Elephants are some of my favorite animals in the world- they are intelligent, kind, and beautiful to see in person. Thailand is well-known for its elephant camps and parks, and it is important to make ethical choices when choosing which park to support.
When I was 19, I did a two-week volunteer program with Go Differently in Pattaya, Thailand. The volunteer program was a mahout training course where I was placed with a mahout and his elephant, whose name was Noi. Her mahout, Pon, loved her very much and never used any kind of excessive force with her. I was taught to bathe, wash and feed Noi.
Pon was very proud of me when I learned to climb on Noi without assistance. It’s basically a three-step process of going from knee to thigh to back, and using your arm strength to lift yourself up. Pon spoke very little English, but I could tell he was proud to have a slightly agile volunteer. Him and the other mahouts would frequently imitate the other two women trying to mount their elephants.
I didn’t give Pon any sense of pride with my food gathering skills though. At 4am, Pon took me on his motorbike to collect food for the elephants. Pon assumed I was capable enough to hack down some leaves while he went further off into the jungle. Needless to say, I was very bad at handling the knife, and Pon came running back to me, motioning that I was going to impale myself. I was put on strict motorbike watching duty from that point on.
I am happy I was able to experience a mahout training program, but when I came back to Thailand, I chose to support a place that did not give elephant rides using the basket carrier. Although I never personally sat in one, Noi gave many rides a day in the basket. Although there are places that treat elephants much, much worse, I still chose to go a different route.
If you choose to go to an elephant camp in Thailand, please do research before you go! I don’t believe in supporting any place that has elephants do ‘tricks’ such as painting or playing soccer. While driving through the outskirts of Chiang Mai on my motorbike, I have passed by a nearby circus that performed these shows, and I can only imagine the cruelty that took place to get these animals to comply in performing these tricks.
During my time in Chiang Mai, I have visited two camps- Thai Elephant Home and Elephant Nature Park. Thai Elephant Home allows riding on the back without a basket, where the Elephant Nature Park only allows bathing and feeding of the elephants. Elephant Nature Park also runs a volunteer program, where you can stay at the park for longer periods of time. Both are reputable places and from what I saw, treated the elephants with respect and love.