I have deleted every single photograph I took.
I can’t go back and undo that elephant ride. All I can do is spread the message and urge other travellers not to be tempted by locals and owners who will tell you what you want to hear so that you can ride an elephant, blissfully ignorant to its pain. And they are in pain, as you can see for yourself in this documentary.
It’s not just South East Asia either. Visit India and similar countries and you’ll find the same problems; elephants made to walk up and down hills in the blistering heat for hours on end, sporting chemical paint in bright colours across their trunks and faces.
Thankfully, rescue sanctuaries are becoming more and more available in Thailand, where tourists can have elephant encounters without riding them. One of the most popular of these is Elephant Nature Park, in Chiang Mai. In future, I will only visit rescue and rehabilitation centres like this, and hopefully, this blog post has alerted you to the mistreatment of elephants purely for our enjoyment and money, so you will too.
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‘Why Riding an Elephant is My Biggest Travel Regret’ originally appeared on aimeescompass.com