Exploring animal tourism in Thailand

How to have the elephant experience without feeling like a bad person

An elephant pedals a custom tricycle at Nong Nooch Gardens in Pattaya. (Marlys Klossner/The Omega)

An elephant pedals a custom tricycle at Nong Nooch Gardens in Pattaya. (Marlys Klossner/The Omega)

The one thing everyone wants to do when they go to Thailand is see elephants. Elephants are the mascots of Thailand. They’re on every souvenir, and few tourists return home without buying a pair of “elephant pants,” those harem pants with generic southeast Asian patterns that may or may not actually have elephants on them.

In a country where elephants are part of the national identity, you’d think they’d be taken care of better. Unfortunately, what this really means is that they are exploited.

During my six-month stay in Thailand, the news was peppered with stories of foreigners using animals for entertainment and getting flak for it. Kellan Lutz, an actor you probably know from the Twilight series, celebrated his 29th birthday in Thailand in March with a pool party that included a bikini-clad woman riding a young elephant.

As a non-famous person, I didn’t rent a two-ton creature to serve as the sideshow for my birthday, but I did go to three places where you can ride elephants.

All of the places I went used saddles with benches for the tourists to sit on, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The whole point is to interact with these amazing creatures that can only be found in that part of the world, and riding them bareback is both better for the elephants and a better experience for you.

At one of the places I went, they took off the saddles and had us wade into the river with them, scrubbing the elephants clean with soap and brushes. This was by far the highlight of my day, possibly my whole trip.

Along with riding, every elephant farm also puts on a show, where elephants perform tricks. At the same place that we went in the river, the show was less entertaining, but more natural. The elephants played with hula hoops and danced to music.

In Pattaya, at Nong Nooch Gardens, the elephant show was by far the most entertaining, but also the most morally troubling. By the time I went to this one, I had already become disenchanted, so watching an elephant ride a custom-made tricycle only made me think “their muscles are definitely not supposed to move like that.” There was also construction going on very nearby, and I wondered how all the noise and crowds affected the elephants. There were several other animals on display here as well, in zoo-like spaces. A drowsy tiger lay on a short chain, while people took photos with it.

I have to wonder, since I already saw concerning things on the outside, what could be happening behind the scenes.

Another news item that caught my attention while I was in Thailand was a story about a temple that housed several sun bears. The bears were being abused, so the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, with support from the Thai government, went to remove them and only managed to get the bears out after distracting the monks by raising a fuss in another area of the temple.

While this was indeed a success story, the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand had been issuing complaints to the Thai government for two years before being given permission to remove the animals. It isn’t hard to see why, considering tourism is a huge contributor to Thailand’s economy.

My advice to travellers is to do research before you go, and try to find places that will let you see the animals, while also allowing you to sleep at night.