Riding an elephant is a popular offer for tourists in Thailand; you will find elephant camps that offer rides at all the tourist destinations in Thailand. However, before you decide on a ride on one of the majestic animals, you should know that an elephant is different from a horse.
Elephants are big and strong, and they seem as tame as horses. However, unlike a horse, the elephant has a weak spine that cannot cope with the weight of a passenger. And, of course, it is even worse when the spine has to support the weight of a wooden box with seats in addition to two passengers. Animals do not show pain in the same way as humans do because showing pain is a sign of weakness; thus, you cannot see that the elephant is suffering.
In addition, elephants are not tame in the same way as horses. If they are born in captivity, they go through a training program to break their spirit and to teach them to obey a human. It can means that the baby elephant is taken from its mother, chained and left alone without food, so that it does as told when the mahout arrives with food and teaches it commands.
Typically, adult elephants are also chained when they do not transport tourists; however, they are not left alone and without food as the baby elephant in the picture above.
For elephants that are born free, the taming and training is harsher than for elephants born in captivity. Wild elephants go through a torture-like process called phajaan to make them accept humans and to make them do what they are told. You can see an example of the phajaan process in the video below. Be aware that the video contains disturbing scenes.
It is illegal to capture wild elephants in Thailand; however, there is a widespread trade in illegally captured elephants. In addition, smugglers are illegally importing captured wild elephants from neighbouring countries, such as Myanmar.
Some animal welfare groups advise against any association with wild animals; which means, that they not only discourage riding an elephant but also that you get close enough to the elephant to take a selfie or pat it. However, that attitude may not be the best for the animals.
There are several elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, which do not offer tourists to ride an elephant, but where you can still get close to the animals. Typically, the sanctuaries buy the elephants to free them from a life as working elephants in the forests or from life as riding elephants for tourists.
If the tourists stay away, the sanctuaries will not have money to feed the elephants. After humans have fed them for years, the elephants cannot survive in the wild. The result is, the sanctuaries will buy fewer elephants.
However, things are not black or white; unfortunately, the sanctuaries also have a negative effect. When a sanctuary buys an elephant, it may mean that the former owner buys a new, illegally captured elephant, and you may thus help keep the wheels turning for the animal abusers.
You have to make up your mind according to your own conscience whether you want to visit a camp to ride an elephant; whether you want to visit a sanctuary to get close to elephants; or whether you prefer to stay away. If you want to visit an elephant camp or sanctuary that does not abuse the elephants, check out the camp's website online and google to learn about other visitor’s experience.