Previous Next

I arrived in the guesthouse early afternoon and right away the owner tried to sell me a night tour of the old city of Ayutthaya. “And here you stop and watch elephant show,” she said. “I’d rather not,” I replied. “No, is nice, baby elephants doing tricks,” she continued, not understanding why I seemed uncomfortable with the idea. I declined again. But she never understood why I wouldn’t want to go.

Photo: joehastings

“But we are in Thailand; of course we are planning to ride an elephant. It’s what you do here,” she said. It was a few weeks later and I was talking to a girl in the hostel’s common room in Chiang Mai. I had just been telling her about my experience working at a wildlife centre south of Bangkok. I told her about Pai Lin, the elephant I had fallen in love with, and my hope to deter people from supporting elephant tourism.

Pai Lin’s story is similar to that of many domesticated elephants in Thailand, used for trekking and begging on the streets. This 60 year old elephant used to carry up to six people on her back. Seats made of a heavy wood are placed directly on their spine, thanks to which Pai Lin had a deformed back. She arrived at the centre a few years ago, malnourished, ill, and having spent many years on the streets. She’s a gentle elephant who enjoys splashing around in the water and eating pineapples or banana trees, but more than anything, enjoys the peaceful, quiet life.

If you see an elephant in Thailand and it looks okay, don’t be fooled. Domesticated elephants go through abusive training called phajan when they are young; the training makes them docile enough to be close to people and it’s called “breaking their spirit.” The elephants are often malnourished and don’t get enough water or shade. Elephants begging on the streets are often drugged to keep them going for long hours.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about responsible travel, but without education or knowledge, someone might just not know any better. A lot of people I met in Thailand often felt uncomfortable after riding the elephants or while watching them do tricks to entertain tourists.

Photo: caspermoller

The appeal remains, however; visitors coming to Thailand want to see an elephant. It doesn’t have to be on their backs, though. There are other options. Watching elephants being elephants is an amazing thing on its own. So if you want to go to Thailand and see an elephant, here are some options for you to do so:

Recommended Volunteer Programs and Places to Visit:

Elephant Nature Park: Volunteer for a day and see elephants being elephants. You get to feed and bathe the amazing creatures and witness them in a natural environment. Located just outside Chiang Mai. A great alternative to trekking.

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary: The sanctuary was started by a woman from London after becoming involved in the story of a baby elephant called Boon Lott. Her dedication to the baby and to the other elephants led her to open the sanctuary that now seven elephants.

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand: Although they only have six elephants at the moment, there are a lot of other animals at the WFFT. Go for a visit and ask to be shown around. The volunteers can take you to see the elephants and tell you personal stories of the animals at the wildlife centre. Or spend a week volunteering with the elephants and get to know the amazing personalities of these animals.

Community Connection:

Thailand isn’t the only place where elephants are a tourist attraction. Read one Matador member’s tale about riding an elephant and reflecting on the experience in this blog. And if you’re looking for other volunteer opportunities that will put you in contact with elephants, check out this post in our community forum.

About The Author

Marieke van der Velden

"I want to travel around the world, drink coffee with my heroes, sleep in a hammock & build campfires under the stars." This is what the t-shirt in my backpack says and this is how I am living my life. That, and trying to save elephants.

More By This Author

  • Hal

    Very interesting stuff. I steered clear of elephant tourism during my time in Southeast Asia, but these facts are new to me.

  • Tim Patterson

    As the author noted, there are some places in SE Asia where tourists can interact with elephants in an environment that’s safe and healthy for elephants and humans alike. I agree with the links included at the end of the article and also recommend ELIE in Mondulkiri, Cambodia.

  • Kelly

    Great article! There needs to be more accessible information out there about the treatment of animals (and people) in southeast asia in general.

  • Pingback: VolunTourism Review For Week 16, 2009

  • Erika

    Just spent a very enjoyable day at Elephant Nature Park just outside of Chiang Mai. They educated us on why it is not desirable to encourage feeding of elephants in cities (for example, in Bangkok, where you will often see an elephant and it’s owner walking down the middle of the street selling bags of food you can feed the elephant with), elephant tricks, elephant painting of trekking. We watched a documentary on the ‘phajan’ that most domesticated elephants go through in order for them to be submissive and obedient and it was quite horrifying. I would recommend Elephant Nature Park to anybody with a conscience interested in seeing elephants free in their natural environment.

    • Marieke

      Erika, I am so glad you enjoyed the Elephant Nature Park. Lek is an amazing woman doing the work she does. Where you there in time to see the new baby elephant?

  • niamh

    Elephants are technically banned from entering the city limits round Bangkok – hard to believe when you wander round the streets there. A few years ago the Govenor banned them, the idea was that all the elephants in the city would be sent to places lke the Nature Park in Chiang Mai. and new ones created near the city. But what happened was that once the tourists ( Thai and foreign) were taken out of the equation, the elephant owners had no money then to feed the elephants and many of them were dumped on the outskirts of the city.
    It’s probably like what happened with horses in the west years ago – once they were no longer needed for working purposes, it was hard to know exactly what to do with so many of them.

  • Pingback: Photo Essay: The Booming Business of Wildlife Trafficking

  • Elephants

    Have any of you been to the Royal Elephant Kraal and Village in Ayutthaya, Thailand?????

  • Pingback: Wild Pouring Out: Western Oregon’s Wolf Sanctuaries

  • Pingback: The Last Mahout ~ Birth of an Asian Elephant

  • Anna

    Niamh..I am living in Thailand now..there are starting to be less elephants now seen in Bangkok which is good news..but the trade is obviously far from over. If anyone is interested you can call 1362 which is the National Park of Thailand and they “should” send someone out!

    I also volunteered at Elephant Nature Park. Such an amazing experience and would definately reccomend it to anyone!!! xxx

  • Pingback: Explore the World on Horseback with Equitrekking

"In Pakistan, you will not find short-term volunteer opportunities that cater to the...
Gabriela Garcia rounds up the best volunteer opportunities in Miami.
Ekua Impraim rounds up the best volunteer opportunities in San Francisco.
Planning to voluntour? It might be end up being far from what you expect.
Guide book author Jantra Jacobs presents volunteer opportunities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
"Behind fear lies the door through which you might escape."
Stephanie Downs looks ahead as she prepares for a voluntourism trip to Greece.
The Haiti quake inspired many people to volunteer. Here are 5 FREE resources that can...
Pt 1 of a series on exactly how to get the most out of your effort while volunteering for...
Azriel Cohen delves into the world of animal communication with The Elephant Whisperer in...
Witness a new born Asian elephant take its first steps and explore the plight of the...
The gals at head to the island of Roatan, Honduras for a little...
Andrea Dennin details opportunities for outdoor voluntourism.