Riding elephants is a highly popular tourist attraction in Thailand. To ride one of these mammoth mammals, tourists go to places called elephant camps, businesses that keep and train elephants. As I was to find out, quite a bit of controversy surrounds elephant camps and riding elephants.
I had my first opportunity to ride an elephant while staying in the resort town of Hat Kai Bae on Koh Chang, an island in the Gulf of Thailand located several hours southeast of Bangkok. The hotel I stayed at arranged elephant rides through a nearby elephant camp. So I booked a one hour ride.
On the day of the trip, a young Thai woman from the elephant camp picked me up at my hotel in black pick-up truck. The trip to the camp took no more than five minutes, during which my driver did her best to use her broken English in polite conversation. When we arrived at the elephant camp, I saw a few elephants standing under a thatched roof next to a large wooden platform. Each elephant had a shackle around one of its legs and was chained to a wooden pole.
After filling out a liability waiver, I was introduced to the mahout, a person who tends to, trains, and rides elephants. My mahout was a young Thai man with an athletic body, a cheery disposition, and a bright smile. He led me to the large wooden platform, which had stairs leading to the top. Standing next to the platform was a female elephant. On her back was metal chair placed on some blankets and harnessed to her body. I was led to the edge of the platform next to the elephant and told to remove my sandals. I was then helped onto the metal chair atop the elephant’s back. My bare feet rested on the elephant’s gray, thick, wrinkly, raspy skin. My mahout then sat in front of me on the elephant’s neck. He held a bullhook in one hand, a nasty looking tool with a short wooden handle and a metal head that looks a bit like an ice axe.
The mahout gave a few firm commands to the elephant, and we were off. I can tell you that it is not comfortable riding atop an elephant. There chair that I sat on rose and fell in an awkward motion as the elephant lumbered along. For the first several minutes of the ride, I thought for sure that the chair was going to slip to one side, and I would be deposit with a thud onto the ground. It took me some time to relax and get used to the awkward motion.
With the mahout giving the elephant commands, we slowly made our way along a path through the jungle. A number of times the elephant wanted to stop along the path to eat vegetation, reaching out with its trunk to snatch leaves off branches. But the mahout discouraged this by taking the trip of the metal bullhook and pressing it behind one of the elephant’s floppy ears.
We passed by a rubber tree plantation and arrived at a clearing. The mahout then dismounted, leaving me alone on top of the elephant. He took my camera and snapped several pictures of me while the elephant grazed on vegetation.
Eventually we came to a green pool of water in the jungle. A wooden platform had been built next to the natural pool. The mahout maneuvered the elephant next to the platform and we both dismounted. It was time to swim with the elephant. The mahout removed the metal chair and blankets form the elephant’s back. We then both mounted the elephant bareback. The elephant strode into the green pool with us on its back. I was given a length of the rope harness to hold onto.
Once in the green pool, the elephant began to submerge itself and then rise up abruptly, its head rearing above the water. I held on the best I could. Somehow I managed to not get pitched off. I had no idea that elephants could swim under water. Our elephant was quite good at it. Our time swimming with the elephant ended when she took a massive dump in the pool. Big, greenish-brown, fiber-filled elephant turds floated on the surface of the pool when our elephant finally exited the water. Must have been a stimulating swim for her.
The mahout then put the chair back on the elephant, and we returned to the camp. Once back at camp, I was taken to feed a baby elephant who was chained to a tree. The length of chain couldn’t have been more than three meters. I fed the baby elephant small lengths of sugar cane.
Having visited an elephant camp and ridden an elephant, I can understand the concern and controversy. The elephants are essentially enslaved to carry tourists on their back. It is a physically demanding and unhealthy thing for elephants to be constantly carrying lots of weigh on their back. Also, not all mahouts treat their elephants well. Some elephants are abused by their mahout. I had a glimpse of abuse by a mahout later on in my trip in Thailand while visiting the northern city of Chiang Mai. There is also the matter of training the elephant. Causing the animal pain is the main method used to get an elephant to be obedient.
I hope to return to Thailand someday. But when I do, I will not be riding any more elephants. I saw enough bad things to believe that keeping elephants in captivity to ride them isn’t a good thing. However, not all elephant camps allow their elephants to be ridden. There are some elephant camps that allow guests to interact with the elephants but not to ride them. At these camps, tourists will work alongside the mahouts to feed, clean, and otherwise care for the elephants. I think that these are the best camps to visit, if one wants an up close and personal experience with elephants.