The first time I went to Thailand, in 2008, my friend and I wanted to see elephants when we were in Chiang Mai. We signed up for a day trek which included an elephant ride, along with river rafting and swimming in a waterfall.
We were really excited to see the elephants. As soon as we arrived at the camp, it started to rain, and we were all given these large, flimsy ponchos to wear, with a tiny hood made with tight elastic that threatened to slice my skull in two.
The reality of being there began to make me feel uncomfortable, and it had nothing to do with the trendy attire we were wearing.
At first, it was exciting to stand so close to the elephants, and to know that we were going to be riding them. But when I clambered atop her wide grey back, my excitement only lasted a moment.
From my vantage point, I took in where we were headed, and guilt started to kick in. I could see other elephants with other tourists on their backs, walking slowly around a well-defined dirt track. What had at first appeared to be a wide open grassland, now looked more like a circus ring. I imagined how terrible it was for the elephants to have to trudge around this circle time and time again, day in, day out.
I was distracted by my thoughts by a far more disturbing sight. The guy who was riding on my elephant’s neck started to hit her with a threatening and barbaric looking hook.
I used to be really into horse riding as a child, and had gotten used to having a riding crop, but this was just so unnecessary. The guy was raising his arm as high as he could, and was then bringing it down with all his might, striking the poor elephant with the hook in a way that made me flinch each time.
I told myself that the size of the elephant versus the size of the hook meant that it couldn’t hurt as much as it appeared to.
Elephants have thick skin, don’t they?
I knew that I was just trying to make myself feel less awful, but I tried to reason that maybe they didn’t feel it as much. But even so, why was he hitting him so much? The elephant was meandering along and not exactly doing anything wrong. This wasn’t some sort of race, so why the constant whacking?
At this stage I was feeling quite queasy as the guilt started to eat away at me. I felt like an awful human being, sitting on a fucking elephant like a bloody sultan or something, just another idiotic tourist with no regard for anyone or anything, save for ticking ridiculous items off a list of clichéd ‘must-do’s in Asia.’
I began to sweat under my plastic bag.
And then, my elephant seemed to sense my despair. She chose that moment to veer off the worn dirt track and head for a hill of grass. The ride grew bumpier and I was tilted backwards as she climbed over the hill, which was nothing more than a slight speed bump for her, and then was tilted forwards so suddenly my stomach did a flip, as she stood down from the bump and lowered her head down to nibble on some bushes in a ditch.
The Thai guy started to shout at her, and his whacking increased. It was then that I realised that despite the cruel hook and the man’s shouts and rough steering, the guy had no control over this great creature.
She decided she didn’t want to follow that path anymore, and there was nothing her master could do to stop her. It made me smile as she moved her head in the opposite way that the man was forcing her to go, and walked a little further away. I swayed from side to side, and my stomach kept doing little flips because it was a bumpy ride, but that path was far better than the other one.
Eventually, she decided to return to the path, and the guy calmed down. As we joined the others I was torn between wanting to get off and get as far away from this sad place as I could, and wanting to stay on her back and perhaps encourage her to just take off.
I gave her one last pat and jumped off, before making a wish that she would round up her friends and stampede into the wilderness for good.
If you are planning a trip to Thailand and want to see some wildlife, be sure to do your research beforehand so that you know you are supporting a good cause. I have just read some horror stories about elephant training in Thailand, so it is really important that you don’t contribute to this cruel practice.
The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai protects elephants who have been treated badly through tourism and logging. You can spend the day there and feed the elephants, as well as wash them in the river. This is something you can do without guilt, as you are helping a great cause. The money raised through tourists goes straight to the elephants.