Many years ago I went elephant trekking in Thailand. I can’t say I enjoyed it much and it definitely wasn’t a life changing experience. I vaguely remember being coerced into buying extra bananas to feed a baby elephant in a pen and leaving with the general sense of having been taken advantage of.
Since then I am delighted to say that, among the huge amount of useful things that I have learned while travelling, I now know that riding elephants is not really great for the elephants. Here are two quick facts about elephant trekking that are all over the Internet, but that you might not know –
Number one – Elephants are not built to carry heavy weights on their backs, and lets be honest, two well-fed westerners + howdah = one hell of a heavy weight. Carrying people around all day damages their spines, and the howdahs can give them painful sores. You can, however, sit safely on their necks, where you normally see the mahout perched.
Number two – The breaking of young wild elephants so that they can be ridden is often a horribly cruel and painful process. Google away if you want to know the details but it ain’t pretty.
‘Aha!” you say, “Hold on a minute! There are x number of elephants working in trekking camps in Thailand supporting x amount of people. If tourists stop riding elephants they will all starve to death, elephants included. Isn’t this enough reason to keep on supporting elephant-based tourism?” This is a very valid point and I would be glad you brought it up. As we know, very little in life is as simple as we would like it to be. However, it turns out there is a way to support elephant tourism so that the elephants, and their mahouts, can remain in work and be supported without the cruelty part. That way is to visit elephant sanctuaries instead. These places care for former logging and trekking elephants and there are now a good number of them around Thailand. We visited one in Kanchanaburi called Elephants World and it was great.
I admit, on paper it doesn’t sound like such a fun day out. You watch and learn about the elephants, prepare food and feed them, and you pay a pretty fat fee for the pleasure. It is 2500 baht (50 GBP) for adults, and 1500 (30 GBP) for children 4 and over, which is pretty steep, even in western terms. However, I am happy to say that visitng Elephants World was one of the best activities we did while we were in Thailand. I can’t quite tell you why, but it seems like just hanging about elephants and watching them do their thing is pretty uplifting. The kids had a blast, they learnt a huge amount and they still remember some of the elephant’s names months later.
If you yearn for some physical contact with the elephants, you can still get a bit of that at the big ‘wash in’ at the end of the day, when all of the elephants go into the river for a bath. Visitors can swim with them, get soaked by them, sit on them and get thrown off them, unless they are me and they just get to stand on the shore taking footage of everyone else having fun.
Overall the experience was incomparable to the slightly depressing elephant ride we did years before; it was well organised, the lunch was absolutely delicious and the volunteers who take you round were just so young and enthusiastic I wanted to pinch their happy little cheeks.
Elephants World gets a big family thumbs up from all of us.