Twelve years ago, I rode my first elephant in Chiang Mai and it was traumatizing for both me and the elephant. Back then, there was no awareness about how the elephants were being treated. Riding an elephant is on the top of many traveler’s lists when they visit Northern Thailand. It was definitely on mine. During the entire ride, the mahout (elephant keeper) would control the elephant’s behavior with a long stick with a hook at the end of it. You could tell that the elephant was afraid and stressed out. Watching the elephant get repeatedly beaten by the hook really upset me. I thought it would be a memorable experience riding these majestic creatures but instead, I was stressed out and angry.
When I returned home from that trip, I did a bunch of research on the treatment of these elephants and the videos I watched were horrific. The elephants go through torture to be “broken down” basically to be domesticated. The torture continues as their careers as tourism elephants continue. People think that elephants are large animals so they can carry humans; however, they cannot continuously carry humans all day in the scorching heat. Elephants are incredibly sensitive animals. If they can feel a fly on their skin, they can feel 300+lbs on them. I swore that I would never ride an elephant again.
While I was planning for this past trip to Chiang Mai, I stumbled upon Elephant Nature Park which is a sanctuary that rescues elephants who were physically and psychologically abused as a result of the tourism industry. I chose to do the Hope for Elephants single day visit. A group of us fed the elephants, walked with them, watched them play in the mud and washed them off. It was one of my favorite things I did during the entire trip. Afterwards, I asked myself why anyone would even want to ride an elephant when you can interact with them face-to-face. All of the elephants were so gentle and looked like they were happy with their new life. Our guide told us that with the popularity of Elephant Nature Park’s no riding sanctuary, a lot of the other elephant excursions are following suit. Spending the day with elephants is a must if you’re in Chiang Mai.