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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! 🙂