Early morning mist hung in the treetops as we waited on the edge of the jungle. Stomachs full of butterflies, we watched as two elephants meandered towards us, their large flat feet leaving slippery circles in the muddy ground. “Jump on,” said the Thai man standing next to me. His English wasn’t great and my Thai non-existent so I assumed I’d missed something, like a safety lesson on how to ride an elephant bareback, perhaps a helmet for some form of protection and hopefully a guide to help me balance on the neck of the large heaving animal before me. The man grinned and ushered me up the wooden staircase until I was level with the elephant’s head. Then, gesturing to the flapping ears, he repeated himself — “Jump on.”
Studying the beady eyes of the elephant, I hoped it was a look of welcome rather than annoyance that she was giving me, as I swung my leg over her neck and tucked my feet behind her warm ears. I could feel the wiry hair prickling my legs as I leant forward, pushing my hands onto the soft bumps of her head for balance. Then she moved. A slow rolling step backwards, my elephant shifted below me and we were off, up into the hilly jungle.
The promise of up-close-and-personal elephant encounters was what drew us to northern Thailand — and in preparation for the trip I spent weeks researching responsible tourism options. Keen to avoid riding on chairs, which cause skin and joint problems in the elephants, my husband and I chose to stay at Chai Lai Orchard.
Set in the jungle an hour from Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai, the small eco-lodge has a strong emphasis on “social” and “eco” values. Further soothing my fears, Alexa Pham, co-founder of Chai Lai, confirmed that “some elephants really love people, and rides provide them with exercise and stimulation. They are 8,000 pounds, so one human is like two percent of their weight.”
A Long Tradition
“Thais consider elephants to be part of their national identity, history and even their religion,” says Pham. Paintings of elephants carrying royalty or marching into war adorn palaces and temples throughout the country.
Despite this reverence, the majority of domesticated elephants were previously employed in the logging industry. It wasn’t until after 1989, when the Thai logging industry was closed, that elephant riding became a popular activity for tourists. Although the animals were no longer forced into the harsh environs of jungle logging, the ban left 70 percent of domestic elephants unemployed, and thousands of elephant carers — called ‘mahouts’ — unable to afford their care.
In the wake of these changes, the growing tourism market provided much needed income for the elephants and their mahouts. However, as the popularity of elephant riding increased, so did cruelty and exploitation. “Never bred selectively, these animals are genetically and behaviourally wild elephants,” says Richard Lair, elephant conservationist and author of Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity.
Although all working elephants require some level of training, the process of getting an elephant to work with tourists is particularly intense. This often involves beatings with bullhooks — sharp metal hooks — and forced starving. The practice is known as phajaan in Thai, literally meaning “to break an elephant’s spirit”.
“The people believe that to control the animal they have to do something to make the elephant feel fear and pain,” Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert, a well-known Chiang Mai-based activist, told National Geographic in 2002. But according to Pham, not all mahouts use these cruel techniques. “Our elephants are only trained with positive reinforcement, such as sugar cane and fruit rewards. The babies learn the basic commands simply from observing older elephants.” This made me feel marginally better when I saw them chained to tree stumps.
The Rise of Saddled Riding
Sitting on the shady veranda of Chai Lai’s Riverside Cafe, we were happily demolishing piles of honey pancakes when a large group of tourists came bounding across the swing bridge linking the lodge to the main road across the river. After a peaceful morning spent riding and bathing the elephants it was a shock to see the animals being saddled up. Having chosen Chai Lai based on its social values and their policy that guests are only permitted to ride bareback, I was dismayed to watch the elephants paraded around with three visitors in chairs and a bullhook-wielding mahout perched on top.
It was only then that I learned the ‘elephant family’ Chai Lai refers to on its website is actually owned by a Thai family that is separate from the lodge. “The camp is owned by a powerful local man whose influence and connections often surpass our ability to create positive change,” says Pham, who expressed her mutual frustration at the rise in elephant riding with chairs.
“Since the release of Lost in Thailand, demand for elephant riding has become even more popular,” says Pham, referring to the 2012 Chinese comedy about three men on a wild adventure through Thailand. The movie, filmed entirely in Chiang Mai, is one of China’s highest grossing films of all time and has led to a boom in Chinese tourism, with some tour agencies now offering ‘Lost in Thailand’ packages. “These tourists want to ride elephants on chairs just like the stars of the movie,” adds Pham, “but they don’t want to know about the elephants and they certainly don’t want to have to touch them by riding bareback.”
Later that afternoon, floating lazily down the river on a bamboo raft, we were greeted outside Chai Lai by a four-year-old elephant, known as Duong Dee, playing in the shallow rapids. “Grab a brush,” said her mahout as he showed us how to scrub the mud from her leathery skin.
Preferring to roll in the water rather than be cleaned, we watched in amusement as she playfully kicked her legs in the air, letting the current pull her downstream. Even the mahout, who did this every day, couldn’t help grinning as she waved her trunk in the air, spraying us with water.
“Duong Dee is the only elephant of the pack owned by Chai Lai Orchard, though we hope to adopt more elephants in the future,” says Pham. “We would like to buy the elephant camp so we can create happier, healthier lives for the elephants and their mahouts.” However, with elephants costing tens of thousands of dollars each, and constant expenses for food and care, Chai Lai Orchard would need a massive influx of cash to finance this dream.
I went to Chai Lai Orchard hoping to learn more about elephant conservation, but left feeling confused and somewhat cheated. Although they have a noteworthy and commendable women’s empowerment program, I was surprised and saddened to witness elephants wearing chairs and being controlled by bullhooks. While the Chai Lai team would like to see these practices eradicated, they are still supporting it by association — thus, putting their guests unwittingly in the same position.
Although I have no qualms about riding elephants bareback in a camp where I know they have been raised and trained without cruelty, after my experience at Chai Lai I now realise how difficult it is to be sure the elephants are treated humanely. One thing is for sure, riding an elephant bareback was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced.
Walking across the swing bridge on our final morning we looked down to the river to see Duong Dee gleefully splashing in the water, her mahout carefully scrubbing the mud from her wiry hair. It was impossible not to smile.
For more information on Chai Lai Orchid, visit chailaiorchid.com