Elephant cruelty still rampant in Chiang Mai, Thailand

During our vacation throughout South East Asia, my partner and I visited one of the more popular tourist attractions in Chiang Mai, Thailand: elephant trekking. As it turned out, it was nothing more than an elephant freak show coordinated through unethical treatment, abuse and exploitation of elephants, funded by naive foreigners.

It wasn't until after my horrific experience that I learned about the various accounts of abuse and mistreatment documented in blogs, reviews and online videos. As a trusting tourist in the land of smiles (literal translation of “Thailand”), the deception of this cruelty can easily go unnoticed. But with a bit of thoughtfulness, it’s evident this barbaric business is fueled by money and utter lack of love for these magnificent creatures. While I’m embarrassed to have contributed to an abusive trade, I believe it’s important to tell my experience, and offer a few recommendations for future naïve tourists searching for a thrill in what I believe to be a spectacular country.

On an April morning, we woke up eager, anxious, and excited to experience the many notorious outdoor adventures Chiang Mai had to offer. The itinerary, as presented to us by our hotel concierge, was a full day packed with elephant trekking, river rafting, ox riding, and tiger petting. As our concierge flipped through the expansive tour guide folder, each attraction was presented in a laminate sleeve with a collage of photos of tourists smiling from ear to ear, riding gorgeous animals that most Americans could only view from a distance at a Zoo (unless you’re Ron Burgundy).

The photos displayed large elephants playing with soccer balls, interacting with humans, and climbing deep green forests with stunning waterfalls splashing in the backdrop. Incredible, right?! We smiled at one another, glazed over the price (which was conveniently printed in 10 point font), and few hours later, we were riding in the third row of a mini-bus hastily fastening our GoPro to a selfie stick. From the window of our Scooby-Doo styled van, the elephant tour grounds was a sight that can only be described as a miniature amusement park, but with no gates, ticketing office, or retaining walls. Elephants were walking about freely in what seemed like a giant petting zoo. We were salivating with excitement. Our excitement, however, quickly turned into confusion and skepticism as we pulled into a parking lot with nearly a dozen tour buses, and swarms of tourists filling in and out of pathways like they were lining up to the premier of Star Wars. What we thought was going to be a strangely personal and intimate experience started to feel like a distant reality.

A mahout elephant trainer sitting on top of the elephant’s skull

My partner and I agreed to ignore the crowd and make the best of our experience. At the very least, we would have time to ourselves as we trekked through the mountain. We crossed a short suspended wire bridge to wait in line at a wooden platform where elephants would load up two passengers on their backs. On the tops of the elephants head sat the “mahout” or elephant trainer. He (as they were all males) held a staff the resembled a sickle with a sharp metal hook at the end. At first we thought the hook was lodged between the elephant’s ears to help steer them in a certain direction, much like stirrups on a horse.

5 minutes into the “trek” we encountered our first money trap. The elephant was directed towards a raised outpost with a young woman selling bananas (40 bht). We weren't hungry so were quick to deny. Then, embarrassingly, realized it was to feed the elephants. We obliged and bought two dozen bananas. The trek continued.

Our elephant was calm and enjoyed a steady slow meander. No sudden movements, noises, or delightful bathroom breaks (the paths were covered in elephant feces). The ride was relatively simple and quaint. Now 10 minutes into our journey, we stopped and our mahout turned around to gesture the universal sign for taking pictures. We catapulted our phone cameras as fast as we could, and when our mahout grunted loudly, the elephant raised its front leg and swung his tusk backwards to accept his fruit bounty. We were amazed. What an incredible creature to have the mental capacity to not only remember and respond to human commands, but also perform physically challenging movements with grace and ease. Like a dog after its performed tricks, the elephant would slobber up its treat in exchange for entertaining its owner, and wag its giant tusk in appreciation.

Elephant collecting it’s fruit bounty

As soon as we got our camera back and settled down from squabbling like teenagers over autographs, we realized that the trekking was almost over. We went less than a quarter of a mile in turnabout alongside a small hillside. That’s it. At first I was outraged. I felt cheated. But then I realized how depressing this was for the elephants. There were nearly a dozen elephants, about 50 feet apart, going in circles. All day. No waterfalls, no jungle — just a small hillside path.

Elephant’s lined up for trekking tour
Baby elephant slobbering on my boyfriend

After the ride, we were then quickly ushered towards a stadium where crowds of people would sit to watch a show. A baby elephant stood next to its mother behind a small fence. My partner wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to pet the baby elephant and feed it some bananas. Let’s just say, we were overwhelmed with cuteness.

As the masters corralled everyone, they had elephants performing tricks and allowed guests to ascend upon the elephants head So I took my chance. It was at this moment that our disappointment with the short hillside trek escalated, and turned to anger and disgust. While on top of the elephant, I noticed giant skin gashes still fresh with blood (notice the spots on the picture below). Nearly half a dozen open wounds glistened amidst the dozens of scabs and gashes all over its head. I quickly asked to get off and, without a moment’s hesitation, was promoted to give a tip. I refused and asked why the elephant had gashes, but the master only acted like he didn’t understand me (he didn’t have any trouble understanding when I asked “how much?”).

We angrily took our seats at the stadium. The “show” was an unexpected and confusing experience. The elephants would ride vehicles, play soccer,

Elephant riding a make-shift tricycle

walk on two feet and even paint murals of themselves. You heard that right — the elephants would use a paint brush to paint…elephants. The sheer talent and brilliance of these creatures was undeniable and breathtaking. We sat in amazement, as they had every part of this routine manufactured and timed to perfection to keep the audience entertained. There wasn't a moment where an elephant wasn't doing something spectacular. But the tragedy is that they were never unaccompanied by a master with a hook. The hooks were their slave tools to keep them in line and on queue with the performance. People cheering and dumbfounded by acts that were obviously learned by means of routine torment. It was unnatural.

It wasn't until after the show that we witnessed the lashings. We could hear an elephant belt a loud cry, and as we gazed over to see what happened, we only caught the mahout yelling and stabbing their metal hooks into the heads of the “disobedient” elephants. We were shocked. The elephants would raise their tusks and shake their heads as if to brush off the pain and get back into their expected routine. I witness several lashes to the heads and shouted “FUCKING STOP!” Unfortunately, only to get a few odd looks and turns.

Our storybook adventure was merely moments of jaw-dropping entertainment that disguised the devastating truth behind the cruel methodology to training these beautiful animals. I’m sure we could have experienced the adventure we dreamed of if we didn’t fall victim to the tourist itinerary trap. Sadly, our saga was a rude awakening of the tragic and systemic animal cruelty fueling the tourist industry in Chiang Mai.

I plead with anyone that visits this Chaing Mai to avoid this elephant tour grounds, Chok Chai, at all costs. We let our hotel concierge handle the booking with the tour company Amporn tour, but please do your research and make sure the tourist company takes you to an elephant sanctuary where elephants are treated humanely and with care. After more extensive research, I found the Patara Elephant Nature Park is a well-regarded elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, that allows you to simply hang with the elephants in their natural habitat, feed and bathe them in a river. You should assume that anything involving elephant shows and/or elephant trekking come at a painful cost to the animals, and further perpetuate the brutal elephant trade in Thailand.

These brilliant, gentle and beautiful animals deserve more careful attention. If you google “elephant abuse in Thailand” there are some interesting perspectives that mimic our experiences, and a handful of failed petitions that did not reach enough signatures. Looks like this petition may still be ongoing, but I think with enough voices we can get these attractions off of TripAdvisor or any other network used to discover local attractions. If you feel compelled, please visit http://www.saveelephant.org/ to learn more about how we can help the living conditions of captive elephants in Thailand.