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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
There are some positive reviews on Tripadvisor for this particular elephant trekking camp in Pai. A guy called Thomas James also reached out to us who stayed with Thom and her elephants 4 years ago and he had some really good things to say about the camp (see comments below).
So note that while we didn’t have any direct interactions with the owners of this company and we didn’t stay at the camp, this review is solely based on what we saw and heard from the Argentian guy and what we saw that day.
Maybe that’s unfair to Thom and if we do return to Pai, I feel we should return to the camp and see what goes on behind closed doors and perhaps I’ll have more positive things to say. I hope I’ll have more positive things to say.
But, for now, my recommendation is that if you do want to spend some time with elephants whilst in Thailand, I’d recommend doing your research.
Don’t just choose a random camp. Please do research so that you choose a sanctuary whose ethics are in the right place and read reviews to be sure they practice what they preach.
We visited Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai back in 2013 and, despite watching a very graphic video that depicts the terrible brutality of elephant tourism, it’s still one of our travel highlights.