Most people visit Thailand with one very important bucket list item to fulfill: spend a day with elephants. I, of course, had the same ambition, and would encourage everyone to interact with elephants while in Thailand. It is truly a really special experience! However, I would warn people to be cautious and responsible when looking for elephant experiences.
For example, while in Bangkok, you may see street elephants, even baby street elephants, and tourists may be paying small amounts of money to take photos with the elephant. What you should realize in the situation is that the baby elephant was taken away from its mother by force and brought to the city so that people could profit off of it. In some situations, it is possible that the mother was even killed.
While visiting Ayuthhaya, we came across some street performing elephants. There were men giving elephant rides in circles through the streets, meanwhile another group of elephants were performing silly circus stunts. The elephants that were “resting” were sitting chained, in a small enclosure. Places like these make me so uncomfortable. It is amazing that in the US, Rigley Brothers is finally starting to retire their elephants, but in Thailand, were the elephants are native, they are still subject to so much abuse. Asian Elephants may be endangered, but there are no laws protecting the elephants! “cattle laws” are the only laws that apply to elephants, which means, an owner could kill their elephant if they wanted to without any repercussion.
All of this brings me to the point that if we want all of the elephant abuse to stop, then a lot of responsibility rests on tourists to end it. There is a reason why people always say animal rights are a first world issue. The abuse towards Asian Elephants is all about the economics. If there was no demand for parading a baby elephant around the street, then there would be no parading baby elephants around streets, and there would be no killing mother elephants for the sake of kidnapping the baby. So if you travel to Thailand, or anywhere with elephants, don’t give your business to the people keeping their elephants locked up in cages, and don’t pay to take a picture with an elephant in chains. Instead try to find visit a place that takes good care of their elephants.
I can’t more highly recommend a place than the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. If you are looking for a place to morally visit and interact with elephants, then this is your best option. A day t the Elephant Nature Park is around $80 USD (that’s really pricey for South East Asia!), but it is definitely worth it. All of the money you pay to spend the day there goes towards upkeeping this reserve. The reserve covers a ton of land (I can’t remember how much, but it was big), and the elephants are free to roam as they please. The sweetest thing is, that all of these elephants have been rescued from abusive situations and street performing. Because they came from abusive backgrounds, visitors are not allowed to ride the elephants. You will, however, be able to feed, bathe, and generally just hang out with the elephants. And on top of that there are literally over one hundred rescued dogs here! So if you are a dog lover like me, this place is basically paradise.
Also in Chiang Mai, is a place called Woody’s Elephant Farm. It definitely isn’t an elephant reserve, but it still is a place that I felt comfortable with the treatment of the elephants. I visited Woody’s the day after going to the Elepant Nature Park, and after everything I learned there, I was skeptical about whether I would like this place or not. Woody’s Elephant Farm is run by a family, and Woody is the man that spends his time guiding tourists around hiselephant farm. This family seemed to really care about the elephants. They had even recently bought a new elephant out of a “bad situation” that he allowed to freely wander their large property. They allowed us to ride the elephants and took us on a short walk with the elephants before allowing for us to play with the elephants in the water which was amazing.
If you want to be really conscious of the places you are giving your money to, I would recommend the Elephant Nature Park first, but if you have to have the kind of experience were you ride an elephant, then a place like Woody’s is obviously much better than paying to ride an elephant kept on the side of a busy street.