Elephant Trekking

Should you ride an elephant on holiday in Thailand?

Elephant Camps and Elephant trekking on Koh Chang

Should you ride an elephant on holiday?

That’s a decision only you can make.  I’ve been on three elephant treks, on Koh Chang and elsewhere in Thailand but wouldn’t do it again.

In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any elephant camps on Koh Chang.  But visitors would be able to see either wild elephants in the jungle or there would be a place similar to Elephant Nature Park, where you could get up close with the animals without riding them. In reality, there are no indigenous elephants on Koh Chang and it would be impossible to buy or rent the amount of land required for an elephant sanctuary.  It would be great for everyone to boycott all elephant camps.  But then the problem is where would all the elephants go and who would pay to look after them.  Something that isn’t easily solved.

I’d like to see one of the camps on the island at least try do something similar to Elephant Nature Park or Elephant Haven, Kanchanaburi, but on a smaller scale.  They’d need to provide better guides and offer a more educational experience.  Maybe that will happen one day.

But at present, if you want to see an elephant – which a lot of people do as they are beautiful creatures to observe –  you have to go to one of the elephant camps on the island.

Where are the elephant camps?

There are now six elephant camps on Koh Chang.   Four are located in the Klong Prao  area, by the roadside, one is in Kai Bae and one is in the north of Koh Chang, 2 kilometres down an inland valley.   All offer the same two types types of trek at the same price.   So the choice of camp is more down to how far you want to travel to see the elephants and also how much you want to see them in an environment well away from the main road.

For most visitors to Koh Chang the camps in Klong Prao & Kai Bae will be located closer to their hotel and so are within easier reach. However, anyone making the effort to visit ‘Baan Kwan Chang’ in Klong Son valley will be rewarded by seeing the elephants in a more natural surroundings.   Here the camp is in the jungle and surrounded by fruit farms and jungle clad hillsides, there is very little development of any kind – in contrast with the more built up roadside area in Klong Prao.

Around Klong Prao you’ll find ‘Klong Plu Elephant Camp’, ‘Baan Chang Thai’, ‘Baan Camp Chang’ and ‘Chang Chutiman’ elephant camps.   All have around 8-10 elephants and Klong Plu Elephant Camp and Baan Chang Thai  each have young elephant calves. Aaahhh . . . , very cute.

Likewise ‘Kai Bae Meechai Camp’, located the entrance to Kai Bae Hut Resort has a couple of young elephants that they often bring down to the sea to play in the ocean.

The treks at these camps take you inland,  along river beds and up into the hills away from the main road.

Elephant Welfare

If you’re into elephant welfare it’s worth mentioning that one of the camps was raided in 2013 by police from the Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division for having illegal young elephants.  ( Story Here )  Always a bit dodgy if a camp has baby elephants that weren’t born there. Don’t believe any of the ‘poor little orphan elephant’ stories you might hear.  

And if you are against the abuse of animals then you’ve probably already seen the videos and read stories of how young elephant calves are forced into submission using ‘The crush‘ in order for them to obey their human masters.   So, does that happen on Koh Chang?  No.  And there’s a reason for that.

If you take a wild elephant calf from it’s mother then of course it’s going to want to fight back and will do everything it can to break free and find it’s herd. It would be like trying to toilet train a wolf cub that you found roaming in the forest.   But if you have an elephant born into captivity, to a mother that has lived in captivity for all or most of her life – and who’s been used to human contact since the day it was born, then training it is much easier.  It’s more like training your family’s new puppy than a wolf cub.

Are the elephants mistreated on Koh Chang?  No more so than anywhere else.  They are chained up as it isn’t safe to have large animals wandering around.  And the mahouts will use a bullhook, also called an ‘ankus’ – a metal hook, to keep the elephant focused on where it is going. 

Would it be better if the elephants were in the wild?  Yes. Of course.  But that’s not going to happen until everyone stops going to elephant camps. There isn’t a simple solution whereby the animals can all be moved to sanctuaries or rehabilitated into the wild.  At least these elephants have a home and are well fed and cared for.

Should you ride an elephant?  If you ignore the captive vs. wild argument and just focus on the health of the elephant then you shouldn’t ride elephants as their spines aren’t designed to take a lot of weight.  Sure, they can pull a car and lift huge weights with their trunks.  But their backs aren’t designed for having weight pushing down on them.

Which elephant camp to visit?

The one I’d visit is ‘Baan Kwan Chang‘ in Klong Son.   Baan Kwan Chang was the first of the elephant camps on the island, the owner could have built it anywhere on the island but instead of locating it close to the main beach areas, the owner made the conscious decision to locate it away from development, with the idea of bringing the people to the elephants.  Rather than having the elephants live in a busier area.  For the quiet location, the fact that there are no souvenirs on sale, the owner being involved in eco-tourism and sustainable development on Koh Chang, plus the staff are all very friendly and if you just turn up you’re welcome to feed the elephants – there’s no hard sell on taking a trek etc.

Elephant trekking prices: All camps charge the same amount for elephant treks – 850 Baht/person for ah hour long  short trek, 1,300 Baht/person for a longer trek with some elephant bathing thrown in.  Treks usually run four times daily at all the camps – 09:00 / 11:00/ 13:00 / 15:00.  Early morning will usually be cooler and quieter. 

Children under around 12 years old (or if they are just very short)  are half price.  These prices include transport to/from your hotel, drinking water, fruit for you and the elephant. 

Book through your hotel or any tour agent or just turn up at the camp.   However, in high season, if you haven’t booked in advance you may have to wait for a ride. But remember that most hotels   / agents will only deal with one of the camps and so if you want to visit a specific camp, you’ll need to shop around.