Apparently, one of the big things to do in Phuket is to go elephant trekking. I love elephants and it sounded like fun. However, after going on one close to the famous Big Buddha, I don’t think I can recommend it. Not only is it scammy but I’m not sure if it’s very humane.
I’m not going to name the place but I imagine that all elephant trekking places would be running a similar operation.
Firstly, let me tell you a little something about “elephant trekking” in Phuket. It’s no jungle trek. You basically ride an elephant, like it’s a carnival ride. The elephant walks down a cement path, turns around and comes back. Of course, if they called the attraction “elephant walking over cement” it wouldn’t catch as much attention. As you’re on a hill, you do get a few nice views but that’s it.
Secondly, you get sold the option of 30, 45 or 60 minute rides. What they don’t tell you is they start counting from the time of purchase, regardless of how long you have to wait for the elephant to be physically there. We paid for 60 minutes and had a 40 minute ride. Which didn’t bother me that much because of my next point.
Thirdly, it’s a bit boring. Imagine walking a horse, very slowly up and down a cement path. That might be exciting for someone who is autistic or is easily amused but for most people, they would get bored. I was bored after about 10 minutes of riding my elephant.
It wasn’t all bad though. I had an elephant to myself with a guide. The guide sat on the elephant’s shoulders and hung on to a bullhorn, which made me nervous – I hoped he didn’t use it to “drive” the elephant. Evidently, the elephant had done the route enough times that it knew what to do, so all the guide did was text on his cellphone throughout the walk while I sat on a chair strapped to the elephant. Halfway during the trek, I asked if we could swap places. If I’m going to ride an elephant, I might as well do it properly.
Riding an elephant bareback was quite exciting but also scary. It felt like I was in a rodeo and the object of the game was for the elephant to throw me off. I was convinced that I was going to fall off and the elephant would trample me in revenge.
I had very mixed feelings about the whole experience right until this point. I couldn’t decide if elephant trekking was humane or not. It was a very hot day and the elephant was moving very slowly. Was it exhausted from walking in the heat? People don’t make a fuss about horse-riding or using a donkey as transport so is this any different?
Then my opinion changed.
Just before we got to the end of the route, the driver stopped the elephant to peddle some ivory jewellery to us. I could not believe my eyes. I refused and he rudely responded that I needed to tip him 200 THB instead. Thing is, I would have happily tipped him if he didn’t try to sell me ivory jewellery, which is totally ILLEGAL. In the end, I gave him 50 THB just to shut him up.
As we were leaving, I noticed a baby elephant which was chained to a pole. It was pacing up and down and clearly unhappy to be restrained. Someone ran up to us and asked us if we wanted to buy a picture with the elephant. I responded by giving him a dirty look.
To be honest, I’m just as disappointed with myself for going as I am with this elephant trekking company for what they are doing. Surely there can be a more ethical middle ground – an elephant sanctuary where you can ride or play with the elephants, perhaps. Nevertheless, I feel that I should warn people to reconsider, before supporting such operations.
People who travel aren’t any better than people who don’t. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to be better people ourselves.
Ever had a similar feeling after doing a tourist activity?