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Riding elephants with children in Thailand
Our Big Family with Elephants in Thailand

At some point you're going to hear that one of the "must do" experiences in Southeast Asia is riding an elephant. We were actually planning on that, too. Elephants can be rented for a ride near certain temples in Thailand, or Cambodia, or various other places across Southeast Asia. But then we told one of our hosts in Thailand about our plan prior to the start of our trip. He told us his honest opinion of the practice, and then we did our own research on it.  Based on that, we decided...


That we won't be riding any elephant, in Thailand or anywhere else, ever. Here's why...

Elephants aren't naturally born knowing how to give rides to humans. Elephants also don't naturally perform tricks for our amusement, either- whether picking up objects, balancing on their hind legs, or doing comedy routines with trainers. All of that stuff, including the rides given to paying tourists, are behaviors that have to be beaten into the elephants, from a very early age.

After hearing the truth via email from our host prior to our trip, I watched a few videos on that subject online. Then I read at least 100 negative reviews of several different elephant attractions in different cities. Plus I read several websites and articles about it, and it changed my mind about any desire to experience riding an elephant in Asia.

For me, going to Thailand with my family was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, one that formed when I was in elementary school. And I'll admit: as a kid, in my mind, going to Thailand had meant riding through a lush jungle filled with warm yellow sunshine, while perched on the back of a trained elephant, who would bring me to an undiscovered temple in ruins, covered in vines. Something like that. But that was before I knew what it took for an elephant to learn to give rides.

Teaching Elephants to Perform
Baby elephants are yanked away from their mothers, then tied to a tree for days on end, in chains or heavy ropes. They are introduced to a hooked metal implement (the bullhook), designed purely for inflicting pain. The pain tool is then used to brutalize them and teach them that the trainer's commands absolutely must be followed. Basic training includes beatings, having their sensitive ears torn and ripped, painful restriction of movement, forced muscle movement (having their legs stretched out in opposite directions, to teach them to bow down or sit down upon command) and other punishments such as starvation and dehydration - basically, slow and cruel torture.

And the elephants cry - great, big, elephant tears. They also bleed and get scars from their beatings. The whole point of the training is to break the animal's spirit. Until the massive beast is reduced to an acceptably subservient slave, he is no good to a trainer. And all this is for what, so we as tourists can pay $60 to ride an elephant for 10 minutes? It's absurd. It's hard to believe this kind of business still exists. I currently put elephant riding into the same mental category as dog fighting.

Not riding the elephants in Southeast Asia
Tourists do not ride the elephants in places like this

The Old "Pay Me Three Times" Trick
Then, as if that's not bad enough, there's the con artist, rip-off tactics used by some of the mahouts (elephant tenders):  some (not all, surely, but some) of them, in some cities, will demand not only an exorbitant sum for a brief ride, but then as soon as the ride begins, the trainer will hold out us his hand for additional money! And it is not a request.

The mahout will say that the ride will not continue, and that the tourists will just be stranded on top of the elephant going nowhere, which is now standing still. The tourists will not be allowed to get down from the elephant or continue the ride until the "tip" (a very specific, and exorbitant amount) is paid. Let's say you just paid $20 per person for the quick ride. The trainer may demand an additional $20 per person for the ride to proceed, within 60 seconds of the start of the ride.

This "tip" is generally always paid, due to the abusive and aggressive attitude displayed by the scammer, and the fact that you are really are stranded up there, until he lets you go. Once that is paid, then the trainer demands an additional money tip which is supposedly "for the elephant." You will be told that your ride will not continue (nor can you get down from the elephant) until you purchase a snack for the elephant, by handing even more money to the mahout.

And at some elephant centers, this isn't a once-in-a-while thing. It's daily. It may be as often as every single ride.

Even though nearly everyone involved in the tourist industry speaks English, your mahout may display a remarkable lack of any ability to speak English before and after your robbery. But he definitely knows the words for "Give me money now" and how to specify a high dollar amount.

How is Elephant Riding Still a Thing?
How many one-star reviews does an elephant attraction have to get, before people stop going? The continued existence of these businesses defies logic.

No matter how badly the kiddos may think they want to ride an elephant, the desire is based on a fantasy - the happy, friendly elephant who just adores humans and is willing and ready to provide amusement as a show of friendship.

The happy elephant ride fantasy is similar to the fantasy of the contented, black-and-white Holstein cow standing in a green pasture near a red barn, which comes to mind when purchasing milk from a factory farm.

Milk production in factory farm vs small family farm
Fantasy vs. Reality

I didn't show my kids the elephant cruelty videos, but I did tell them a bit about the bullhook and how unnatural the entire "ride an elephant" industry is for the elephants. I told them about how an elephant who gives rides is an elephant who was stolen from his or her mother as a baby, then beaten repeatedly until being transformed into a chained servant. I explained that taking even a brief, one-time ride on an elephant would be supporting cruelty and torture. My kids understand that if they love elephants, the last thing we'd want to do is ride one.

Alternatives
Fine, I thought. We won't ride. But we still want to see elephants! So, at first, I thought maybe I'll just bring the family to an elephant center or elephant attraction, and we won't ride, but we'll get to see the elephants up close and maybe take some pictures. Nope! They've got that covered too. At the sorts of places that sell elephant rides, if you want even one quick photo of someone standing near an elephant, you'll be charged an amount very similar to what it costs to ride one. If we paid that photo fee, we'd be putting money into the hands of the people who sell the elephant rides.

And besides, how will your trip be improved by having a family photo made while standing next to a tear-streaked, scarred, broken-spirited elephant in chains?

So, what's the alternative? One idea is to visit an elephant sanctuary or camp. There are some options where you can stay overnight, and do things like bathe, or feed, or clean up after elephants who have been rescued. These places vary greatly in cost, and in whether they really are what they claim to be.

I'd pay less attention to what a place calls itself, and more attention to what they actually do and what sorts of "experiences" they sell. And do they have their own elephants, or do they just borrow them from a more traditional operation next door? I'd also stay away from places that encourage 30 to 50 tourists at a time to gang up together to work with one or two elephants, all vying for the perfect selfie.

However, there are some places that do truly serve as rescue and rehabilitation operations, and your rental host may be able to direct you to a reputable one. These elephants will never be able to go live in the wild because of how they were raised, but at least they are left to roam around doing normal activities in retirement, and they aren't chained and beaten anymore.

These are usually not the sorts of places you would see advertised on travel websites or promoted on brochures. Instead, these are the little-known, out of the way places, promoted by word of mouth, and they may be small, family operations.

Our Short Visit
Our decision was to opt for a very brief (15 minute) stop at a place that has elephants but does not sell rides. To find this place, we had to get out of the touristy city we were in, and ride about 20 minutes outside of town. There, the elephants are free to roam around a large area. They roam the fields and walk up and down the roads, and they passed within a few feet of us. We were close enough to reach out and touch a baby one, but her mother's suddenly flapping ears let us know that this move would not be appreciated, so we kept our hands to ourselves despite the nearly-intolerable level of cuteness on display.

The place offers overnight stays, and tourists can engage in manual labor work. The work seems like what a volunteer would do, except, as a tourist, you somehow end up paying them to allow you to work. I believe that's the deal, generally, at all such operations. We stopped by just long enough to marvel at the elephants, without touching or riding any elephants, then went along our merry way in our tuk-tuk.

Why you should not ride the elephants in Ayutthaya
Momma had this little one trained to bring her morsels of food

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