elephant ride
Asia,  Eco Travel,  Thailand

The dark side to your elephant ride

Elephant trekking and elephant ride experiences are one of the most common animal holiday experiences in South East Asia. There are travel magazines and sites everywhere with photos of backpackers happily posing on top of an elephant, it’s trunk in the air reaching to touch their outstretched hand. The Thai holiday dream, right?

My heart breaks every time I see another one of these photo’s go up on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter. Despite warnings of the cruelty behind the attraction, many travellers are still turning a blind eye to get their Asian elephant experience.

The truth is, these poor creatures are miserable. Naturally aggressive and very protective, there’s no way you are ever going to get on an elephant’s back for a ride around in the wild. The only way to get them to let you do this? Break them. Literally break their soul.


Elephant breaking

Working and performing elephants in Thailand are often poached from Myanmar (ex logging elephants are very popular). The ‘kraal’ or ‘training crush’ method of breaking the babies involves them being placed in a strong, large stall or cage. They are tied with ropes to keep the elephant from moving, including being unable to kick, raise or swing its head.  Proponents argue that this allows the elephant to properly and safely learn the basic command “Still!” or “Quiet!”, and enable it to adapt to its new environment.

National Geographic reports the use of nails and sticks stabbed into the ears and feet of elephants in Thailand. Other reports document beatings with sticks, chains or bull hooks. These big animals are often subjected to sleep-deprivation, hunger, and thirst to “break” the them and make them submissive to their owners.

Working for a tour organiser in Thailand, I refused to sell these trips to my customers. I ran posts about cruelty free travel attractions that included interaction with elephants, but often these suggestions were ignored.  Instead, they would come back to me to tell me they’d bought elsewhere. Tourists would return to me to offload their guilt after seeing the trainers use bull hooks to get them to do what they wanted. Scars on their backs from where the heavy seats had rubbed away at their skin was common.

On visiting the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (the only humane rescue centre in Thailand that wont allow you to ride the rescue animals), we heard complete horror stories about what goes on behind the scenes. One big female had had both her eyes burned out. Her crime? She’d refused to carry on working, pulling logs up a hill as she began to give birth to her baby.

elephant meeting

What you can do to avoid elephant cruelty and help animals?

  • Don’t be conned into rides on the promise that the animals are happy and well treated. They simply aren’t. Those with seating harnesses are particularly stressful for the animals.
  • Ensure you aren’t taking treks with companies that offer elephant rides/animal shows.
  • Don’t buy food for elephants in Bangkok being paraded around the city. It’s common to see people trying to sell bananas to feed their baby elephant in busy nightlife streets.
  • Visit the Elephant Nature Park in the North. You get one on one interaction with the rescue elephants, feed them, bathe them in the river, and full day tours are given a huge buffet vegan lunch. Yummy!
  • Write/tweet/post to large holiday providers asking them to take riding of their activity list (Royal Caribbean, this means you!)


Have you been on an elephant ride and later regretted it? Want more information on how you can donate to the Elephant Nature Park? Drop me a message below.

Travel writer, marketing adviser and blogger based in Edinburgh, with a focus on budget and vegan travel. 39 countries to date, with extensive knowledge of travel within Asia, particularly within Thailand.

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