Playing with Elephants

For decades, Thailand has thrived on the exploitation of its native elephant population. These gentle giants were once used by tribes for logging, but with industrialization and Thailand’s slide into the tourism industry, elephants quickly became exotic attractions, exploited for the pleasure of European and North American tourists. In order to force an elephant into complacency, starvation and torture are employed to break its spirit. Often, elephants are chained in tiny spaces for most of their lives, starved and mistreated. The huge creatures are not built to carry metal cages or heavy loads on their backs, but for many years, elephant riding was the number one tourist attraction in Thailand. Only in recent years has an outcry gone up against the mistreatment of elephants among visiting tourists, and so the elephant tourism industry in Thailand has begun to adapt.

Elephant sanctuaries that emphasize the freedom of their elephants, encourage interactive activities between elephants and tourists, and forbid riding have grown in popularity. The prominence of elephant riding has steadily dropped as awareness grows, though there are still far too many ignorant tourists who find themselves enthralled with the concept of elephant riding.

I had the opportunity to visit one of these elephant sanctuaries just north of Chiang Mai, and I quickly found that interacting and playing with the elephants in the sanctuary was a far more rewarding experience than riding one.

I took a day tour with elephants owned by the Karen tribe, a tribe indigenous to northern Thailand. We were brought out to an idyllic village nestled in the northern mountains, equipped with traditional Karen clothing and a bag of bananas, before approaching the tribe’s elephants, three adults and two babies, who were wandering, unchained, near the jungle edge.

The elephants knew exactly what we were there for as we approached, and lumbered excitedly to meet us, trunks extended toward the bags of bananas at our waists. Who knew elephants loved bananas so much? When given a command in Karen, the elephants would lift their trunks and open their mouths for us to hand feed them.

The babies were especially playful and would butt you with their heads, trying to bowl you over like an exuberant, few hundred pound puppy. Even thought they’re small, they’re still incredibly heavy!

Elephants feel bristly and rough, not what I was expecting at all. I was amazed how these huge creatures could be so gentle.

After lunch, our next interaction was to give the elephants a mud bath and get muddy ourselves!

Then we all wandered over to the river, bathed the elephants,  as well as ourselves.

Yes, that last picture is of me getting sprayed in the head by an elephant. When is that ever going to happen again in my life?

I can honestly say I have never experienced anything like my day with the beautiful elephants of the Karen tribe. It was absolutely incredible to be able to interact with such massive, intelligent animals. It was definitely a experience I will never forget. If you’re ever in Thailand, forgo the elephant riding in favor of the elephant sanctuaries, as it’s a far more rewarding experience.

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