8 of the kindest ways to experience elephants in Asia

Riding an elephant was one of the biggest regrets I have from my travels. I was new to the whole thing and wanted to experience elephants in Thailand so I booked a cheap tour that included an elephant ride. BIG MISTAKE.

The worst point was when I was sitting on a chair atop an elephant that was bleeding from the head because the handler kept on poking it violently with a metal stick. The elephant and I were in the middle of a muddy stream and I had to decide whether to protest and get off or shut up and deal with it. I chose the latter because I didn’t know where  I was or how to get off. It was a sorry sight. I was a bit tearful because the elephant was being abused right in front of me and it was all my fault. I just wanted it to be over.

This was my first and last experience of elephants getting a rough deal as a side effect of tourism in their countries. I later learnt that they are often drugged, beaten and put through horrible ordeals in order for tourists to enjoy a ride. Their spirits must be broken to bring on submission. There is a name for this process. It is called ‘phajaan’. Rather than me explaining in words I found this video on YouTube for you to see for yourself.

Click here for video

There are so many other better ways to enjoy these majestic animals while travelling Southeast Asia. Organisations that protect elephants let tourists visit and help care for the elephants and an increasing number of elephant camps are transverting to this conservational style of tourism. Yes you will have to spend a bit more money but that is the cost of keeping them happy. Scroll over the project names in this article to find links for booking and more information. Enjoy!

  1. This is more like it. Rather than ride an elephant people are opting for washing them and caring for them at sancturies, such as The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.

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2. You can volunteer as a conservationist with Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society. This is more like being a scientist. You get to work with scientists and local people to help collect information, care for elephants and find solutions to help elephants and local people to live together without conflict.

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3. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage , in Sri Lanka, is one of my favourites. It has the world’s largest population of captive elephants. The experience here is observatory, while relaxing with a snack.

4. You can actually go an see wild elephants roaming around Khao Yai National Park, in Thailand, which is just three and a half hours outside of Bangkok and easily reachable by minivan from Victory Monument Skytrain station.

5. One of the biggest elephant camps in Thailand, Sai Yoke Elephant Camp in Kanchanaburi, has transitioned into a conservation camp. Now called Elephant Haven, tourist trips include feeding, bathing and walking beside elephants.

6. You can emerse yourself in the Gwi culture by volunteering in a remote village in northern Thailand where The Surin Project provides economic sustainability to mahouts (elephant keepers) so that they don’t need to rely on elephant shows and riding.

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7. If you are visiting Chiang Mai pop into the Elephant Parade House where you can buy a painted elephant sculpture or even paint one yourself. There are no live elephants to see but your cash goes to support elephants conservation projects in India and Southeast Asia.

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8. Also see the Elephant Parade Exhibition in Bangkok at Asiatique from December 20, 2015, to January 11, 2016, and at Lumpini Park from Janury 18 to 31, 2016.

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