To ride or not to ride: The truth about elephant riding in Thailand

To ride or not to ride: The truth about elephant riding in Thailand

You love elephants. The enormous, majestic animal lights you up with a sense of wonder. And you can’t wait to touch and look one in the eyes close up on your Thailand holiday. From what you’ve heard, there are plenty of places to do just that: at an elephant sanctuary. Chiang Mai has many refuges where you can feed, bathe, and swim with elephants. But there’s one thing you’re unsure about. Is it okay to ride an elephant? You may have heard that doing so can damage their spine. But is there any truth in this argument? The answer is yes and no. To get the bottom of the matter, let’s take a closer look at two different types of elephant riding.

Elephant Chiangmai Riding

2 ways to ride an elephant: Howdah and bareback

When it comes to elephant riding, there are two kinds you may see in Thailand—riding bareback and riding with a howdah. What’s the difference between the two? Let’s take a look:

  • Howdahs - these are a chair or carriage placed on an elephant’s back traditionally used to carry wealthy people, hunters, or soldiers of war. Howdahs are heavy, weighing as much as 200 pounds, and when combined with the weight of a human can cause spinal injury and blistering that leads to infection.
  • Bareback - this type of riding is directly on the elephant’s back with no cushion or saddle between you and the elephant. As there’s typically no more than a single person riding bareback at a time, the elephant generally has no trouble with the extra weight.
How to ride elephant

Why bareback is okay

Most people forget that, historically, elephants have been carrying large loads of people and goods for thousands of years. In other words, it’s not unusual for elephants to transport a lot of weight. In fact, according to John Hutchinson of the Royal Veterinary College in London, an elephant’s skeleton accounts for close to 20% of its body weight, which is double that of many mammals. This more robust frame combined with straight limbs enables them to resist gravity’s downward force and carry a larger load.

Most people who argue that riding is unethical are really disputing the treatment and training methods of captive elephants in general. And the sad fact is, many tour operators that offer elephants rides do not treat the animals humanely. But that’s not true for all of them.

So how can you ensure you visit an ethical elephant camp? Chiang Mai travellers should do two things: avoid riding an elephant strapped with a howdah, and do your research on the sanctuary in advance. Read other people’s reviews on TripAdvisor, and Google the camp to see what other visitors are saying.

Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary tour

If you do have an opportunity to ride an elephant bareback, be aware that it’s no walk in the park. It can be difficult to balance on such a huge animal without a saddle, and you really feel every giant step the elephant takes as their enormous bones shift beneath your bottom. That said, riding an elephant bareback is unforgettable. For this reason, we’ve partnered with an elephant sanctuary to offer you just such an experience. 

Our two-day Chiang Mai Zipline Experience + Elephant Sanctuary Tour teaches you about the lifestyle and behaviors of elephants while giving you an up close and personal encounter with them. You’ll wash, brush and feed them, and (if you dare) you can even ride bareback on one of the elephants. Chiang Mai visitors of all ages are sure to remember this experience for the rest of their lives. Contact us to learn more.