Elephant Riding Pai: Avoid Thom’s Pai Elephant Camp


The elephant looked jaded, old, and uncared for. He walked towards us and, like most elephants; he looked to be a gentle giant as he glided ever so gracefully along the concrete road.

A small Thai man walked right beside him with a long wooden stick that was ready to strike should the elephant step out of line.

Two guys sat on the elephant’s back and, being totally honest, I found it hard not to stare and judge.

pai elephant camp

We were in Pai and had taken a trip out to Thom’s Pai Elephant camp on the outskirts of town.

We had passed it the previous day whilst on route to the hot springs and, despite the fact that I didn’t know anything about the place, I knew we had to go back there.

It was this sign and the scene behind it that caught my attention and made me want to go back.

elephant riding pai

Thom’s claim to treat their elephants like family. Animal cruelty is something that they don’t tolerate and they claim to give tourists an unforgettable experience where they’ll be able to “interact with elephants responsibly.”

The scene behind the sign painted a very different picture than what they were describing.

There stood a very large elephant and he was crammed into a wooden framed shack with no room to move.

He paced from side to side and he looked very agitated to be restricted in such a tight space.

pai elephant riding

Something just didn’t quite add up with what they claimed and what I saw so I wanted to investigate more, which led us to witness the scene that I described at the beginning of the post.

The elephant then came closer and, as he approached our bike, as much as I didn’t want to, I couldn’t but look in his eyes as he passed us.

In that moment, I remembered what it was like seeing wild elephants in the Serengeti and how free and healthy they looked.

This guy (or girl) that just passed us by looked the opposite of happy and healthy.

A huge wave of anger washed over me.

How could we, as a human race with brains and emotions, be treating an endangered species of animals like this?

Why are we paying money hungry monsters to break the spirits of baby elephants and empowering them to physically and mentally torture these beautiful animals at an early age to make them submissive?

And all of this so that tourists can sit on the back of a huge 9ft tall ‘wild’ animal and take some pictures.

It’s disgusting.

elephant riding

In an ideal world, all animals would have the space to roam freely

I was once that tourist I’m talking about so I can’t judge those that still ride elephants because they don’t know about the dark side of this industry.

And to be totally honest, like millions of other tourists, I couldn’t wait to get a picture on the back of an elephant when we first visited Thailand in 2011.

Without doing any research into these kinds of camps, we stupidly signed up for a 1-hour trek in Phuket.

My dream of riding through a pristine jungle on the back of an elephant that’s happy in his surrounds (how naive I was) was shattered.

It turned out to be one of the worst things we’ve ever done on our travels and I couldn’t wait for it to finish.

A guy carrying a bull-hook (which he wasn’t shy about using); the huge wooden frame that was placed on the elephants back so we could be comfortable; and the cramped spaces where these huge animals were kept between rides; it was all so wrong.

Like lots of other tourists, I was unaware of the brutality these elephants go through.

Had I known back then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it.

All the anger that I felt on that day in 2011 when we finished the elephant ride in Phuket came flooding back as I tried not to judge the two guys that sat on this elephants back in Pai.

Perhaps they were just like the 2011 me I thought.

Maybe they too weren’t aware of the sheer brutality that goes on behind the scenes.

I was taking a video for Snapchat of the confined spaces that the elephants are held in when, with the corner of my eye, I spotted one of the guys that had been sat on the elephants back coming and he was running towards us.

He got a little closer and I could see he was crying.

“Please, please, please don’t sign up for these tours”, he pleaded with us whilst wiping his eyes.

“We come from Argentina and I read that this place treat their elephants like family. They promised us they are kind to the animals and they lied to us. The mahout hit him with a stick and a hook. We didn’t know.”

I assured him that we weren’t there to sign up for any tours and told him that we were there to do some Snapchat video to warn other tourists to stay away from places like this.

He settled down a little and finally caught his breath.  

“Can I tell your followers what happened so they don’t make the same mistake as me? I feel too ashamed to show my face so please just let me talk.”

I feel too ashamed to show my face so please just let me talk.”

We let him talk and reassured him that his message would reach our 1,000+ followers on Snapchat so something positive might come out of his bad experience.

He vowed to spread the word about this particular camp in Pai, as did we, and we parted ways.

You’ll hear the recording of what he had to say below. The video was filmed in 10-second segments, which is why some of his sentences are cut off.

To do it or not to do it? It’s Your Choice

The purpose of this post isn’t to criticise those that go elephant riding because, at the end of the day, I did it.

Most people that come to Thailand and support these kinds of places do so unknowingly with regards to what goes on behind the scenes so I can only hope to make those people second guess when booking a tour.

I just want to share my experience of riding elephants in Thailand and my thoughts on this particular elephant camp in Pai so that I can help people make a more informed decision.

Because the sad thing is that, as long as there are tourists willing to pay for elephant rides and animal circus acts, this industry will, unfortunately, continue to thrive.

Some might argue that the people who work in this industry are poor and this is their only source of income.

Others might argue that these elephants would have nowhere to go and no one to feed them if these camps were shut down.

These elephants would pose danger to farmers and villagers if they weren’t contained by their handlers and, given the fact that they’ve most likely never had the chance to roam freely, it’s likely they wouldn’t survive in the wild for very long.

And while I can see some logic in these points, as it would be mayhem if 100’s of 10,000-pound animals were suddenly set free to roam freely in cities, towns, and villages, my argument is there HAS to be a better way.

I know I, for one, would be more than willing to support a sanctuary where elephant riding is banned, the elephants have sufficient space to roam and access to enough food and medical supplies etc. to live a healthy life.

It’s just a shame the government wouldn’t get behind an initiative like this. If more and more camps changed their mindset and took a more ethical approach to attracting tourists and treating their elephants, those in the minority would soon have no choice but to follow suit.

thailand elephant riding

Finding a reputable sanctuary (like this one we visited in Chiang Mai) is a better option if you want to see elephants

To Finish:

There are some positive reviews on Tripadvisor for this particular elephant trekking camp in Pai but there are a lot of negative ones too.  

Even though we didn’t have any direct interactions with the owners of this company, what we saw and heard from the Argentian guy was enough for us to draw our own conclusions.  

If you do want to spend some time with elephants whilst in Thailand, I’d recommend going to a sanctuary but just be sure to research into whether its ethics are in the right place and they practice what they preach.

We visited Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai back in 2013 and, despite seeing a very graphic video that depicts the terrible brutality of elephant tourism, it’s still one of our travel highlights. 



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About the Author

Florence has relocated herself to S.E Asia to pursue her life-long dream of travelling and working around the world. She's currently working as a freelance writer and enjoys the travel lifestyle. She blogs in her free time - which she now has a lot of!! Her favourite things about travelling are meeting new people, interacting with the locals in a new country, sampling new foods and embarking on long bus/plane/train journeys!!

7 Responses to “Elephant Riding Pai: Avoid Thom’s Pai Elephant Camp”

  1. Bob Weber says:

    Very interesting post. My wife and I went elephant riding near Bangkok. From a tourist perspective, it wasn’t exciting, and quite expensive; not worth it. It definitely wasn’t like in the brochures. I believe the animal was treated better than what you describe. I didn’t see any signs of mistreatment, unless giving rides to 3 people (me, my wife and the “pilot”), and a wooden frame, qualifies. And, I accept that it might. That’s a lot of weight, even though it is a very big and powerful animal.

    I also remember thinking how this animal could toss us and stomp us to death at any time. It gave me some respect of the animal, and I didn’t do anything that might anger it. I kept my feet in the seat structure, in case touching the animal might annoy it. Being fearful of my ride did not add to the enjoyment.

    We gave some money that hopefully would go toward the elephant’s upkeep. That’s what the pilot told us, and he seemed a like a nice man, but how can anyone know what goes on behind the scenes. For me, it was good to do once, and I hope the animal I rode is treated humanely, but I don’t see doing it again, and wouldn’t have done it the 1st time if I had any idea the animals were abused.

    I think it’s also important to remember that the poverty in Thailand is extreme. There were so many people begging on the streets, with all kinds of visible suffering. They have few opportunities to make money. This doesn’t excuse abuse of any kind, but it does factor into the balance of the people’s welfare and the animals.

    Is there an acceptable way to give elephant rides? I’m sure people’s thoughts will cover the full range, and in the end, it’s a personal choice. If people do decide to ride an elephant, I hope this posts helps them find better places than this one.

    • Florence Murphy says:

      Hey Bob,

      You had a similar experience to mine by the sounds of it and like you, I wouldn’t have done it had I known the real terror that goes on behind the scenes. I too hope that the money we paid went to help the elephants in some way.

      It’s wishful thinking on our part I would think but we can only hope that was the case!

      I understand the link between this industry and poverty but honestly, much like I said in the post, there has to be a better way.

      The camps need to take a more ethical approach to what they’re doing.

      The demand for elephant rides is decreasing as more people are becoming aware so let’s hope that the new wave of tourists will create a demand for elephant sanctuaries where the animals are genuinely looked after. Let’s hope the ‘breaking of spirits’ of baby elephants becomes a thing of the past which will eventually put a stop to this industry altogether.

      All we can do is keep educating people to boycott these places and hope that big changes occur in the coming months/years.

      Thanks for your contribution Bob 🙂

  2. Anthony says:

    I’m still haunted by my photos of me on top of the elephants with my cousin in Cambodia. 🙁 We meant well and didn’t know the true brutality of what goes on, I should really write about that too but I do think there is a huge global awakening happening about this and more and more people are boycotting elephant riding.

    • Florence Murphy says:

      The more articles out there about it, the better Anthony so do write about it when you get the time.

      Hope you’re keeping well 🙂

  3. Ray says:

    Never ridden an elephant before, but with warnings such as these, I don’t think I ever will!

  4. Nausheen says:

    I love elephants and really can’t stand it when innocent animals have to go through this kind of harsh treatment, i would be just glad to look at them and feed them their favorite food.

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