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For centuries, elephants are used to make different activities in Thailand, from working in the military area (as war machines, for instance) to any kind of transportation. They have even been used in the logging industry to carry chopped trees.

Elephants are part of the Thai culture and are present in the history, religion and in the country’s tradition. Thus, it has always been common for some people, known as mahouts, who are the elephant trainers and owners, to keep them as pets.

cruel elephant trekking

But why you should never do the elephant trekking in Thailand?

However, elephants are not domesticated by nature. For them to be capable of obeying us and to practice such activities, they have to go through a ritual known as Phajaan. Phajaan in Thai means “to crush their soul”.

The ritual consists mainly in splitting the young elephant from the mother at the very first months. Then they put the animal into an excessive training, which involves beating, sleep deprivation, starvation, amongst other horrible acts.

Elephants and tourists

In 1998, a huge flood in South Thailand brought up many environmental concerns to the country making deforestation forbidden by law. With the new law, many mahouts who worked in the logging industry in the deforestation process lost their jobs as well as the elephant utility. The way out was to use the elephants to entertain tourists and it is here where it lies the problem.

cruel elephant trekking

Hundreds of elephants are used by tourists for trekking and other stunts in Thailand. However, what many people don’t know is, in order to the elephant to achieve this level of acceptance and to allow, amongst many other things, to have people on their back, he had to go through a “crushing the soul” process, which can be easily is compared to torture many of the times.

Furthermore, the animals are exposed to long working hours and forced to carry weight way over their physical limit. To get a sense of it, the life expectancy of a domesticated elephant is much lower than of their free colleagues. According to the Thai governmental organisation Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, there are currently about 5000 elephants in Thailand where over 2000 of them are domesticated.

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How did we find out?

We arrived in Thailand without any knowledge about this topic whatsoever, having only seen other traveller’s pictures on an elephant’s back describing it as one of a lifetime experience. We did not have any formed opinion about it and if the opportunity had come up, we would have probably done this tour. Until one day, while driving our scooter through Koh Lanta Island, where we lived for a month, we saw many elephants chained with very limited mobility. That had caught our attention, mainly because the animals had a really sad-looking. We felt sorry for that and decided to research about the topic.

The more we read, the more we realised that the situation is actually a lot worse than we have thought. We have even found out about cases of abuse during the trekking, having the mahout beating the animal right there in front of everybody because the elephant refused to walk at the demanded speed.

What can we do?

So then, what is the solution? Not use the animals for tourism, take them back to nature and lock up the mahouts? Yes and No. Obviously, the use of elephants for tourism entertainment has to stop. However, there are no room for all of them to be sent back to nature.

Moreover, for the mahouts, he is only practicing a legal and centennial job and, for them, there is nothing criminal about that. Some Thai friends have told us that there are many cases of which mahouts treat the elephant as a member of his own family and develop a strong bond with the animal (though this being the minority).

We ought to be realistic and reasonable. Mahouts should be re-educated to not abuse the elephants, train them in different activities and reinsert both of them into the job market. Nevertheless, above all, it is necessary to stop the demand for such service, which comes from tourists.

cruel elephant trekking

For those who really want to have a close contact with the animal during holidays in Thailand, it is possible to do it through some NGOs. There are specific places that rescue and help elephants throughout the country.

Unfortunately, we cannot advise on any as we would only do it if we had a bigger knowledge about the subject as well as certain that it is a genuine organisation. For this reason, feel free to search for some and let us know when finding something interesting.

For the time being, all we know is that any sensible person would stay far away from this tourist attraction and trekking with elephants as they hide a huge cruelty against the animal.


The reader Hugo Prizon got in touch with us saying that there is a retreat near Chiang Mai city which allows you to “know” better an elephant. The place is the Elephant Retirement Park, which, a year ago when he was there, had 5 elephants, including a baby one. They were all rescued animals and there were no chains or hooks on them. Obviously, it was not allowed to climb on them. They do not do any sort of stunt for tourists.

The activities involved are only feeding and washing the animal on mud and on the river, which takes practically the full day. He describes this experience as the best he had in Thailand. He also said the staff were extremely careful and it was clear that they cared for the elephants.

The case of other animals

cruel elephant trekking

It is quite common to see in Thailand monkeys inside a cage and being brought up as a pet. Once again, many are used for tourism entertainment and the traveller is obliged to not foster this practice. It is also conspicuous the cruelty against tigers, which are drugged most of the times in order to allow a tourist to take pictures with him.