Exception to a rule


CHIANG RAI, 18 July 2017: I thought it was a pretty simple decision to make. I wouldn’t ride elephants. But that all changed when my grandson visited last month.

“Grandpa,” he said just minutes after he exited Chiang Rai’s airport terminal building after a six-hour flight from Singapore, “I want to ride an elephant”.

Grand fathers are not supposed to pontificate on what’s politically correct. They make things happen, perhaps beyond the peripheral vision of mum and dad. Anyway, he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.  That’s when I realised that there are always exceptions to the best of rules.

The following day we headed for Chiang Rai’s elephant village in the pouring rain and I incorrectly thought heaven had presented a perfect exit route. But rain or shine, it became clear the ride was on, no matter the excuses.

He completed his first elephant ride with a beaming smile. I watched the mahout take off the chair made of steel and then peel off six layers of matting used to protect the elephant’s back. I tried lifting the chair and managed to raise it 10 centimetres. It was dam heavy.

As we drove back to Chiang Rai town, I wondered why no one has designed a super light carbon fibre chair. We have carbon fibre golf clubs, cycles and carbon fibre is used in aircraft frames. Surely there are safe and light chairs that can be comfortable if weight is an issue for an elephant’s back?

Ending elephant rides might be the ultimate goal, but for the village in Chiang Rai how would they earn a living and also pay for the upkeep of the 30 elephants in their care? I haven’t the faintest idea. My grandson knew. He cadged THB100 from me to buy a bunch of bananas, his farewell gift to elephant for a wish come true.

So is the jury out on elephant rides?  Is there a solution that ensures elephants are protected rather than exploited?  It will become an even more pressing issue as the Chinese travel market continues to deliver incredible growth to the Mekong Region.


  1. Tad heavy on the language but I agree that elephants should not be ridden. It is not the heavy load that is the problem. These elephants are beaten, whipped and their spirit broken in order to be docile enough to allow a human being ride on their back. All the elephants that you saw at the elephant camp are actually privately owned and placed their in order to make money for their owner.If tourists didn’t come the elephants would be allowed back into the wild and their own natural habitat.
    Next time check out http://www.elephantvalleys.com/

    • Thanks for the information. I wanted to raise the issue as there are many variables and levels of pressure on visitors on the question of riding elephants. Rides are still promoted by the travel industry and also in promotional videos released by TAT. I quote a leading tour operator, well is respected in Thailand, who challenged me: “We ride camels, horses so what is wrong with riding elephants?” If rides are to be abolished, there has to be sound reasons, minus emotional claptrap. We are talking about the welfare of communities and elephants and both must be taken into account. In the end provincial authorities in Chiang Rai including the tourism ministry office and the TAT office need to take the lead in this matter.

      • There is NO pressure to ride elephants. I was in the Chiang Mai area for 10 days and never once felt pressure. It is BAD FOR THE ELEPHANTS. What else do you need to know to realize it’s wrong. Grow a pair, Grandpa!

  2. The PERFECT example of Western privilege! You knew it was WRONG and you did it anyway. Your grandson should be very embarrassed to have a grandfather with a spine weaker than al dente pasta.

    NO, IT’S NEVER OKAY TO RIDE AN ELEPHANT, you self-righteous twit!

    YES, it’s damaging to the elephant physically, but even more so emotionally and mentally. THAT is why no one has designed a carbon fiber chair. IT IS WRONG, but you couldn’t bear to tell your grandson the truth. Did you also give him a trophy? When he is a worthless lay-about later in life, you will probably blame drugs or someone else when it’s YOUR fault because you would rather let a nameless elephant you will never see before suffer so your grandson can get his jollies.


    • PS How would the village make a living? What did all of the people who worked at the buggy whip factory do when the market for their product ran out? They found another way; something you obviously are too weak to do.

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