Thailand elephant tours: choosing the right one

Almost everyone wants to ride an elephant in Thailand. Disney films such as Dumbo and Jungle Book have romanticized these majestic animals and with their funny trunk, it seems almost impossible that these giants would feel unhappy about carrying around tourists. I hate to break it to you, but you can't get much further from the truth, because the land of the eternal smile has a dark side. Most elephants in Thailand that are used in the tourism industry, have been abused for years.
What follows is a chilling story that'll make you think twice before you ride one of these giants. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways how you can help to combat elephant abuse Thailand . Being an ethical tourist doesn't mean that you can't see the animals from up close anymore, but you should just be more careful about where you book your elephant tours in Thailand. I'll tell you all about it in this article.

Before I talk more about the terrible abuse of elephants, I also want to report that more and more travel organizations are actively working on abolishing all kinds of unethical tours with animals.

  • GetYourGuide, Viator and many more (websites where you can book elephant tours and excursions online) have canceled all tours in 2016 and 2017 where elephants in Thailand are ridden or where they perform tricks.
thailand elephant tours

There are more than enough ways to ethically visit the elephants of Thailand. How? Read all about it in this article.

A million dollar industry

There are a lot of elephant parks in Thailand and that is with good reason: they make a lot of money, both for the people that own the elephant parks as for the poachers that hunt them in the wild. An average elephant park in Chiang Mai costs about 70 dollars per tourist per day, so it’s not surprising that these parks often pay more than 20,000 dollars for a baby elephant.

On top of that, they also generate a lot of money after their death. Many owners of elephant parks in Thailand refuse to give sick elephants the necessary medical care because a sick elephant is worth more dead than alive. After their death, everything is sold: from the skin to the tusks to the meat.

Breaking the Asian elephants

After the elephants are taken away from their natural habitat, the worst still has to come. The Phajaan Ceremony is performed. Don’t think of a festive ceremony with flowers, bells and whistles but the exact opposite. Phajaan means “break” and that’s exactly what they do with the elephants.

Phajaan is in fact nothing less than torturing the animal until the will of the elephant is broken so that they become submissive to people. It stems from the belief that the shaman of a tribe can separate the soul of an elephant from his body. In doing so, the idiosyncratic and wild spirit is expelled from the body so that they are under control of the mahouts or their “trainers”.

riding elephants thailand

A chained elephant’s foot tells you immediately that something is wrong!

The “training”

The brutality of the “training” of the Asian elephants in Thailand depends on the region as well as the morale of the camp owners and the actual purpose of the elephant. Elephants destined to be ridden, to do tricks, to beg or paint, or to walk in parades are generally treated in the most awful way.
Breaking starts when they are captured in the wild: with their own eyes they have to see how the rest of their family are ruthlessly murdered, often when they are only two to three years old. They never forget this and they mourn for the rest of their lives.

Then they are put in a small cage where all the legs are tied so that they can be stretched. Afterwards they are beaten or stabbed with sharp objects, they are constantly yelled and shouted at and don’t get food or drink for days on end.

The “redemption”

These torture practices can take days to usually weeks. They know no rest during this period and gradually their spirit is broken. In the last stage of the Phajaan the mahout will bring the first meal once the elephant is “released” from the cage. After weeks of torture, confusion and loneliness, the poor little elephant sees the mahout as a savior and someone who it trust. Of course this is pure manipulation but this is the way that they gain control over the elephants. They are regularly beaten afterwards to remind them of this traumatic period. Obviously, sometimes it’s just too much to handle for the elephants and as much as 5% of the elephants will eventually injure or kill people.

It has been scientifically proven that elephants never forget these tortures.

elephant reserve thailand

A happy elephant will make you happier too, no?

Bad elephant tours in Thailand

First of all, you should know that by definition there are no good elephants tours in Thailand. Often the reserves are a lot better, but more about that later.
The easiest way to recognize a bad elephant tour in Thailand, is by the chains that you see. Other signs are that they are beaten or stung (although this is not often done when tourists see it) and whether you can ride them. Elephants are NOT made to be ridden, even sitting on their necks is a no go.
Yet another sign of an abusive elephant camp is the performing of tricks.
If the elephant has pink spots on the skin, you know it had to undergo the terrible Phajaan ceremony. This is in fact scar tissue that is now extremely sensitive. These spots are used by the mahout to keep the elephant under his control if it misbehaves. Other scars or even ripped ears are also a sign of an abusive elephant tour in Thailand. Elephants in these camps often have to work more than eight or ten hours a day, which is the equivalent to slave labor.

Good Thailand elephants tours

Technically, there are no good elephant camps, because instead they are should roam freely in the wild. If you want to see elephants from close-by, you must visit an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. These are places where abused elephants are held if they can’t live in the wild anymore.

Don’t be fooled by wrong names such as “Chiang Mai ecological elephant park” because an elephant park is by definition never ecological. If you still want to see Asian elephants, it’s best to choose an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. Here the elephants are free to walk around and the only commands that they respond to are taught to them through positive training. An example of such a command is the lifting of the legs so that a veterinarian can do his or her work.


List of good elephant reserves in Thailand

Before you want to visit an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, you might want to google quite a few and read some of the reviews.
Online I can recommend the ethical elephant reserves that GetYourGuide and Viator have on offer. In the tours they offer there is no riding the elephants and when I wrote this article all Elepehant tours that were offered were 100% cruelty free.

Observing tourists often report when elephants are being mistreated. Don’t be fooled by the name ‘sanctuary’ because it’s often wrongly used. Below are some reservations that you can visit with peace of mind:

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Chiang Mai

A few years ago I was looking very hard for a place in Chiang Mai where I was sure that the elephants were not mistreated. After a long search I ended up with visiting the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
With a jeep you are picked up in the morning and taken to a (rather remote) area a few hours away from Chiang Mai.

When I was there, there were five Asian elephants. All without chains. The only thing they had was a bell around their neck so they could easily be found if they were lost. Once the bananas and other yummy delicacies were brought out, the elephants automatically came to us without the need for a single command. They reacted to certain orders, but they were never forced to do something if they didn’t want to.

After staring at these giants for about two hours, we had a delicious lunch and then we bathed together with the elephants (in mud and a river.). Again without bullhooks, chains or elephant rides involved. Also nice to know: they make pictures of your visit to the elephants! You can view the photos later on their facebook account.

GVI Reintroduction Program (Chiang Mai)

This project gives you the chance to volunteer in Thailand with elephants that have been rescued from tourist camps where they were mistreated.

Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (Chiang Mai)

This project is barely two years old but gives elephants the chance to live (partly) in the wild again.

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (Sukothai)

This project helps prevent the extinction of Asian elephants in Thailand (this is an endangered species). Here the emphasis is on the breeding of elephants in an ethical way.

thailand elephants

And you can also feed them at most of these elephant camps!

Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (Mae Chaem)

This is a refuge for old and / or injured Asian elephants who are retiring here. Moreover, they also try to teach the local community the necessary knowledge to prevent the breaking of elephants.

Elephant Hills (Khao Sok National Park)

This is a safe haven in the heart of the Khao Sok National Park where both wild elephants and rescued elephants are taken care of. Visitors can interact with the Asian elephants in an ethical way, as well as observe and help to take care of them.

Elephants World (Kanchanaburi)

This project was started in 2008 and is a refuge for sick, old, disabled and abused elephants who can enjoy a well deserved rest here. Here you can feed and bathe with these beautiful animals.

The Surin Project (Surin)

This project works together with the local population to teach them how to deal with the elephants in a responsible manner. Again, here too there are opportunities for volunteering with elephants in Thailand.

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (Phetchaburi)

This is where Asian elephants are rescued so that they can spend their days in an environment as close as possible to their natural habitat.

elephant sanctuary thailand chiang mai

I have to be honest: meeting with elephants on their own terms is one of my most beautiful memories I have of Thailand!

In brief

If you want to see elephants in Thailand, please don’t choose a camp where you can ride them or where they have to perform tricks or paint. It’s much more fun to see them in the open nature where you can still stroke or even bathe together with these amazing animals. Choose one of the above projects or at least make sure that you do the necessary research before paying a lot of money. Wouldn’t you also prefer that your hard-earned pennies go to the well-being of the elephants instead of the unnecessary torture of these helpless friendly giants?

Not just elephants

Of course the Elephant tours in Thailand aren’t the only excursions often having to deal with animal abuse. The tiger industry is also pretty popular in Thailand. In places like Tiger Kingdom you can pet tigers and take pictures with them. If you really think this is possible in a natural way, I advise you to watch a few episodes of Animal Planet.
Tigers are predators and have never been made to serve as domestic cat. The tigers in these parks have been drugged and have no idea what is happening. So I’d suggest to keep away from this place too!

You obviously don’t only find animal suffering in Thailand. I myself was once so stupid to believe that dolphins in captivity were pretty well treated… Fortunately, I realized immediately that this is simply not possible and that you can also ethically swim with dolphins.
The same goes for swimming with whale sharks in Bohol (the Philippines). These gigantic marine mammals are fed here and although they are not mistreated, this disturbs their natural instincts …

If you don’t feel good about it, something may be wrong. Just put yourself in the place of the animals and decide how you would feel.

elephant park thailand

It is nice to see these animals from up close, but always treat them with respect!

10 fun elephant facts

  • African elephants are the largest land mammals on this planet. They are also known for the longest pregnancy: no less than 22 months!
  • Contrary to what you see in cartoons, elephants don’t like peanuts! They are also not afraid of mice, but they are of ants and bees.
  • Asian elephants don’t walk. To walk you have to lift all four legs and elephants in Thailand always have two legs on the ground.
  • Just like humans (including dolphins and magpies), elephants can recognize themselves in the mirror!
  • Elephants can burn! Because there is no sun lotion for elephants, they throw sand or mud on their heads and backs.
  • Although their trunk can weigh as much as 180 kilograms, they are so agile that they can even pick up a grain of rice!
  • It’s sometimes said that certain people ‘have elephant skin’, but in fact the skin of these giants is so sensitive that they can even feel a fly landing on them!
  • On average, elephants can live up to 50 and 70 years in the wild. The oldest elephant ever was Lin Wang, an Asian elephant that turned 86.
  • Elephants are always hungry: they can eat up to 16 hours a day and consume up to 270 kilograms of food!
  • The heaviest elephant ever weighed nearly twelve tons and was almost four meters high.

Elephants are amazing and unique animals and that’s why I strongly advice against riding the elephants in Thailand. Help wildlife and protect them! A great way to do this is to find volunteer work with which you can really help the elephants in Thailand. You won’t only have the time of your life, but you also ensure that future generations can continue to admire these wondrous creatures!

elephants thailand tour

And fact number 11: Elephants are SUPER CUTE!!!

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In this article you'll find a few affiliate links. When you book something with these travel organizations, I get a small commission. You don't pay anything extra for that. You can thus see it as a way to support this blog if you found the information helpful. I use all of these travel organizations myself, and I will only recommend the ones that I really like.

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Hi, I'm Sam Van den Haute. The last three years I've been traveling the world almost constantly. Heading out for an adventure and visiting the most beautiful places are what I love to do! Let me inspire you with great stories, beautiful pictures and handy tips from my adventures and travels. On my facebook page and instagram account you'll get to see the latest updates and photos to inspire you for your next vacation.
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