Is It Cruel to Ride Elephants in Thailand?

In the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, we did something I didn’t think I would on our Asia trip: We rode elephants. When we saw elephant riding advertised in other cities, it seemed definitely suspicious and possibly cruel, though I didn’t know enough about the practice be sure. But in Chiang Mai—the Southeast Asian city most teaming with American and Chinese tourists—elephant riding is advertised everywhere. And it was a suggested activity in our Lonely Planet tour guide. Which couldn’t make it so evil…could it? So we decided to try it. And I have to say though it was incredible, I’m regretting the experience today.

elephant riding Chaing Mai Thailand

We booked with Baan Chang (or “elephant home,” in Thai), since it was recommended both by our book and our hotel as a humane option. Baan Chang was the second “elephant sanctuary” in the area, founded just five years ago (since then lots more have cropped up, many within the last year).

A tour bus took us an hour drive north of the city. Our tour guide, a chipper tattoo-covered 20-something with an unlit cigarette attached to the corner of his mouth, told us that the sanctuary buys elephants from Thai circuses and labor camps, where the elephants are forced to haul timber for 12 hours a day. At both places, he explained, the elephants are abused; their sanctuary protects the animals…by allowing tourists to ride them.

Each elephant has a caretaker, or mahout—many of whom are refugees from Myanmar.

While it didn’t seem like the elephants were abused, I don’t know that a whole lot of rehabilitation was going on. And I felt uncomfortable for a few reasons:

  • The elephants are chained up by their feet for at least 12 hours a day (from 6pm to 6am, though they only sleep four of those hours). Why? It’s too dangerous to let them loose at night; they might harm the mahouts and will most definitely wander off to the mountains, since they love exploring, where they are unwelcome by locals who call the police—who then in turn fine the elephant park. Which brings up another a question: If they love exploring but are confined to a small space, are they miserable in the relatively confined space of this sanctuary?
  • When they aren’t chained up, they seem to have a good amount of free time to graze and hang out. Which is a lot better than many elephant parks, where they do tour after tour, all day long, to pay for their care and the mahouts that train them. That said, even at the park we visited the elephants did seem to spend a good portion of their day carting tourists on their backs. Our guide explained the animals actually don’t know any better, since they had been beaten into submission from the age of 2 to be ridden by their prior owners. But in the wild, there is NO WAY an elephant would be caught with a human riding its back (no huge surprise since we spent so many years hunting their tusks…).
  • Caretakers always carry sharp spear-hooks, which they plunge into the elephants’ thick skin if they act up. Being able to exert this kind of control makes sense, since elephants can be extremely dangerous to people: If they get spooked by loud noises they will stampede (in the wild, their instinct is to kill humans). I didn’t see mahouts abusing the hook, but it still made me uncomfortable.

elephant riding Chaing Mai Thailand

As for our tour: It was very laid-back. We first fed the elephants bananas and sugar cane. Adorable—they excitedly grabbed the fruit from our hands with their trunks and eagerly stockpiled five, six pieces at a time in their tusks:

elephant riding Chaing Mai Thailand feeding

One elephant was paraded out for a trick: He wrapped his trunk around guests’ necks and gave them a “kiss” (suctioning our necks with his trunk).

elephant riding Chaing Mai Thailand kiss

We then learned more about the elephants (They live to 80! They are pregnant for two years! They need to bathe three times a day to cool off and love to poop and pee in the water! They love to wander! They weigh 3 tons and eat upwards of 300 lbs. of food every day!).

Then, led by the elephants caretaker, we rode one around the park bareback for 45 minutes. Elephant skin is incredibly rough and thick, covered in short prickly hairs (Olivier got “elephant burn” on his legs from where his skin rubbed against theirs). We sat on their necks and they bumbled along slowly, stopping as they ate grass and pooped. For being so huge, they were incredibly gentle and calm; I rubbed my elephant’s head and cooed at her all the way (not sure she noticed…but I liked to think she could telepathically feel the love vibes I was sending her). Olivier talked about riding his elephant for the next two days…said he wanted to squeeze its giant head.

elephant riding Chaing Mai Thailand

And at the end, we brought them to the water, where they pooped and peed some more and we bathed them with a bucket and brush:

elephant riding Chaing Mai Thailand bath

It seemed the camp employees, including our tour guide and the caretakers, really loved their animals and did their best to care for them in this environment. Sadly, these elephants don’t know any other life than to be ridden and taken care of by people…and they likely wouldn’t know how to feed themselves on their own in the wild. They’re sort of like cats or dogs, who have been trained to live with humans but are really ultimately meant to be roaming in the wild. Still, I never felt fully at ease with how the elephants are treated, especially the locking up for 12 hours a day, even if they have a better life than they once did.

An even bigger concern, I think, is with the success of elephant parks, more will pop up. And, inevitably, some (if they aren’t a majority already) will be run on the cheap by people just looking to make a profit at the expense of the safety and happiness of the elephants, riding the animals to exhaustion from morning to night. Apparently after a young father was trampled to death by an elephant in Ko Samui, a law has been proposed in Thailand to better protect the animals. And I’ve seen resistance to elephant riding (“Ride Bikes, Not Elephants” was a common shirt we later saw in Cambodia).

In the meantime…I read about the dangers and downsides of elephant riding, including diseases they can spread. So while I enjoyed interacting with our elephants, I couldn’t do it again.


  1. Do you feel the same way about riding horses?

    • Colleen says:

      Natan!! Thanks for reading :) Torn on that point…but ultimately no, I don’t think it’s the same thing (Olivier and I talked a bit about this after we got back). And the thing with horses is…they don’t spend 12 hours a night chained up by their ankles when they only sleep for 4 of those hours. That was what really got me. Apparently elephants are super curious, and if they can all they want to do is walk around all day (and night), which makes it seem cruel that they’re so restricted for so much of the day. So that ended up being my main issue with the whole deal.

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