Tag Archives: elephant riding

Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants! And What You Should Do!

So many people have elephant riding on their list of things to do when they hit Asia. The elephants are incredible and majestic creatures and amazing to be up close to. But there is something so much better that you can do than ride them. Something that will be the best thing you have ever done. Have a relationship with them by not riding them. See how….

It was five years ago that I rode my first elephant. I was in Laos and I went to an elephant camp where they told me they treated the elephants well and I also went elephant bathing in the river. I must say that I really enjoyed it. But then maybe my naive self had no idea about what was really going on with the elephants in South East Asia.

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My thirtieth birthday…. worried about the state of this elephant. The last time I would EVER ride again,

On my thirtieth birthday, I decided I would go elephant riding again and I did my research on the internet and chose a company where people said that they treated the elephants well. What I was disgusted and horrified to see was giant bloody scab marks behind the ears of the elephants and scabs on their skin. For anybody who knows elephants, their skin is very thick and tough, so for their skin to be broken they have literally been thrashed. They used the hooks behind their sensitive ears to guide them and were yelling and screaming.

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If you look closely you will see the dark, bloody scabs in the crease of the elephant ear, the most sensitive part of the animal.

At the end of the day I stood and stared into the horrifically sad eyes of my elephant. She was crying. And I was on the verge of tears myself. The woman was broken. And there was nothing that I could do about it. She was here, and here for the purpose of making money for those who treat her poorly. And yet there was I supporting something that I hated and realizing that most ignorant tourists are getting all happy and excited about how ‘well looked after’ these elephants are and how amazing it is as this is what they have been told by the company. In all honesty, the only way to.train elephants for riding is to break their spirit. I was so disgusted I decided I would never go back and support elephant tourism ever again.

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One of the saddest elephants I have ever seen. Broke my heart as she stood there crying and tears fell down her cheek

Then one night I was drunk in Pai and I met this girl by the fire. She was telling me about this amazing experience she had at an elephant retirement camp. One where the elephants are not ridden, tied up, or belted with metal hooks. She told me of the elephants being happy and allowed to do what they want. She said you could actually tell they were happy by the way they smiled and flapped their ears and that they loved hanging around with the people. That I should go. And so I took a last leap of faith and I did.

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First glimpses of free roaming elephants, Mr Perfect and his girlfriend.

In Chiang Mai I went to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. It was a fairly expensive activity but for what I paid I would pay again to support it. We were taken to the park in the morning and we were lead out to meet the elephants. The mahouts find them by the cow bells they wear around their necks. Otherwise they are allowed to roam the property as they please.

The first two elephants we encountered were Mr Perfect and his girlfriend. Both of them used to be elephants that were ridden in other parks and had been retired here. Since arriving they had become much happier and you could physically see it in their faces. We got to hang out with Mr Perfect and his girlfriend (name I can’t remember) and feed them and pat them.

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Feeding Mr Perfect bananas. A much happier elephant than the others I saw in Koh Chang.

After that we went to visit a couple of mothers with their two baby elephants, one they called ‘Naughty Boy’ at 2 years old and there was also a 5 month old. Naughty Boy was renowned for stealing things off of guests so they gave us tops to wear with giant pockets at the front. At one point Naughty Boy saw me put my water bottle in the pocket and was reaching out with his trunk towards my pocket in an attempt to steal it. I laughed and held my stuff in the pocket. He also rolled around on the ground, kicked up dirt and behaved like a typical child and the mahouts let him. He is a baby elephant behaving like a baby elephant. It was refreshing not to see him getting scorned and whipped.

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Going for a stroll with Naughty Boy as his trunk wanders around trying to find mischief!

The other baby would play with her mahout and pick him up with her trunk and play. It was great to see the relationship between the two of them being so respectful and not requiring brute force. There was literally a great deal of love between these men and their elephants. Speaking of love, at one point we looked over the hill and there was Mr Perfect mounted up on his girlfriend while all of the locals were yelling and cheering ‘yah, elephant boom boom! Yah!!! Hahahaha” It was hugely funny to the mahouts and everybody thought it quite amusing to see. It isn’t every day you see elephants mating.

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“Elephant boom boom”. For the second time that day….

The afternoon consisted of one of the most fabulous and fun things I have ever done in my life. We went into a giant mud pool with the elephants and threw mud at them and gave them a mud spa. We rubbed the mud all over them, threw mud at each other, the mahouts threw buckets and handfuls of mud at us and everybody was squealing and having a good time.

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Getting down and dirty with the elephants

From there we crawled out of the mud and walked down the hill to the elephants and got into the river with them as we threw buckets of water over them and scrubbed them off with brushes. These elephants were having the best time and were flapping their ears and whipping their tails about. I couldn’t stop laughing the entire time.

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Washing all the mud off with a scrubbing brush

I was sad for the trip to end. These elephants I could have spent all day every day with. They were so incredibly happy. One who I was standing next to kept flapping his ear on me and every inch of them seemed to smile. It is a far better life than the one that involves being ridden for hours on end all day everyday, not even allowing them time to eat the 250-400kg of food they need to eat a day. The life that involves being beaten with sticks and separated from their partners. Elephants actually cry when they are separated from their friends. They are sensitive and intuitive animals. It saddens me greatly to think of the numbers of elephants that are maltreated in this world for the entertainment of humans.

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Another happy customer! The elephant I mean… 🙂 And me too!

But the sanctuary? It is the most respectful form of treatment I have ever seen of elephants and if you are considering having an experience with elephants, make sure that you go to a place that does not condone riding and lets you have a real experience with happy and well looked after elephants. The money that you pay here goes towards providing for their massive food consumption and their wellbeing. Hopefully if people do this, more and more of the riding camps will be shut down and the elephants retired into a life where they can just be elephants and enjoy their lives of munching, mating and bathing, the way that nature intended it!

If going to Thailand, check out the Elephant Jungle Safari for an amazing adventure! And remember always travel responsibly! 🙂

Turning Dirty Thirty

OK, so I survived. After waking up in the morning to the phone buzzing off the hook I did the standard birthday checks. Any more wrinkles? Not that I am aware of. Have I become more sensible? Clearly not given my mothers’ Facebook plea to come home one day. Do I have any idea what I am doing? No. Quarter life crisis averted. I am clearly still in one.

Early morning birthday wrinkle check.

It is one of those things that I have watched friends go through. Some ignore it, some have festivals that last for an entire month in aid of their birthdays because it is a grand excuse for a party, some freak out and do something extreme. I prefer option A. I always have done. There is something that makes me uncomfortable about people making a fuss over me for my mere existence. In fact I tried to rename the whole day after my mother because I believe she deserves more credit for pushing me out and dealing with the last thirty years of my shit than I do for my mere existence.

So anyway, discomfort about birthdays and people making a fuss aside, I decided to go and visit the elephant park in the morning and hang out with the elephants. I got to go and sit on one in the river and bathe her and I also go to go for a ride on another one later too. I also got to feed her some bananas and she slobbered all over my arm affectionately as her trunk kept grasping for more and more bananas to contribute to the 400kg of food a day she needs to eat so live. Despite adoring elephants, they are my favourite animal, the whole activity made me really sad. The animals despite being seemingly well cared for have this really sad and sorrowful look in their eyes. They had no spirit or want for play that I expected they would have or remembered the elephants that I was with five years ago had. I stood staring into the eye of my elephant for quite a long time. She stared back at me sadly. We had a moment of understanding. But I can’t do anything to help her. So I told her I was sorry and I left. I don’t think I will ever go back again. I feel too guilty about how sad she seemed. She would have been happier in the wild.

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My 55 year old elephant. If I make it to 55 I am retiring… again… poor and yet beautiful creature

After arriving back into town I went to get a Thai massage. I normally cry through these, but today I slept through it as my phone started buzzing at 4:30am and woke me up and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I was super tired by early afternoon. My massage was proceeded with a Thai red curry for dinner at 4 o’clock followed up with a banana roti pancake and then rushing back to put my laundry on and watch the latest released episode of Arrow. (Yes, even those living a life of luxury can’t avoid laundry).

Who couldn't use a banana roti pancake?
Who couldn’t use a banana roti pancake?

Despite my phone being off the hook constantly, I still feel like it is just another ordinary day on the road. There has been nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary and certainly no freak outs about age…. oh except for that minor melt down I had about governments globally telling me I am in my last year to get working holiday visas and so I am freaking about timelines for that. Once that ends I am going to have to do a serious life evaluation. But otherwise. Still the same old me. And not much of ridiculous debauchery and party times to report…. hell maybe I am getting old…… 😛

Elephant Riding and Bathing in Luang Prabang

So excited this morning. After a bit of a sleep in I got up and had a shower and got dressed for the elephant camp. After breakfast I sat in front of the building and waited for the driver to come and pick me up. I was waiting…. And waiting…. And it was fifteen minutes past the time that they had told me and I was starting to get worried. I saw a van go past and it was full of people. It pulled up further down the road. I was curious as to whether they had gotten the wrong place and as I looked down the road and saw the sign outside of where they were parked and it had the word Maniphone. I picked up my bag and started sprinting down the road as the driver got back into  the vehicle. I threw myself into the open window of the driver  seat and asked whether he  was from the All Lao Elephant Camp and he said yes. I told him that I was from the Maniphone Guesthouse as written on my form and not the Villa Maniphone. I almost missed out because of this. Lucky I was on the ball.

The journey was very French. The entire car was filled with a French family and all of the kids. I was starting to feel like maybe I should have gone with the others but when I arrived I met Amelie, a German girl who was also glad there was someone other than a French family here. We were paired off to share an elephant.

After much waiting and anticipation, we could see the elephants coming over the hill and we moved up towards the platform so that we could get on them. It felt really unsteady as my foot brushed over the rough skin covered in splinter like hairs that were very coarse. I sat down in the carriage and Amelie sat beside me locking the bar over so that we couldn’t fall out. Our mahout sat on the neck of the beautiful beast and gave him the command ‘bai’ meaning go, and off we went. It was such a weird feeling and I couldn’t stop smiling the entire time. The elephant wobbled from side to side and I felt like I was going to fall out at times, especially when we were going down the hills.

Amelie, Huong Huol and I

Her name was Huong Huol and I later found out that she was one spirited elephant. She liked to stop off and have a snack or a drink as we were moving along and occasionally she decided to go her own way instead of the way chosen by the mahout. I laughed so much. He was yelling at her ‘sai’ (left) and ‘kwaa’ (right) and ‘bai, bai bai’. It was one of the coolest things ever.

Shotgun seat! Riding up front!

The mahout jumped back and allowed Amelie to ride on the neck of the elephant and it was really wicked. I was hoping that I would get a turn. As luck had it, Amelie had sore thighs from the elephant hair rubbing her legs and she let me up front. This was even more cool and more wobbly than before. I sat with my legs wrapped tightly around her neck, dangling behind her ears. To manage to balance and stay on her neck I had to lean forward with my hands on the top of her head. I stayed on her neck like this until we got back to our starting place.

So pretty and precious she is!

The hour and a half went too quickly and the experience was somewhat surreal. I was so glad that I had the opportunity. We said goodbye to Huong Huol and headed down for lunch at the hut. After shoveling down lunch, we sat in eager anticipation of bathing. After about twenty minutes, we were told that it was time to go. We walked half way back around the track to the river and there were our elephants waiting for us. The woman took our bags, shoes and cameras for us and we went to climb aboard.

To get up on the elephant, the mahouts told them to sit down for us and we climbed up onto the necks. The elephants then walked down the steep hill into the river where they waded out for a fair way until it way deep enough. Then they were given the command, and their trunks went into the water, sucked up the water, and sprayed it at me as I was sitting there. I was completely drowned and I have never laughed so much in my life! The elephant kept doing it over and over and I gave his neck a wash by rubbing his thick, coarse skin. She sat down at one stage and when she reared up with her trunk I almost fell off and the mahouts were laughing their arses off. This was the most amazing thing ever and if I though that my day could not have gotten any better after the ride I was completely mistaken. This is one of the most incredible things I have ever done, and like all good thing, it was over too soon.

Elephant shower!

The elephants started to get out of the water and the woman took photos with my camera as we went. The elephant knelt down to let me off but before I could it was standing back up again and I literally slid the whole way down the side before thumping on to the ground. I said goodbye to our elephants and then headed back up the hill, completely elated, and completely drenched.

Completely drowned! Couldn’t be happier!

After attempting to dry off and waiting for an awful long time for someone to take us back to our guesthouses, we eventually found a driver who said he would take us back to Luang Prabang.  He didn’t know very much English and he didn’t know where our guesthouses were so we used the commands that we learned today with the elephants to get back. Sai for left, kwaa for right and straight with hand movements for straight ahead. It was quite the experience but we got back to our places eventually and said goodbye.