Tourists have long had the image of riding elephants through green-hued jungles when contemplating a visit to Thailand. I did too, at first.
In the summer of 2017 I had the pleasure of visiting Thailand and was eager to see elephants. However, upon researching places to visit, I learned a dark truth about the management of elephants in Thailand.
Wild elephants are illegally captured to be used for the tourist industry. Tourists want to see them up close, doing tricks for their amusement, and later, they want to ride them. But, these captured animals are wild and reluctant to be touched, let alone ridden. To “fix” this, handlers put baby elephants through a process called Phajaan, literally “the crush”. Its purpose is to take baby elephants away from their mothers and put them in a small and confined space. Then they are tied down so they are unable to move, and beaten until their spirit breaks. They are beaten with clubs, punctured with hooks, and depraved of food, water, and sleep.
After Phajaan, fear remains a constant in these elephant’s lives. Their handlers use the same hooks used to beat them to now keep them in order, constantly keeping them in a state of fear. They learn how to perform tricks for an audience under the shadow of these hooks, then comes the pain of being ridden.
Riding elephants can cause serious harm to them. Most camps in Thailand allow you to ride them on their back upon a small wooden platform, directly positioned on the middle of their spine. Overtime this causes severe damage, as the spine is too weak to handle that much weight.
To avoid camps that allowed such atrocities, my family and I went to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. There we were introduced to elephants that had been rescued from these tourist traps. Many had scars of their past visible on their body – long, jagged scars and torn ears.
We spent the day in the company of the other tourists, the elephants, and their handlers. The handlers, men belonging to the Karen Hill Tribe, told us their mission was to educate tourists about Phajaan and rescue as many elephants as possible, using the money they gain from tourists who visit their camps for the purpose of feeding, vet care, and expansion. Then they told us about the history of the Thai elephant.
Riding elephants in Thailand has been tradition for hundreds of years, used for war, logging, farm work, and more. Aside from the elephant camps, I didn’t know if they were still used by the Thai people. Upon my way to the Elephant Sanctuary, we were brought to more rural areas where we saw them being used for farm work. More interestingly, they were ridden in a different way – directly behind their ears. Our driver said that these elephants have grown up alongside humans since birth and never went through Phajaan. Also, riding behind their ears is much less harmful to the elephant.
The elephants at the camp were smaller than I had expected, as I was more accustomed to the larger African elephant, and appeared to always be smiling. There were five of them, all female and all with Thai names I struggled to pronounce. The handlers had laughed with us at our attempts and pointed to the smallest elephant who was swaying back and forth.
“This one is easier, her nickname is Naughty Girl,” they said.
She definitely lived up to her nickname. As soon as we tried feeding the elephants small bananas the handlers provided, she began trying to steal every banana she could, her little trunk sneaking around the tourists and grabbing bananas from their hands.
The other elephants were older and less mischievous, two were very old and had the most scars, another was a young adult, and the last was an expectant mother. After feeding time, we led them down to a mud pit to give them a mud bath. The handlers explained that mud baths were good for the elephants on hot days because it cooled down their skin.
The elephants went first into the mud, with us following after to avoid their heavy feet. We followed, gathering around the elephants who sunk deep into the mud and sat patiently, waiting for us to rub mud on them. I came in gingerly, with a fractured foot. Honestly, this probably wasn’t the smartest but I wasn’t about to miss out on this opportunity!
The elephants weren’t the only ones getting a mud bath. Soon, a large, wet clump of mud landed squarely in the middle of my back. I turned, loaded with mud ammo, expecting to see my sister, but instead saw the grinning face of one of the handlers. Then another clump of mud hit me, this time from my sister. Thus ensued a mud war.
After we were coated in mud, the handlers began taking pictures of us that they said they would provide on their facebook page, free of charge. They continued taking pictures as we led the elephants down to the nearby river to wash off.
I swear elephants in water are the cutest thing in the whole world. I couldn’t believe how exuberant they looked, rolling over and over in the water and splashing each other. We went in with them, armed with pails to throw water on their backs until all mud was washed off. Here again I was confronted with a handler who wanted to throw things at me – a water war quickly started, caught on camera this time.
After we washed the elephants we gathered them back in their huts and rushed back down to the river. The handlers showed us a beautiful waterfall and we jumped off of ledges into the churning waters, while the others sunned themselves on flat rocks. Then, we had a traditional Karen tribe lunch that was included in the package we bought for the day.
I cannot express enough how amazing this experience was. For a very low price, we were able to see elephants and closely interact with them, learned about elephant history and safety, while supporting the camp’s cause of rescue. The handlers were extremely personable and knowledgeable, eager to spread their message of healing – they even picked us up and dropped us off at our hotel, nearly 45 minutes away from the camp! Two days after our time with them, we looked on their facebook page and were able to enjoy free pictures of this incredible time, up close and personal with the elephants.
If you want an amazing experience while contributing to a good cause, look no further than the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. It will be one of the best times of your life!