For as long as I can remember, riding an elephant is something I've wanted to do. After all, who doesn't want a photo on top of a beautiful elephant?! When Jacob and I started planning our trip to Southeast Asia, I knew this would be the perfect opportunity for us to ride one of these magnificent creatures!
I'll admit, at first I thought nothing of elephant rides or animal tourism in general. My naive self simply considered it to be part of the Thailand experience. But, after learning about the dark side of animal tourism, I set out to find a place that genuinely cared about the animals.
Before sharing with you my amazing up close and personal experience with an elephant, I want to bring to light a couple of startling facts that were real eye-openers to me. First off, Thailand's economy relies on over five million jobs in tourism, with 14% of those jobs in animal tourism alone. Sadly, Thailand has thousands of animals who have been forced to help people achieve that "perfect selfie", whether on top of an elephant or sitting next to a tiger. These animals live in grueling conditions. They are trapped in small cages, chained and tied up, and otherwise tortured and abused. They are taken from their natural habitats and expected to survive in this cruel industry. After coming across information like this, I knew unethical animal tourism was something I never wanted to support.
Unfortunately, Thailand has many tourist attractions that advertise elephant rides, petting tigers and playing with monkeys - making the tours look pretty exciting. Ever heard of the Tiger Kingdom? (Yeah, I thought that looked pretty neat too until I dug deeper.) Yet, most visitors who visit these attractions are unaware of what they really are supporting.
But, while there is a dark side to animal tourism, there are also several ethical sanctuaries in Thailand that respect these creatures. And after doing hours of research and reading many reviews, I finally found a sanctuary that I was very impressed with and more than happy to support: Phang Nga Elephant Park.
An Ethical Sanctuary
Phang Nga Elephant Park is a small, family-run business, that was created as a place for the family's domesticated elephants to live—and where visitors could come and interact with the animals. The park cares for the well-being of each of the elephants, and strives to provide the elephants with the highest-quality of life possible. The elephants in the park once worked in the logging industry, but are now right at home in this beautiful sanctuary. The park offers tours on a daily basis for visitors to meet, ride, bathe, and feed the elephants. If you are looking for somewhere that supports ethical animal tourism, this is definitely the place to go!
After reading the Phang Nga Elephant Park's outstanding reviews, Jacob and I decided to book a tour at the park, and it was life-changing!
The tour began with a bit of Thai elephant history as well as some interesting facts about the elephants. We were also taught the difference between unethical animal tourism and the treatment of the animals at the sanctuary. Many of the people in our group came to this park for the very same reason we did, to have an up close and personal experience without participating in unethical tourism. It was nice to see other people felt this way too!
It was really quite interesting learning about the animals. Something that really stood out to me was about the relationship between the mahouts and the elephants. The mahouts are essentially the trainers or keepers of the elephants. Mahouts traditionally start out as young boys, and are assigned an elephant by their families. The job of a mahout is challenging and time-consuming, as the mahout cares for the elephant every single day. The relationship between mahouts and elephants is very trusting and intimate. As an example of this bond, if the mahout passes away, chances are the elephant will pass away soon after. They have a very unique connection with each other.
Meeting the Elephants
After we learned some history and facts about the creatures, we were introduced to all 10 of the park's elephants, including the baby, and we were each given an elephant who we got to spend the extent of the tour with. Our elephant, Choosri, was 45 years old and she was beautiful! Jacob and I rode Choosri bareback through the forest, with her mahout leading the way. I'll admit, it was rather intimidating riding her as she was huge, and it was kind of awkward finding a good place to hold onto. Definitely a good thigh workout! Once we reached a clearing in the forest, we got to feed our elephant bananas. We'd give her handfuls until she made it through a whole basketful! It was insane how much food the elephants could eat.
The rest of the tour consisted of us washing and scrubbing the elephants in a pond, albeit getting sprayed in the face a couple times. I think Choosri had way too much fun in the water with us.
The day ended with a delicious Thai lunch of spring rolls, curry and fresh pineapple (the food was so good, I definitely think I need to share the recipes on my blog!) and an introduction to the adorable baby elephant.
While the tour was a brief four hours, it was worth every penny to support this elephant park. I felt good about interacting with the elephants here, because I knew they were treated well. I wish all elephants in Thailand were able to live in a sanctuary such as this, but for now I can at least spread the word about unethical tourism.
If you are planning a trip to Thailand, I highly recommend visiting the Phang Nga Elephant Park. The elephants are very happy, plus you have the once in a lifetime chance to spend a day interacting with the animals.
This was an absolutely unforgettable way to spend a day in Thailand! I know there are similar sanctuaries and parks in Northern Thailand as well, so you should be able to find a sanctuary fairly easily depending on where you travel on the island. I strongly recommend doing a bit of research and reading reviews before you go so that you know exactly what you are getting into before your trip.