When thinking of Thailand, we think of its national animal: the elephant. Who doesn’t like the largest yet kindest land mammal on earth? And since we love them so much, there is nothing we want more than touching them, cuddle with them and ride them, right?
About elephant riding and the Phajaan
Riding elephants is a wrong expression of our love. I am not proud to say that I made that mistake myself back in 2010, here pictured at the back of an elephant in Bali. As you can tell this is definitely not a natural position, let alone natural behaviour.
Although smiling, this ride left a bad taste in my mouth. Once back home I started some research and found out about Phajaan: the barbaric tradition of crushing an elephants spirit. In a nutshell: baby elephants are being placed in a stall or cage and tied with ropes to prevent them from any movement. They are being tortured, starved of food, yelled at and repeatedly beaten with bull hooks, a process that continues for weeks.
Once their soul is crushed, the new mahout (owner/rider) comes in to ‘release’ the elephant of its abusers. He will be the one to lead the elephant away of the cage, resulting into the trust of the broken animal. Much disturbing footage of the Phajaan is available online but you can take it from me: this process is horrible and without any exception a traumatic experience to the animal.
And even after the Phajaan, many elephants continue to suffer as most mahouts are using the bull hook on sensitive areas of the body in order to train and control the elephant. This method is also used in all other unnatural forms of entertainment like balancing, painting, sports or cuddling with a baby elephant while its mum was nowhere to be seen.
But the silver lining is: there are many other way’s to get in touch with elephants and show them your genuine love while experiencing the animal in a natural environment. Here’s a top three of Thailand’s must-visit elephant destinations!
1. Elephant Nature Park Sanctuary, Chiang Mai
Located about 60 kms from Chiang Mai, The Elephant Nature Park is home to a herd of over 70 elephants. The park succeeded in rescuing dozens of distressed elephants from all over Thailand. Besides, they actively contribute to other projects in rainforest restoration, community engagement and education. A wide range of visiting options are available, from day trips to an extended volunteer program. Find out more at the website.
2. Boon Lott’s Elphant Sanctuary (BLES), Sukhothai
When Katherine Connor visited Thailand during a career break, she felt in love with a baby elephant. His death resulted into the establishment of BLES, a sanctuary where the elephants can roam freely within 500 acres of forested land. Only 6 guests per day are allowed at the park which benefits both the elephants and the visitors. Make sure to book far in advance as BLES is typically booked six months ahead, see website for more information.
3. The Surin Project, Surin
The Surin province is home to about 300 elephants, once used for logging to provide an income for complete families. However heavy logging and increased development resulted in less work opportunities. The Surin Project was launched to financially support mahouts and their elephants. In return, the mahouts agreed on leaving their bull hooks at home, to unchain their elephant for at least three hours per day and refrain from participating in animal entertainment. Read my extensive blog about elephant volunteering at the Surin Project.