Encountering Elephants in Thailand

August 04, 2019
• by
Elizabeth Fedde

Chang Thai, in English the Thai elephant, is the national symbol of Thailand and holds historical, cultural, and religious significance throughout the country. The elephant is celebrated by the Thai people for its strength, durability, and longevity and it is closely tied with religion and royalty in Thailand. According to Buddhist tradition, on the night that Buddha was born, his mother had a dream that a white elephant gave her a lotus flower. Therefore, the white elephant is a symbol of royalty and because white elephants are so rare, they were only used for royal duties. This is actually how the Western white elephant gift tradition came to be. Thai kings used to gift white elephants to their rivals, but because they were considered sacred, they couldn’t be used for any kind of work and ended up just being a huge burden and expense.

Elephants have been useful to the Thais for hundreds of years. In the 1500s, they were used in wars and up until 1989, they were used for hauling teak logs out of the forests in Thailand. Since the early 1900s, the number of elephants in Thailand has decreased from over 100,000 to just about 6,000 with over half of those remaining in captivity. After using elephants for logging was banned, they were put into the tourism industry. Some of these elephants are treated wonderfully in sanctuaries with space to roam and good food to eat, but others are exploited and abused so that tourists can ride them.

I have had the amazing opportunity to see many elephants during my summer in Thailand! I admired them from afar in Erawan National Park, fed and bathed them in Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, and unfortunately witnessed them being ridden in Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand. 

One of the first weekends I spent in Thailand I traveled to Ayutthaya as I mentioned in another blog. This is a very popular tourist spot with so much history to see and many activities to participate in, and it made me so sad to see that people choose to ride elephants as one of their activities. In order to be ridden, elephants must go through Phajaan (“the crush”) where they are tortured into submission. Then, in this case, they are forced to walk around Ayutthaya on the burning asphalt with the chair for people to sit in digging into their backs causing blisters and infections that may never get a chance to heal. Animal abuse is rampant in Thailand, so the best thing any tourist, including myself, can do is to educate oneself on what ethical treatment is and how to support it. 

I did this by researching ethical sanctuaries and found that there are many in Chiang Mai, where I was already planning to take a weekend trip. From my hostel, I took a van into the green mountains of Chiang Mai with many other foreign tourists who also did their research. We spent the whole morning with the five elephants at the sanctuary. There were three middle aged elephants who had all been rescued from unethical tourism, one “grandma” elephant who was over 40 years old, and one baby elephant who was born in the sanctuary. We got to feed the elephants, interact with them, bathe them in mud, and then swim in the river and carefully play with these gentle giants. It was one of the best days of my summer by far and it was so good to see that everyone was happy and having fun! Even the elephants!

Seeing or interacting with an elephant is an amazing experience in and of itself, but I had a once in a lifetime experience when I saw four wild elephants from a boat on the Khwae Yai River in Erawan National Park. One of the fellow passengers yelled out “Chang!!” and the captain slowed the boat and got as close to the banks as he could to get us a closer look. This was my first time seeing a wild elephant and the captain said that in all his years on the river, it was his first time too. It was an experience I will never forget seeing such large graceful creatures in their natural habitat. It was refreshing to see that even if it is only a few of them, there are still elephants left in Thailand who are able to enjoy their natural habitat in peace.

I strongly recommend visiting elephants if you ever come to Thailand! Just be sure to support the organizations that give these amazing creatures the respect they deserve.