Five tips for ethical elephant riding in Asia

June 19, 2016 11:52 am


An obligatory part of planning any trip is the bucket list that inevitably comes with it. Crucial must-dos on the South East Asia trail repeat across many travellers’ lists – a mad night out on Khao San Road, taking in the glory of Angkor Wat, tubing in Vang Vieng and an elephant trek in Chiang Mai. Whilst the only real considerations to bear in mind for the aforementioned options might be to not go too crazy on the buckets or miss the rope when reaching a tubing bar, an elephant trek requires a whole other level of considerations. The enclosure and mistreatment of elephants in order to give tourists that ride of a lifetime and crucial snap for the scrapbook is of course an entirely negative effect of tourist attention and growth in Asia. So, if you are going to ride an elephant in Thailand, or any other Asian country, the least you can do is try to do it in the most ethical and harm-free way possible.

1. Choose wisely

Don’t just go for the first trek you see, as more often than not these won’t be the ones that treat the elephants well. Whereas ordinarily it’s easy to go for the cheapest or most handy option, these will probably not be the ones with happy animals where elephant treks are involved. You may have to shop around and pay a little bit more, but ultimately think of what that extra cost and time are supporting – the protection and well-being of an incredible species.

2. Read reviews

Reviews on TripAdvisor and also from fellow travellers are a great way to gauge what the camps are like behind the smiles and thrills of the brochures. When I chose which trek to do in Chiang Mai I grabbed a load of leaflets from the hostel and researched each. It’s surprising and sad how many of the companies that the hostel held leaflets for faired awfully online – the review headings and overall ratings said it all. The company I ended up using, on the other hand, had been recommended by a friend and when searched in comparison had great reviews. When we tried to book we were warned that it books up a week in advance – another indicator of a company doing something right.


3. Don’t be pushed by hostel workers or travel agents

No matter how many times I tried to discard leaflets of elephant camps with horrendous reviews, the hostel owner would be picking them back up saying how great the place was, that visitors love it, that it’s cheap, that I could book in tomorrow if I wanted to… But these comments completely conveyed why these companies were being advertised in the hostel in the first place. It isn’t unusual for travel companies and hostels to take commission for the trips they book, particularly if the company knows there are far better and more ethical options out there. Don’t take anyone that pushes you for their word – do some of your own research first.

4. Boxes or bare back

I more often than not see pictures of travellers sat in boxes on elephants rather than bare back, which of course feels a bit more secure and means you aren’t in charge of ‘driving’ the elephant, and can chill out and enjoy the view instead. However, these boxes are so much worse for the elephant. They are strapped in with rope and can’t move properly, and when I’ve seen people ride elephants in this way oblivious of the main rider’s equipment, they tend to have much sharper instruments. At the camp I went to, we were given a bluntened metal poke to tap the elephant in certain places to give instructions. You don’t use force, but they know if it’s placed behind the left ear to go left, behind the right to go right, etc. All actions were very gentle. When I witnessed a group with boxes, the men riding the animals used no such care or attention. Their pokes were sharp, they smacked them down on their heads, kicked them and pulled their ears to make them turn and kept trying to force them to go faster. It was awful to watch, and I’d therefore never be inclined to sit in a box behind someone with no respect for the animals.

5. Watch the elephants

I won’t pretend to be an animal expert, yet alone an elephant expert, but I found the difference in behaviour of the elephants in the two camps I visited astounding. In the ethical camp I visited they really made a thing of petting them, talking to them rather than barking commands and being gentle. The customary itinerary at the camps involves a play and wash in the lake at the end, which the elephants seemed to love. They were shooting water from their trunks, dipping in and out of the water and, weirdly, looked to have big smiles on their faces. At the other area I visited, I was camping near the lake and therefore saw the group of elephants with boxes go for their dip. They literally collapsed in the water, looking defeated, dirty and tired. They just laid there as the group poured buckets of water over them. It was such a stark contrast to the elephants we’d ridden just a week earlier, and I really do think an indication of their treatment.


Like most experiences on the travel route in Asia, there are so many options when it comes to elephant trekking that there really is no reason to condone camps where the animals are treated maliciously. Research, go with your instincts and I will 100% bet you have a way better time. Who wants to support tyrants and weigh down a tired and badly-treated elephant? Save the elephant world, the choice is in your hands!


The ethical elephant camp I visited in Chiang Mai was called Woody’s – I would strongly recommend this if you want to see well-treated and happy elephants. http://www.woodyelephanttraining.com/

And, to take my own advice, check out the reviews here: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g1951349-d2039530-Reviews-Woody_Elephant_Training-Mae_Taeng.html


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