The Harsh Truth About Riding Elephants in Thailand

The Harsh Truth About Riding Elephants in Thailand

Riding Elephants in Thailand | Elephant Nature Park | Here & Air

Like most people planning a trip to Thailand, I had my heart set on riding an elephant. It was on the top of my bucket list and I was anticipating on finally crossing it off. I was imagining how incredible the pictures would turn out, sitting atop an adorable elephant in the midst of the jungle. I mean, who doesn’t want to come back from Thailand saying they’ve ridden on one of these gentle giants?

As it turns out, riding an elephant is no longer on my bucket list, as in removed for good. You see, before our trip to Thailand, one of our friends had mentioned elephants have weak spines and can’t support the weight of humans. This startled me, so I did some research. There is gruesome truth to elephant tourism in Thailand that most people aren’t aware of — I don’t blame them. We’re heavily influenced by the photos people share on social media, and of course a picture on an elephant has got to be one of the most epic shots ever, considering elephants are such photogenic creatures.

But here’s what you didn’t know about these elephants in Thailand.


Riding Elephants in Thailand | Elephant Nature Park | Here & Air

Riding an elephant is by far one of the most cruel wildlife entertainment activity. Period.

For starters, it isn’t in an elephant’s nature to be ridden on. In fact, they absolutely hate it. The only way to make this possible is to crush their “elephant spirit”, also known as the Thailand tradition, the Phajaan. This method is a cruel act which consists of poaching baby elephants (usually between 3-6 years old, sometimes younger) away from their families and training them to become submissive to humans. Of course, elephants are highly protective of their infants, so in order to prevent being attacked by them, they must be killed. This brutal act is witnessed by the baby elephant. I’d like to mention that these fragile creatures are extremely family-oriented — they love sticking together in herds. So can you imagine what these elephants go through when they are torn from their families?


Riding Elephants in Thailand | Elephant Nature Park | Here & Air

Once these baby elephants have been captured, they undergo the most excruciating training. They are either confined in a small hole in the ground, a tight crate, or tied up in every way possible, unable to move as their legs and trunk are stretched out by ropes. And it doesn’t stop there. These poor babies are ritualistically stabbed, burned, and beaten with sharp bull hooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails. They slash the elephant’s skin, pierce their heads, and stretch out their ears. They are also starved, and deprived of sleep and water. This will go on for several days or even weeks to instill fear in the elephants, forcing them to submit to their trainer.

Don’t believe me? Watch this video if you dare:

Click here

Here’s a famous photo of a tortured baby elephant captured by Brent Lewin:

Click here

Okay, I don’t know about you, but when I get a paper cut, that sh*t hurts like hell. I can’t even imagine the pain and suffering these elephants undergo. Their wounds are left untreated and it’s not just physical torture they experience. The Phajaan mentally manipulates the minds of these elephants, leaving them mentally and emotionally abused, lonely, confused and isolated.

Because elephants have exceptionally good memory, they will never forget this torment. This is why they are continually beaten throughout their lives with bull hooks and nails long after the Phajaan. Their mahouts (trainers) do this to remind them of their place, so that they don’t act out when they are being ridden on, or when they are forced to work in the tourism industry. These fearful elephants have no choice but to abide, just to avoid being hurt again.

Are you convinced yet?

It’s terribly saddening to see our own kind abusing their power and treating these poor elephants like slaves. Have we not learned through our mistakes in history?


Riding Elephants in Thailand | Elephant Nature Park | Here & Air

Despite the size of these gentle giants, they have weak points — the spine is one of them. They cannot support the weight of humans. When they are constantly carrying people on their backs, it can lead to permanent spinal injuries due to inflammation between the vertebrae and pressure to nerves. Asian elephants have protruding spines, making them more vulnerable to pressure. Imagine carrying a 50 pound backpack on your back all day. I know I immediately get back pains when I carry just my laptop alone in my backpack for only a couple of hours. It’s not any different for elephants, except they don’t actually have a choice. They can’t take breaks anytime they want.

What’s even worse is riding an elephant with a Howda (saddle/chair) on their back, It rubs against their sensitive skin causing blisters that can eventually lead to infections. In addition, elephants used for trekking causes wear and tear on their feet. Doing this long-term also causes foot infections and injuries.


Riding Elephants in Thailand | Elephant Nature Park | Here & Air

When you’re trying to go against nature, you will never win. This goes to saying that because it’s not in an elephant’s nature to carry anything on their backs, there is a huge risk of them going on a rampage. There are numerous stories of tourists dying by being thrown off and then attacked by an elephant. You better believe that these emotionally unstable and worn out elephants could have outbreaks at any moment.

Read about this recent indecent of a man on holiday killed by an elephant right in front of his 16 year old daughter:

Click here

There are so many stories of elephants collapsing into death for being overworked! It disgusts me that the human race is responsible for the massive decline in elephant health and population.


Riding Elephants in Thailand | Elephant Nature Park | Here & Air

Back in the 1900’s, there were approximately 300,000 wild elephants and 100,000 captive elephants in Thailand. Today, there is an estimated 3,000-4,000 elephants remaining. Sheesh! What a huge decrease in population. This is very devastating as elephants are such incredible animals.


Riding Elephants in Thailand | Elephant Nature Park | Here & Air

What about elephant painting and circus acts?

Cruel. Cruel. Cruel.

Any time an elephant is used for entertainment, it’s usually not a good sign. Again, painting, playing basketball, standing up on its hind legs, etc., is not natural for an elephant. The reason they can perform these acts is through immense torture.

For instance, did you know that elephants who paint take about a month to learn to hold a brush properly? They have to insert the brush up their extremely-sensitive-and-full-of-nerve-endings trunk. That’s got to be awfully uncomfortable for them. On top of that, their brush movements are guided by their mahouts using painful prods. Mahouts will usually have a nail hidden in their hands and shoved into the soft tissue of the elephant’s ear. They will keep a tight grip, tugging right or left, manipulating the brush stroke of the elephant. And of course, when they fail to paint correctly, they are beaten with a bull hook.

I mean, do you seriously think elephants aspire to become the next Picasso? Have you seen an elephant in the wild painting for fun?

Furthermore, look out for elephants who are kept in chains around their ankles, and especially if you see their mahouts carrying a bull hook around because they most likely beat their elephants.


What about companies that offer “ethical” elephant rides?

This is such a controversial topic, which I’m not going to discuss too much. But here’s the gist of it.

Those companies may not beat, hurt, or utilize prods such as bull hooks to keep their elephants in check, but rather treat them with respect. However, they will offer elephant rides to tourists.

Riding an elephant bareback and on their neck is the least harmful way to ride an elephant. However, this doesn’t mean that it could still potentially hurt them long-term.

My take on this is, why risk the health of endangered animals in the first place when you could interact with them in other ways?


Riding Elephants in Thailand | Elephant Nature Park | Here & Air

I hope that I have convinced you to remove riding an elephant off your bucket list and to stop supporting any kind of harmful elephant entertainment in general. Please have some compassion for these loving and endangered animals.

If you want to see and interact with an elephant, you will have a rather enriching experience visiting a sanctuary. You can help feed, bathe, and walk them instead. You’ll get more contact with the elephants, as opposed to just sitting on top of them. You’ll get to learn about their body language, emotions, and unique personalities. There is no better feeling in knowing you are caring for these animals and letting them be free in their natural habitat.

The humane sanctuary that I went to in Thailand was called Elephant Nature Park. I just love everything about what they do, especially how they care for their elephants. There are a lot of places in Thailand that offer the same thing.

Here’s a list of reputable tour companies in Thailand:

  1. Elephant Nature Park
  2. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
  3. Wildlife Friends of Thailand
  4. Beesanctuary Elephant Sanctuary


Riding Elephants in Thailand | Elephant Nature Park | Here & Air

1. The main risks to elephants is from poaching and changing their habitat by humans.

2. No, elephant’s do not like peanuts.

3. They are family-oriented. Elephant herds are considered to be the most closely knit societies of all animals.

4. They can recognize their own reflections.

5. Elephants have sensitive skin. They throw sand on their back and head to protect themselves from sunburn.

6. They sleep standing up.

7. They have insanely good memory and can recall a memory in the past.

8. They’re emotional. They can comprehend a variety of feelings including grief, joy, anger, and a desire to play.

9. It takes 2 years for a pregnant elephant to give birth.

10. They have funerals. Elephants will gather and mourn the death of elephants in the community.

11. They have the largest brains. Elephants have the most developed hippocampus than any other animal, making them excellent learners.


Riding Elephants in Thailand | Elephant Nature Park | Here & Air

I know that not many people are aware of this selfish and thoughtless act. But I hope that after educating yourself you realize that having your picture taken atop an elephant is not more important than endangering their lives.

Just because elephants don’t have a voice, doesn’t mean they don’t have the capacity to love, suffer, or feel any kind of emotion. They still communicate with us, we just aren’t listening. They have every right to enjoy and be here on earth just as much as you.

Use your voice for something good. Have compassion, do what’s humane, and help save these loving creatures by allowing them to be free and by spreading awareness to others.

And most importantly, stop riding elephants!




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  • Kevin Wagar
    Posted at 12:16h, 01 November Reply

    There are so many better ways to experience elephants than the cruel practice of captivity. Thank you for helping to spread the word about the treatment of these animals.

  • noel
    Posted at 09:16h, 01 November Reply

    Gorgeous photos and story, you did a good job presenting this trade especially in Thailand. I agree but I have seen this done very well in other countries where the elephant is very well taken cared of and the caretaker really treats it like family, so I can’t pass any general judgement like this especially when it becomes their livelihood and way of caretaking….you just have to do more research if this is what you want to do.

  • Jessica C
    Posted at 22:14h, 31 October Reply

    Wow! That’s really sad. I knew it wasn’t good to ride them but the detail you provide is very eye-opening. I don’t think anyone would want to rride after learning the details!

  • Kristel Garan
    Posted at 09:37h, 06 October Reply

    I’ve alwAys wanted to ride an elephant but I did not know that elephants go through these cruel acts. Thank you for the details! I would rather spend time taking care of them than riding. Which kind of program (specific) did you do at the Elephant Nature Park? I am flying to Chiang Mai tomorrow and would love to do same one as you did and I can’t wait to experience taking care of them too 😉

    • Carmelisse
      Posted at 02:50h, 11 October Reply

      Hey Kristel! I’m so happy you’re deciding to not ride elephants. We did the Care for Elephants one day tour. You’re going to love it there! Have fun! 🙂

  • Lexi D.
    Posted at 22:31h, 19 June Reply

    This came just in time! Ill be in Thailand in the next few days. Thanks for the enlightenment.

    • Carmelisse
      Posted at 23:08h, 19 June Reply

      Awesome! Have fun Alexis! 🙂

  • Claire Wang
    Posted at 14:20h, 14 June Reply

    Sadly, I’ve known about this for years, but one day looking back at photos of me and my family riding an elephant in a saddle 🙁 I was so disappointed in myself even though I didn’t know what was going on at the time. I will never ride an elephant again!

    • Carmelisse
      Posted at 14:42h, 14 June Reply

      Aww it’s okay. As long as you are aware now. I didn’t know about this stuff either. I was really close to riding one myself.

  • Marie
    Posted at 11:05h, 14 June Reply

    Elephants are my favorite animals, and it is heartbreaking to learn about this mistreatment and abuse. I actually cried while reading your post. I didn’t have ride an elephant on my bucket list, but now I do have visit an elephant sanctuary on it! Thank you for sharing about these terrible practices and helping to educate the travel community. I appreciate that you also provide more thoughtful alternative ways to visit elephants.

    • Carmelisse
      Posted at 14:32h, 14 June Reply

      Hi Marie, elephants are also one of my favorite animals now. I just have so much respect for them. I feel you, I couldn’t stop crying when I was doing research on this topic either. I’m glad to have given you some insight! 🙂

  • Travel Pockets (Crystal)
    Posted at 09:10h, 14 June Reply

    Oh my gosh, I had no idea how cruel riding an elephant was! Thanks for this helpful info. I will definitely be visiting a sanctuary instead.

    • Carmelisse
      Posted at 14:30h, 14 June Reply

      Yes! Sanctuaries are the way to go! 🙂

  • Melanie Smith
    Posted at 03:00h, 14 June Reply

    This is so sad. I didn’t realize elephants didn’t want to be ridden or the way the people made them submissive. Makes me sad. Great post?

    • Carmelisse
      Posted at 04:51h, 14 June Reply

      Right?! When I found out, I was bawling my eyes out while reading and watching a ton of stuff about it. :`(

  • Elitravelbug
    Posted at 23:02h, 13 June Reply

    I absolutely love this post and how much detail you’ve put into it. I recently visited an elephants sanctuary in Chiang Mai and it was honestly one of the best experiences.
    Hopefully, the word gets spread around enough for the torture to be stopped completely. xx

    • Carmelisse
      Posted at 23:04h, 13 June Reply

      Thank you! To be honest, I found out literally a couple days before my trip to Thailand. To think I almost rode an elephant! I would’ve felt so guilty after the fact. I really hope people become more educated about this. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Ashley @ Married Wanderlust Love
    Posted at 22:34h, 13 June Reply

    Thank you for posting this and educating. I’ve wanted to ride an elephant for as long as I can remember in the wild, but never got the chance. Now I am glad that I never did! Also, your pictures are amazing! Thank you for sharing reputable places to spend time with elephants in a beneficial and healthy way for them.

    • Carmelisse
      Posted at 22:42h, 13 June Reply

      Hey Ashley! Thank you so much. This was huge news to me when I found out. I just hope more people get educated about this stuff. Thanks for reading. 🙂

  • Lia Levina
    Posted at 21:05h, 13 June Reply

    Oh my, I truly wasn’t aware of this. I realize riding elephants may be uncomfortable for them, but I didn’t know that their spines weren’t strong enough to carry humans on their back. Sadly I know a safari in Indonesia that still has this attraction. I have no idea if they abuse the elephants as well or not. This is just sad. Thank you for the eye-opening article Carmelisse!

    • Carmelisse
      Posted at 21:17h, 13 June Reply

      Hey Lia, yeah I heard it was just as bad in Indonesia. It’s terrible. I’m glad you were able to take something away from this. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  • Marsha
    Posted at 19:43h, 13 June Reply

    I love elephants! I had no idea their spines weren’t as strong as I thought. I don’t blame them for not wanting to be ridden though. I hate that they break their spirits. So sad. Beautiful pics!

    • Carmelisse
      Posted at 19:47h, 13 June Reply

      Yeah it breaks me heart! Thanks Marsha. 🙂

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