There are plenty of elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai, some with better reputations than others. It’s no secret that a lot of these places are extremely cruel to their elephants and are just out to make money from snap-happy tourists who don’t know any better. Having been aware of this before I arrived in Thailand in June 2014, I made sure I did my research before choosing where I’d spend my time and money. I knew I wanted to see some elephants and truly believed I had chosen the sanctuary well. Sadly, I was wrong.
The Thai Elephant Home seemed great from my research, but I left feeling sad, confused and angry. The funny thing is, I’m usually so careful about this kind of thing and just the day before refused to go on a group tour to the Tiger Temple as I knew that it wasn’t right. I’m also a vegetarian so any cruelty to animals goes against my values.
But, I let myself down here, and this experience taught me that just because a person recommends a place and the internet reviews look good doesn’t mean anything.
Some people are just blind to the cruelty and can’t see through the rubbish that the elephant trainers tell tourists. It’s not their fault, it’s just frustrating. I still can’t believe all the positive reviews on Trip Advisor about this place. It shocked me that all these people couldn’t see what was really going on and didn’t feel uncomfortable.
When I first arrived I felt really positive and couldn’t wait to see the elephants and assumed I would be helping to care for them in some way. All the staff were very friendly and I felt excited about the rest of the day.
But when the mahouts (elephant trainers) explained about using bull-hooks, my heart sank. This was not what I wanted and didn’t remember reading anything about it on the website.
I felt naive and like I wanted to get my money back that second. I was told the bull-hooks were used for ‘the safety of the tourists’ and are used only when absolutely necessary, which I knew was bullshit.
My group and I were then taken to feed the elephants and my heart sank again. In the distance I could see a young elephant rocking back and forth with a short chain attached to her foot which was locked to a pole. When I asked why she was chained up, I was told she was new after being rescued from a circus and was just ‘settling in’. Even though it was probably true that she had been taken from a cruel camp, you couldn’t deny that she looked traumatised and not much better off.
My heart broke.
Later on in the day we were told we could ride the elephants. At first I was skeptical, but wanted to see if the mahouts were telling the truth about only using the bull-hooks if truly necessary.
As expected, I was completely wrong.
The young mahouts were boisterous and hook-happy, hitting the elephants every time they innocently sniffed a leaf with their trunk. I felt uneasy and guilty for funding their plight. I also saw scratches and scars on the elephants from the hooks. Again, I was shocked that no one else was seeing this and that my fellow day-trippers were all buying into it.
We even stopped at the river to bathe the elephants, which I did gently and tried to use the opportunity to bond with the animal. Annoyingly, the immature mahouts were shouting jumping on the elephants, doing backflips and somersaults. They also prodded them with the bull-hooks to get them to ‘pose’ for photographs.
Any elephant that does tricks or even allows tourists to ride them will have had their spirit broken at some point in their lives, which is a violent technique used by cruel trainers to get them to comply and do whatever they are told. You only have to Google it to see how horrific it is. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to leave.
Once we arrived back to the camp and I was waiting for the bus, I saw another load of tourists individually clamber onto the same group of elephants that we had just rode. Those poor animals never had a break and probably worked all day long, which confirmed to me that it was complete and utter slavery. There’s no other way to describe it.
I remember going back to my hostel with a horrible, uncomfortable feeling that I couldn’t shake, and I hope this post prevents other backpackers and travellers from having the same experience. Please avoid anywhere with elephant riding and think twice before listening to others.
I wish I had.