The Elephant in the Tourist Room

by Published

The relationship between conservation and commercialism in Thailand is sometimes a complicated and controversial one. There are groups doing some good work towards raising awareness of animal welfare and sustainable tourism. The industry also empowers poor people, and is fed by tourists who sometimes hold emotional opinions without fully grasping the realities and facts. This article seeks to reveal one unintended and overlooked consequence of the situation. 

An elephant watching tourists from behind the fence in Chang Mai
Watching tourists from behind the fence. Photo by Tom Gore

When the logging was banned in 1990, Bai Tong and Eak found themselves unemployed. Go back to your jungle they were told. 

But then the camps opened in Chiang Mai and there was work after all. They retooled everyone; Pang Bua now plays football, Singha beats a drum in an ensemble, and as for Bai Tong, well, he had an artistic flair as it turns out. 

So they relocated from the borders of Burma – a horrendous journey over the mountains – to the outskirts of the city. The crowds now come to the camp everyday, holding up those little flashing gadgets, and showing their approval in a thunder of hands. Later, much later, the crews with the big cameras arrived. That was when the trouble started.

But overall life is better for them now. Bai Tong and Eak still work together after all these years, trundling through the forests. It’s not logs they're moving, it's tourists. The work isn’t bad, and they’re fed well, no longer having to forage for their own meal. 

Bai Tong lives at the camp – The Mae Sai Elephant Camp – along with Pang Bua and Singha, and many of the others. But Eak, the mahout, he lives in a compound down the road for the human species. They prefer more comfort.

It’s a simple life here in Northern Thailand. Every day they assemble for the tourists - a parade of elephants lining up for the camera. Each of the elephants swings his trunk proudly as his name is mentioned, Eak giving Bai Tong his cue with a subtle tug on the ear. Then the show begins. First they make their music, the ensemble beating their drums to a perfect rhythm. Next the football game commences, the giant balls sometimes booted deep into the bamboo forest. The tourists love that one. After that the painting is done. That’s when Bai Tong gets to shine, curling his trunk-end around the enormous brushes. They sell the prints in the gift shop afterwards; the $25 price tag is enough to buy the 10 kilos of hay that Bai Tong eats each day.

Occasionally a tourist will leave in disgust; mumbling ‘what a circus!’ But the majority come along for the ride. To earn their keep these beasts take the tourists for a ride through the jungle, splashing through the river, up the steep verges, belligerently stopping if they come across a clump of tasty bamboo shoots. For social and intelligent animals like elephants it’s boring work but they tolerate that because afterwards comes the wash. Oh the wash! That’s the highlight of everyone’s day, both the elephants and those who signed up for the ‘Mahout Course’. 

It’s a relatively new addition, this one-day course that some of the camps now offer, and boy is it popular. Can you believe it, they get people to pay to wash the camp’s elephants for them! But they love it. First you get to ride the elephant where you’re supposed to – on the head – no uncomfortable howdahs. Then the frolicking in the muddy monsoon river begins. The tourists splash buckets of water over them, make a useless scrub of the broom, and pose for their cameras as the elephants roll around oblivious to the human attention. When it’s all over the tourists retire to their picnic lunch. The parking lot rapidly clears out of all the minibuses. The show is over for another day and the jungle around them falls silent once more; with the exception of the constant buzz of cicadas and the timeless sluice of a mountain river, just like the old days of logging. Everyone seemed content for a time, tourists and elephants co-existing in a curious symbiosis.

Elephants in Thailand

But then those men with the big cameras arrived. Big cameras that sit on tripods. People were interviewed, cynical questions were asked, letters were written to the local paper. Certain people disapproved of the riding. And the chains. It went up on TripAdvisor. By now there were about a dozen camps; some big ones putting on shows for the tourist crowds, others smaller for the trekkers. Those were the ones that apparently didn’t take care of their animals. The locals were too poor to worry about it, they needed money one way or another. Fewer tourists started coming to some of the camps. After that the quantity of the elephant’s food went down. 

Rumours passed from one camp of mahouts to the next. They sat one day discussing it, clucking with surprise as they sucked on their cheroots and passed around the rice whisky. Take those chains off and the damned things will wander into the lowlands, wreck the paddies. Guns will be drawn. And no riding? How can that be, they mused, what’s a 100 kilo weight to a three ton animal. This is a tradition as old as these giant yaang naa trees. Really, what business do these outsiders have, demanding we cease. 

We know our elephants, we’ve partnered with them our whole lives. They like to eat, they like to wash, they like to be together. For us, they are simple animals.

These men, the ones with cameras, had come to Chiang Mai before but went to another camp. That one was special – The Elephant Nature Park it’s called. And that woman; she was a legend in the country, the whole world even. Lek was her name, ‘little’, and little she was among her herd of rescued elephants. The conservation channels loved her, the pretty Asian face, long silky hair, diminutive in her cargo pants beside these giants. It made for brilliant documentary TV. 

She’s a good woman, the mahouts agreed, taking in the elephants, creating a park where the elephants roamed freely. And boy has she made a fortune, charging twice as much as everyone else. She’s the elephant queen of Chiang Mai; the honorary PhD, Time’ Magazine’s Asian Hero of the Year…even met Hillary Clinton in the White House. The tourists fell in love with her, they all flocked there to feed and wash her elephants. No riding. Well, after that several other camps started putting ‘No riding’ on their brochures. What a clever idea, the tourists these days seem to like that. Ah, but what does a simple mahout know about business. Animal welfare just complicates things. 

In the city someone opened a shop selling molded elephants, artistically painted, big ones, small ones, big prices. They’re selling like hotcakes, the money thoughtfully going to ‘elephant charity’. But up in the jungle those mahouts, sitting around with nothing to do now, are becoming a charity case themselves. Jealousy was whispered here and there. Other camps tried new tricks. Conservation videos were shown to visitors, or interesting talks on how important these elephants were to Thai legend; fighting wars, transporting things. Elephants were even on the old Siamese flag. 

Elephants, Thailand

And the white elephant, that was a story from Siam too. The tour guides started telling that one: if an albino elephant was born to a village, it was considered so auspicious it automatically became property of the king. Except the village became burdened with feeding a beast that couldn’t work in the forests. Something so valuable, but so useless; that’s what some of these elephant camps are becoming. They are sanctuaries for the elephants, saving them from a disastrous prospect of re-introduction into the wild. Asian elephant numbers are dwindling – fewer than 35,000 are left – luckily the camps have breeding programs. Tourists still love to pet an elephant, it’s still the most popular soft-adventure activity in town. 

But elephant appetites are expensive, everyone in Asia must work to put food on their table. Well that’s the way most the locals see it.  These new ‘eco tourists’, they’re well meaning but they can’t seem to understand the Asian culture.

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Editor's Note: The team at would like to inform our readers that the author of this wonderful piece has tragically passed away. We send our thoughts to his friends and family and know that he touched many lives while in Thailand and beyond. He will always be an inspiration!