Phuket, Thailand (Part 4): Elephant Ethics

This is my last post on Thailand. What can I say or what have you seen? Obviously, our trip to Thailand was very, very good. I must confess, though, that one part of our trip was very, very depressing. Probably not a word you — nor I — associate with a country like Thailand. But depressing most accurately sums up our thirty minute elephant ride.

Elephant riding or “trekking” is a big tourist to-do in Thailand. There are multiple companies offering treks around the hills of Phuket on these big, beautiful beasts. The brochures these companies have put together tantalize you with their glossy pictures showing healthy looking elephants with their happy go-lucky handlers sitting freely atop their heads and tourists strapped semi-securely on their backs. We could’ve chosen the company specializing in elephant treks to the Big Buddha or another that touted the four-hour eco-friendly trek. We should’ve gone with that one. It would’ve made me feel better about my indulgent need to sit on top of an elephant, pretending to be Mowgli (the girl version), exploring the Thai jungle. But we didn’t.

We opted for the one that kept monkeys chained to railings and locked up inside dingy cages.

The one that chained a baby elephant’s front legs together so that it “wouldn’t run away,” in the words of our elephant handler, who happened to be a very nice man in comparison to the others we saw.

The one that had a very small, circular outdoor area for the seven elephants we saw with a big hill of elephant dung piled right next to it.

Big Pile O' Elephant Shite

Big Pile O’ Elephant Shite

And the one that employed a guy that seemed to get off on using his rustic farm tool as a torture device on his elephant’s trunk.

The Handlers: for the most part, a decent group, except for one.

The Handlers: for the most part, a decent group, except for one.

Again, our handler was gentle with his elephant named Bow, who happened to be a pretty nice dude himself.

I don’t know if there are any travelers out there who had a more humane and thus more enjoyable elephant trek in Thailand. I hope so. But I had visions of Sarah McLachlan’s SPCA commercials running through my mind during ours. Especially since I knew from first hand experience how good elephants have it elsewhere — like in the wild where they belong.

This entry was published on April 19, 2013 at 4:44 pm. It’s filed under Thailand and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

8 thoughts on “Phuket, Thailand (Part 4): Elephant Ethics

  1. Aww man, that baby is sad… sadder than the slabs of baby meat earlier!
    I didn’t realize how polka-dotty the Asian elephants were – neat pattern…

  2. Andrea Reilly on said:

    i just read and looked at the pics of the last posted blog on the topic of elephants , one of my early favorite topics as in the 6 th grade that is what a chose to do a major report on . i guess my favorite factoid was the long gestation they have . then as a mother of 3 years later that length of time to be pregnant seems so amazing …, maybe thats the sadness u see behind those eyes , u know after carrying a baby for 36 months there has to be a very deep connectedness to nurturing after the birth . to think that these animals are kept captive in the circus and zoos and for rides in thailand seems so counter to how we envision them to be living in their natural habitat .., when i see and hear any stories of animal captivity my mind always goes to the activation that the movie and song Born Free evokes . if it is any consolation over the years elephants have been used as work horses for packing , travel , and moving stuff back from hannibal crossing the alps , does not make it right nor does tourists supporting elephant rides.., but it does provide a living for these poor people

    On Fri, Apr 19, 2013 at 4:45 AM, woshoudebuhao

    • I’ll have to check out Born Free. And you touched on a point I chose not to get into on this post, but Iggy and I did talk about the exploitation of the elephants vs. the income it provided to the people who owned them. What I didn’t show (because the pictures weren’t great) were the shacks where the handlers and their families lived, which surrounded the elephant pen. They were very bare bones. Clearly, the people were pretty poor by our standards and also in comparison to the Chinese standards in Haiyang and even in the farming villages near us where the expat village is.

  3. emilyhikes on said:

    Very interesting post to be reading on Earth Day! The livelihood of humans is very dependent on they decide to use the Earth’s resources, as with a thing like tourism. It is an unfortunate fact we must all consider when seeing the world–to see all of the world’s many wonders, we damage them in the process, and so do the people that provide the means to see them. As a fellow lover of traveling, I can’t deny that I am torn as to how to manage this issue. I’m too hyper-aware (and becoming more of a hippie with each passing day…) to not feel guilty or anxious about such topics. Thanks for sharing all the good and bad of your time in Thailand!

  4. u guys are going hell for supporting baby elephants in chains! luv, sully
    ps – thank you for my postcard! i loved hearing about all the naked babies 😉

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