Animals Asia Destinations Thailand Travel Ethics

An Elephant I’ll Never Forget- Chiang Mai, Thailand


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. 

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  • Reply
    Jacqueline Gum (Jacquie)
    February 26, 2014 at 7:16 am

    Oh this made me sad 🙁 It reminded me of Rosie, the elephant in Water For Elephants. They are such grand creatures and I cannot bear seeing an animal abused. I felt your pain as you started to sweat. Bless her soul for exercising some independence and bless your soul for staying with her.
    Jacqueline Gum (Jacquie) recently posted…The Sisterhood… WHERE’S THE JUSTICE?My Profile

    • Reply
      February 26, 2014 at 3:13 pm

      Aw I love that book, it is so sad! Thanks Jacquie, I still feel really bad for doing that trip. Hopefully people will stop going to these places eventually. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  • Reply
    Donna Janke
    February 26, 2014 at 8:12 am

    What a sad story. I’ve read a number of things recently about the cruelty to elephants in the name of tourism, something I’d been unaware of. I’ve also heard positive things about The Elephant Park in Chiang Mai. It’s on my list.
    Donna Janke recently posted…Freedom to ReadMy Profile

    • Reply
      February 26, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      Yes, I was trying to find the name of the Elephant Park when I was writing this, and I came across a lot of stories about how cruel these places are. I had no idea of the extent of the cruelty. They put the young elephants in a cage and try to break them completely so they can control them, it made me feel so sick. Now I really want to go to the Elephant Park and wash an elephant. Thanks for stopping by Donna 🙂

  • Reply
    Beth Niebuhr
    February 26, 2014 at 8:18 am

    Oh no! What would a person who would abuse an animal whose job it is to carry people around all day? That is so sad!
    Beth Niebuhr recently posted…Gotta Have ItMy Profile

    • Reply
      February 26, 2014 at 3:25 pm

      I know, Beth, it is awful, and so unnecessary. Thank you for commenting 🙂

  • Reply
    Susan Cooper
    February 26, 2014 at 9:19 am

    Oh my, this broke my heart. I hate it when I hear about things like this. Elephant are the most majestic animals and deserve so much more then that. I wish the same, that the elephants would run away and find a happier life.
    Susan Cooper recently posted…Gratitude and Blessings: StoryMy Profile

    • Reply
      February 26, 2014 at 3:27 pm

      I know, elephants really do seem like such majestic and intelligent animals, I hate to think how they must feel in that situation, day in, day out. Thanks for visiting, Susan!

  • Reply
    Laurie Hurley
    February 26, 2014 at 11:03 am

    So sad. I can’t stand when humans are cruel to animals. Animals are so helpless and people can be so cruel. The Chaing Mai park sounds like heaven!
    Laurie Hurley recently posted…7 Social Media Lessons To Be Learned By Going On A DietMy Profile

    • Reply
      February 26, 2014 at 3:33 pm

      I know, it is such a shame Laurie. Yes, I really want to visit there now, it sounds beautiful. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Reply
    Debra Yearwood
    February 26, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    What an upsetting experience but a valuable one. So smart of you to share it so that others can avoid something similar.
    Debra Yearwood recently posted…Surprises at WorkMy Profile

  • Reply
    Jason B
    February 27, 2014 at 7:45 am

    Wow what a crazy story. I’m not sure how I would have felt in that situation.
    Jason B recently posted…5 Spring Break DestinationsMy Profile

  • Reply
    Suzanne Fluhr
    February 28, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    We recently visited Chiang Mai, Thailand and spent a day at the Elephant Nature Park. I did have “encounter with elephants” on our “to do” travel list and fortunately, I came across the ENP website while I was researching that. I even did a blog post about our Elephant Nature Park experience. I definitely recommend it if you get to that area of the world. You can even volunteer for a week there.

    • Reply
      March 8, 2014 at 7:02 am

      Hi Suzanne, yes I read you post. It’s great that you went to such a good place. Volunteering fir a week would be great. I think it would be hard to leave the elephants afterwards though!

  • Reply
    Heidi Wagoner
    February 28, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    I was in Thailand over 20 years ago and really wanted to do exactly this. Ride the elephant up the river and raft down. We didn’t have time to make it up North and always said, “we can always come back”. Well, here I sit planning our family adventure from Spain through Southeast Asia and elephants are on the list. That said, we won’t be riding them. Instead we plan to volunteer at the elephant sanctuary and care for some of the rescued elephants. Perhaps your elephant will be there and we can give it some extra love.
    Heidi Wagoner recently posted…Hear The Kids Speak In Spanish -18 Months Living In Spain!My Profile

    • Reply
      March 8, 2014 at 7:06 am

      Aw Heidi, I would love that! It’s a nice thought. I hope you have a wonderful time on your trip 🙂

  • Reply
    Meredith Wouters
    March 1, 2014 at 10:02 am

    As a horseback rider myself, I could so relate to you! Thank you for sharing this story and being so honest, but especially for adding something constructive that people can do. It’s heartbreaking to hear of these things with no hope of being able to make a difference.
    Meredith Wouters recently posted…Children, Naps, and the Three States of MatterMy Profile

    • Reply
      March 8, 2014 at 7:09 am

      Thank you Meredith! I know, it is really sad, but at least there is an alternative available. Maybe if enough people chose the more ethical elephant experience, then the other ones will go out of business. Thanks for you comment 🙂

  • Reply
    March 2, 2014 at 12:41 am

    I lived in Thailand for a year myself. Doing research before you just jump on or take any kind of a trip will go a long way. That must have been pretty scary! Thanks, Brandon.
    Brandon recently posted…3 Sites You Need to Keep an Eye OnMy Profile

    • Reply
      March 8, 2014 at 7:10 am

      I would love to live in Thailand for a year, it must have been great! Thanks for stopping by Brandon 🙂

  • Reply
    March 2, 2014 at 9:58 am

    I have been to Thailand but never got to see any animals. Your story reminded me of the camels in Egypt that tourist ride, and yes I was one of them. After riding your post it makes you really think, is what we are doing fair to the elephants, camels, donkeys, etc.
    Arleen recently posted…Using Technology to Promote Your Business and How it is Influenced by Our YouthMy Profile

    • Reply
      March 8, 2014 at 7:14 am

      I know what you mean Arleen. Im planning my trip to India at the moment and we wanted to do the camel ride in the desert, where you sleep under the stars. It sounds so perfect, but I don’t want it to be another experience that I feel guilty about afterwards! I’ll have to do more research on it. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Reply
    Rachel Noel
    March 3, 2014 at 12:26 am

    What a great story, Christine! Obviously minus the elephant beating 🙁 But I love that you were in simpatico with the elephant, and she ran off the beaten path. Glad to know about a humane way to interact with the elephants. Thanks!
    Rachel Noel recently posted…The Struggle Is RealMy Profile

    • Reply
      March 8, 2014 at 7:15 am

      Thanks Rachel, I’m glad you liked it! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  • Reply
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    Backpack Struggles- Confessions of a Terrible Packer
    November 19, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    […] to climb the endless underground steps are now just a faded, amusing memory. The next trip was to Thailand, and that is where I was tricked. Somehow, I don’t have any memories of struggling with my […]

  • Reply
    February 7, 2018 at 3:25 am

    WOW! I can understand you mixed feeling on the Elephant Ride. The world is changing so much.

    Cheers Sharon…
    Sharon recently posted…PowerBreather Swimming Snorkel – Laps & snorkeling will never be the same!My Profile

    • Reply
      Christine Maguire
      February 12, 2018 at 12:49 pm

      Thanks for reading and for your comment, Sharon! You’re so right!

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