By Captain And Clark, on January 7, 2015

Responsible animal tourism in Thailand

Uncontrollable tears were streaming down my face as I watched the baby elephant wail from the beating. Torn from its mother, locked in a tiny cage, chained, bludgeoned, and stabbed repeatedly with nails fastened to the end of sticks, this tiny innocent creature was going through the traditional phajaan ritual. The phajaan (also fittingly referred to as “the Crush”) is a three-day torture technique that’s used to break the spirit of the animal, thus making it submit to its human caretaker or “mahout” in preparation for a life in the animal tourism industry.

While it might seem like a scene out of a horror movie, this heartbreaking event is something that almost every elephant we encounter has experienced. Elephants in the circus, trekking elephants, and street-begging elephants have all gone through the Crush. These elephants go on to live the rest of their lives performing for humans, in constant fear of the sharp bull hook that digs into their sensitive ears and legs. This is just one example of how the wrong kind of animal tourism can be horrible for the animals themselves.

We saw our most recent trip to Thailand as a chance to interact with animals without extorting them. Thus, after extensive research and advice from well-informed friends, we decided to visit Save Elephant Foundation’s Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Chiang Mai (Thailand’s second largest city behind Bangkok).

Here, after spending the morning at the park, we were watched the horrific video of the Crush. And here, we vowed never to support anything but responsible animal tourism again.

Founded by Lek Chailert in 1995, ENP rescues elephants that have been broken by the tourism industry. It also saves elephants from the illegal logging industry. ENP is a sanctuary in every essence of the word. Most of the elephants at ENP come from an abusive past and still bear the mental, emotional, and physical scars of their history. Here, there are no chains, no bull hooks, and no abuse.

A yellow flower in the ear replaces where the bull hook used to go

With more than 35 rescued elephants at the park, the animals form small family groups. These herds roam freely throughout the park, although they are monitored by humans. The animals do not perform tricks, paint, or give rides. Instead, park goers interact with these elephants by essentially catering to them. It’s refreshing to see the tables turned.

Our day at the park started with an 8 a.m. pick-up at our hotel. On the hour-long drive to ENP, we watched a video about the park that introduced us to Chailert’s selfless work and a few of her rescued elephants. I was thrilled when our guide informed us we would have the opportunities to feed, bathe, and walk among the elephants about which we had learned in the video.

Viewfinder Tip: Spend time investigating animal tourism outfitters before you support them to make sure they treat the animals responsibly.

Park entry included an elephant feeding, a tour (with introductions to various elephant family groups), a filling vegetarian lunch, and participation in elephant bathing time. On the day we visited, we also were lucky enough to see Chailert interact with her elephant babies. 

This last experience was a highlight for us. Chailert personally walked us around the park and introduced us to a number of her saved elephants. The massive creatures playfully took off her hat and gently pushed her in the direction they wanted her to go. At one point, she sat down in the middle of a family of six and began singing, “You are my sunshine.” I still get chills reminiscing how the animals crowded around her so lovingly. 

Another highlight of the day (aside from bathing the elephants; I mean, WHO DOES THAT?) was watching little Navaan, one of the park’s resident babies, frolic around. I cried when I realized that he’ll never have to experience the terrible Crush. At ENP, he and all of the other elephants will be safe, forever.

Saying goodbye after an incredible day at ENP

We urge all travelers and animal lovers to remain vigilant when it comes to animal tourism. Make sure you conduct thorough research on the outfitters you visit so you don’t end up supporting an organization that profits off harming the very animals we love.

As a registered Thai non-profit organization, ENP earmarks all visitor fees go to support feeding, housing, sustaining, and rescuing elephants. If you want to help this beautiful foundation, be sure to stop by the next time you’re in Thailand or head to the organization’s donation page.

In what ways do you practice responsible tourism?