Think Twice Before Riding an Elephant in Vietnam

I remember a few years ago, a friend told me about how she rode an elephant in Thailand. Until she said it, it hadn’t really occurred to me that riding an elephant was something anyone would want to do, let alone a popular activity. I asked her whether that was humane, and she said she didn’t know, but that it was a once in a lifetime experience, so she had to do it.

It’s not an experience that I ever wanted to have, even before I heard the horrific stories about the suffering of domesticated elephants. However, I had always wanted to see an elephant, even if it was just from a distance. Until last year, I’d not had the opportunity. I don’t like to visit zoos and I’d never been travelling in a country inhabited by elephants. Vietnam changed that.

ride elephant vietnam
An elephant in Vietnam, chair strapped to his back.

When we were in Vietnam, Luke and I took a bus inland, off of the backpacking loop, to Buon Ma Thuot. From there, we took another bus to Ban Don, a small village near to Yok Don National Park, where we planned to go trekking. I knew there were elephants in the area, but I hadn’t thought that I would actually see them. Luke, on the other hand, was a little wiser from his previous travels in Thailand and Laos.

ban don elephants vietnam
The stilt houses where we stayed in Ban Don, with elephants right next to them.

When we got off the bus to find the stilt house we were staying in, I couldn’t believe it: there was a huge elephant right there. It was standing right next to the dirt track road and the row of stilt houses. I immediately walked around the corner and realised there were actually four elephants standing there.

I was in awe, they were so magnificent. But then, I started to see other things… I realised their feet were chained to trees, they couldn’t move in the tiny, dusty circle they shared and they had metal chairs strapped to their backs. They were prisoners.

ride elephant vietnam
Disheartened in the shadow of such a magnificent creature chained up.

I saw tourists clambering into the metal chairs on their backs, and couldn’t understand why they wanted to. I’d read beforehand, in a guidebook, that chairs should be made from bamboo, and that the metal is totally unacceptable. In actual fact, any chair is unacceptable: the weight of people on an elephant’s back can cause permanent damage to their spines. The chairs can also rub, causing blisters and infections. Riding an elephant in this context further means that you are supporting and encouraging the abuse of elephants for tourism.

vietnam ride elephant vietnam
The four elephants confined to their little circle.

A park ranger we spoke to at Yok Don National Park told us that elephants should never be made to work or walk for more than 6 hours per day. These ones were working way over 8 hours. When we woke up at 8am, they were already standing in their circle, and they only left the pit when we went to eat dinner at around 6pm. The ranger also said that an average elephant should be eating around 200kg of vegetation per day, which means they are nearly always eating. I hardly ever saw those four at Ban Don elephants eating.

At the time, I thought it sounded silly, but when I was there, I’m sure I saw one of the elephants cry. He was carrying three people on his back, plus his owner, who was beating his head with a wooden stick. Later, I watched this video of elephants mourning (with a strange voiceover) on National Geographic and realised that it wasn’t so silly. Elephants are mammals, so they can cry. They usually do so to clear dirt and dust from their eyes. Elephants are also social creatures and they can feel pain and sadness. I’ve since read on PETA and other websites, that some scientists believe that crying and emotions are connected for elephants.

I was heartbroken. I always thought that when I ‘met’ an elephant, they would be roaming free, even if that was limited to the confines of a national park or a nature reserve. I never even considered they would be chained up, or that they might have a chair strapped to their back.

dont ride elephant vietnam
Luke and I sat in our stilt house, while the elephants worked over 8 hours a day right next door.

There are only an estimated 70 wild elephants left in Vietnam. Unfortunately, due to little education on the subject, there are very few systems in place to support the protection and ethical treatment of elephants in the country. The remaining elephant population in Vietnam is now considered to be endangered. National Geographic has called the situation “a silent crisis,” because of the lack of media attention.

If you are travelling to Vietnam, don’t involve yourself in elephant tourism outside of the national park. At Yok Don, the elephants are left to roam free during the evening and through the night. In the morning, their assigned park ranger (they keep the same one for life) will spend hours tracking their elephant, then feed and bathe them. You can join a park ranger any morning for around £16, which goes toward the maintenance of the park and care for the elephants. There’s not much informaton about the national park online, but if you turn up, the rangers will be more than glad to talk and organize a trek with you.

My encounter with the poor treatment of elephants can be considered somewhat mild compared with other travellers. If you’re interested in reading further, then WorldNomad has a very informative post, as does Mindful Wanderlust (though this one is graphic). If you can’t bear it and need to read something lovely, Angloitalian saw a baby elephant being born.

right_tourism_logo_black_final
For more information on elephant trekking and other ethical tourism issues, I recommend checking out Right Tourism.

 

 

Header Photo: Justin Ennis

Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

66 thoughts on “Think Twice Before Riding an Elephant in Vietnam

  1. Incredible post, thanks for sharing this knowledge about elephants in Vietnam, i fully agree with you! People have to know what is the reality behind elephants tourism and hopefully be more responsible when it comes to ride an elephant. Also thanks for the mention! :)

    1. It really is :( Yes, it was really awful, and I think I felt all the worse because they are such amazing and majestic creatures. Hopefully one day I’ll get to visit an elephant santuary or nature reserve instead!

  2. Dear Charlie, what a great post you’ve written. Sometimes seeing how animals are treated is really heartbreaking. I remember a tiny donkey chained to a pole in Cappadocia, so hot and thirsty it brought me to tears. It’s important to raise awareness. I absolutely refuse to ride elephants anywhere. When people ask me, from today onwards I’m going to direct them to your post.

  3. When I was in Thailand, I refused a tour to an elephant “farm”. They said there will be shows where the elephants will do tricks and you can ride on one. I love elephants and I do not like seeing them treated this way.

    1. I’m glad to hear that you refused! Unfortunately some people still don’t know anything about the poor treatment of elephants and don’t realise what they’re signing up to see. Thanks for reading.

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more Charlie. I am not good at zoos (especially the ones in Africa) and don’t like to see animals chained up. I remember once being so upset because there was a captive lion in Zimbabwe and right across the fence was the wildlife reserve. How much that must have confused him not being able to get there. Great post and good for you Charlie.

  5. Thank you so much for writing this post!! It is so important that people know what their tourist dollars are supporting and the pain and suffering they are causing. The more that people write about it, the more educated some can become on the topic and hopefully it will help change this industry.

    Elephants are such incredible creatures and it is far more impressive seeing them in their natural habitat then riding on the back of one.

    Thanks so much for sharing our post as well. :)

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! Yes, you’re right, I thought about not writing because so many other bloggers have done a fantastic job already, but I realise that different people are following and I’m glad I did because some people who hadn’t known about it have spoken to me about it now. I reallu hope I will get to see them in a nature reserve now!

  6. This is a very eye-opening article, thanks so much for sharing it! We had the opportunity to visit an elephant hospital in Thailand and it was an amazing experience. They feel deep emotions and we owe it to them to treat them well.

  7. What an important conversation- and yes- so disheartening. It makes me cringe when I read stories of mis-treatment like this. The more that is known about it, hopefully the more tourists will realize their own role in enabling the industry.

  8. I really don’t understand why people think it is OK to ride elephants. I have never been in a place where they did that but have seen a lot of stories about it. Great story.

  9. Unfortunately animal abuse is widespread throughout the entire world, and while this is hardly the worst case it’s also tragic. Fellow travelers need to balance the excitement of seeing and doing new things during travels while doing it responsibly and with a conscious.

  10. what a wonderful post – thanks for sharing and caring about these beautiful animals – what a sad state tourism draws for cheap thrills and hopefully your post will educate others.

  11. Great post, and thank you for sharing this warning with others. I think many people ride elephants because they don’t understand how much harm it does. I spent a day at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai where I got to interact with the elephants by feeding them some of that 200 kg vegetation daily requirement instead of hurting them by riding on their backs. I hope that people will be encouraged to seek out more humane encounters with these magnificent beasts instead of supporting ones that are cruel.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I think you’re right, there really is a lack of understanding about the actual harm being caused. I’ve read quite a few blogs about Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, looks excellent, I really hope to go some day.

  12. I had a similar experience in Thailand, and wrote about it for TrekEffect.

    http://trekeffect.com/blog/elephant-camps-in-thailand

    It’s hard from an outsider (aka Westerner) perspective to understand why anyone would want to put such incredible creatures through such horrible experiences. Thanks for writing this, and spreading the knowledge so that one day, we can hopefully inform enough people to help change the practices in Southeast Asia!

    1. Thanks for sharing your article with me.

      It is hard. The park ranger at Yok Don was explaining to us how the locals feel about it. Domesticating elephants is something they’ve always done, they’re extremely poor and it’s the only way they know to make money. They don’t understand that it’s fundamentally wrong because it is kind of ‘family business.’ There is also a lack of education and many of them don’t realise the seriousness of there only being 70 wild elephants left in Vietnam.

      I hope so!

  13. This is a post everyone should read. I think for many it is naivety more than carelessness. I don’t think that the majority of people think that they are necessarily completing a cruel act when they are undertaking certain activities, especially if they haven’t had the same experience as yourself in seeing an elephant tied up in such a distressing way. Being such large animals they probably don’t realise they are doing damage by sitting on the elephant.

    Animals are used across the world as a ‘tourist attraction’ and people don’t seem to think twice. Whilst we were in Lindos, Rhodes a few years back we were offered a donkey in order to reach the Acropolis – it was the one of the hottest summers we had experienced in Europe and whilst we declined, opting to suffer in the heat ourselves, drinking copious amounts of water, we watched many tourists sit on the back on the poor little donkeys as they struggled up the hill.

    It always upsets me to see animals used in such a way!

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree that naivety is a very big issue when travelling, especially where animal rights are concerned. Sometimes it’s hard to take a step back and realise that something is wrong when you see so many other tourists joining in a certain activity. Definitely people need to pause and think for themselves about whether something is right or wrong.

      I’m sad to hear about the poor donkeys… That’s really not okay and it’s a shame that people were unable to see that.

  14. Hi! I am half Thai and go to visit my family every year. I’ve been elephant riding a few times, and I must say that I have seen a few elephant riding places where the elephants didn’t look as happy as in other elephant farms. There are definitely a lot of people who are treating them poorly. However, I have been to a few places where the keepers really lived together with the elephants and treated them with the upmost respect. You could really sense that these elephants were much calmer and happier. It’s hard to explain in writing, but you can simply feel it from being around them. Elephants are such wonderful creatures, and I hope they will be treated as they deserve.

    1. Hi Pauline! That’s interesting, and I haven’t encountered enough different elephant riding places to know about that… However, the process that the elephants go through to allow a chair strapped to their back and tourists to ride them all day is never good, I don’t think… even if their trainers are dedicated to them.

  15. Never imagined it would be inhumane! I’m from India, and elephants are EVERYWHERE! You can easily see elephants and their mahouts going for walks when you’re driving in certain areas (I speak for Delhi because that’s where I live). Elephant rides are pretty common too (I remember going on one when India’s first mall opened), but here I’ve never seen chairs. There’s usually just a mattress on the elephant’s back.

    1. Sounds a little different to the tourist experiences in Vietnam, Thailand etc. Certainly they all use terrible chairs and harnesses, and a mattress sounds much better. Although I imagine that the elephants are still not treated well if they have masters and give rides to others, especially by a mall.

  16. You raise some very valid points Charlie and they are consistent with what I’ve heard and read. It is a real shame the things people do to animals just for the sake of earning some money.

    Respectful and responsible tourism should be more actively encouraged.

    1. Thank you. I have also read a lot of very similar stories to mine, many of whom have had much worse experiences. At the same time, I’m glad that bloggers are sharing them though.

      I had quite a few people admit to me that they had known nothing about it until they’d read my blog post.

  17. I would say think twice before riding an elephant anywhere not only in Vietnam! There are really many other ways to interact and help those animals, and supporting such kind of activities is surly not one of them! Great post!
    Marysia recently posted…Friday Lens Affair #80My Profile

  18. Hi,

    Great post here Charlie! My boyfriend and I are travelling to Vietnam in october and would love to visit Yok Don and spend the day with an elephant ranger. However we’re really short on time and would love to be able to do it on the same day as arriving. Do you know roughly what time the rangers set out or do you have any contact details of anyone at Yok Don so we could pre-arrange?

    Thanks :)

    1. Hi Emma,
      Sounds great, have a wonderful time! It’s a shame that you’re short on time. If you want to trek with a guide, then you will need to be at the park really, really early (6 or 7am) and you will need to arrange that the day before to make sure the ranger remembers not to head off without you (as they do this everyday and mostly on their own, rather than with tourists – there are next to no tourists there). Apologies, I don’t have their contact details though maybe you can find out through TripAdvisor? They’re not set up for tourism so I’m not sure how easy that would be as opposed to just going in to the park…

      Also, I should point out that travelling to Yok Don from Dalat would take half a day or so. If you went straight to the park when you arrive, you’d be able to arrange to go the following morning. There is also accommodation in Yok Don (some kind of chalet type things) if you wanted to stay on-site. :)

  19. I’ve been to Thailand for four times but I have never intended to ride on an elephant. My heart feels heavy when I see them. I sure want to look at them but I am disheartened when I see them loaded with people trying to enjoy the ride. Having learned that those metal chairs and having them work more than 8hrs, causes damage to their spines, I will definitely discourage people to ride on one.
    Kat recently posted…Purrfect Cat CafeMy Profile

    1. Hi Kat, I’m really glad to hear that. Yes, mine also, and I feel the same way. Passing on the information we know and creating awareness of the negative impacts of elephant riding is the most important thing. Thanks for stopping by.

  20. Hello, I am 60 years of age, not a fraction of the size of a elephant, and I have been working 10 hours a day since I was 15 years of age, making bridges for your cars to drive over, they just don’t appear, lots of hard labor, I see the photos of the beautiful elephants, they look well fed, no rib’s shown, the weight ratio of that bamboo seat on there back, I know they don’t even feel it, to be chained up, for a few hours a day, hang around, eat, do nothing, enjoy good weather, no one yelling at you to look busy, my dream, someone most likely has spent a lot of time and care in those wonderful members of creation, they do not want them to wonder off so some lazy mindless poacher can make a meal or whatever they do, elephants are vegetarians, it is the meat of choice, I am not asking for any sympathy, I love my life, lets keep it real, glorification , that’s reserved for dogs, the hard working elephant and I, we are not even cute……..thank you for your read…

    1. Look, I respect your opinion but you’re missing the point. Do you really think these tourist places want to give the impression to their customers, that their elephants are malnourished, overworked and depressed? No. If you pay attention to the details, you’d be able to further expand your knowledge on how these beautiful creatures are being DISRESPECTED. We are all beautiful creatures, and I believe we are all equal. We all need the basic necessities to survive, so why should we treat these animals as if they’re less important than we are? We’re all equals. Good day to you, my friend.

  21. Hi Charlie,

    I just wanted to say what a nice article :) if you are ever visiting Thailand, you should definitely visit the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, it’s where I developed my love for Elephants and seeing them roam free- NOT ridden.

    Also, thanks for helping me plan my Vietnam visit, Yok Don National Park is now on the list!

    1. Hey Lo, thanks for commenting – and I’ve heard a lot of good things about the nature park there. Must be so exciting to watch beautiful elephants roaming free. And awesome, glad I could help! When are you heading to Vietnam?

  22. I would be the first to stand up for any animal. Elephants are beautiful creatures. However, when I was in Chang Mai Thialand we went to an Elephant camp and spent all afternoon. Elephants walked free on the property, looked healthy and alert. I fed them bananas and yes I rode one. The chairs on their back were heavily padded as to protect their skin. The mahutes who handle the elephants have a caring relationship which you can see from both sides, the elephants show such affection. I can’t imagine us riding them is a terrible thing, we ride horses with saddles which is acceptable. It becomes unacceptable when any animal has pain inflicted or any kind of disrespect. These elephants also played games such as soccer and it was fun to watch because you can see they enjoy it. It’s exercise, it’s play just like we do with any of our animals, they need this interaction. They also paint which was amazing. We watched them in the river rolling in the water, again playing, interacting with their mahutes. It was a wonderful experience because you knew they were cared for and protected. Elephants in countries where they are scarred, starving and forced is what’s disgusting and if that’s the case in Vietnam, such as it is in India, I’d want no part of it and it would be greatly disturbing. I’d like to save every mistreated animal but you also have to respect those that truly love these animals.

    1. Hi Jan, This post of course doesn’t only apply to Vietnam but unethical practises that happen in countries across Asia, including Thailand.

      It’s worth remembering that elephants and horses are very different animals and their bodies aren’t structured in the same way. The following quote is from an article on elephant trekking holidays that I would recommend reading over:

      “Sitting on an elephant’s back, rather than their neck, causes physical harm to the elephant. They may be enormous, but they have not been bred to be ridden. Their spine is damaged, their growth stunted, and internal organs may be affected. The chairs used to carry tourists add yet more weight, causing more spinal pressure and sores.”

      My feelings on any animal related tourism are that the animals shouldn’t be doing anything that is not natural to them. Of course elephants love to play and splash around in the river, for example, as they would do in the wild. Painting and football? These are not things which elephants would do in the wild. There’s an informative article on Right Tourism’s website, a charity supporting humane tourism, with more info.

  23. This is so sad! I’m leaving to Vietnam next week, is there anything we can do to bring awareness of the mistreatment of this poor beautiful animals ?

    1. Hi Stephanie – It is sad, but I’m really glad that you read this before your trip to Vietnam. The best thing we can do is talk about it to people we know, share articles about it on social media and make the decision to only be involved with responsible animal/wildlife tourism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge