The Ethics of Riding Elephants

Riding atop a 4 tonne beast sounds like a great adventure, right? Not to mention a great photo opportunity! Well, here in Cambodia, “Elephant Tourism” is on the rise.

Watch Out!
Watch Out!

Knowing the kind of animal abuse that occurs in this part of the world, I find it hard to believe that these elephants are having fun. For a start, the ‘seats’ that are mounted on their backs rub into their skin and give them severe blistering, which many people say is painful to them – not to mention that elephant spines are very weak and cannot healthily carry human weight without causing long-term damage.

And that moves us on to another point: wild elephants do not allow people to ride on their backs. So how is it possible that you can do so to get that all elusive Facebook selfie? Well, the elephants are usually captured as babies, and then tortured to have the spirit knocked out of them (a process known as ‘Phajaan’) with clubs and spikes, and deprived of sleep and food for many days on end. This causes eventual submission, and thus the elephant will then do as it’s told as it grows up in captivity.

Brent Lewin’s award-winning photo of the ‘Phajaan’ process shows something that is extremely emotional, yet it might not be necessary for future elephants to suffer like this if only tourists were made aware of the shady malpractice involved.

The Terrace of the Elephants at Angkor Thom
The Terrace of the Elephants at Angkor Thom


While it is true that much of the abuse of elephants occurs in nearby Thailand or Myanmar, it remains a fact that many of these elephants end up in tourist spots like Siem Reap, and nowhere in my travels have I seen so many elephants lining up to give people a ride than at the temples of Angkor. Siem Reap in Cambodia has, of course, got a long history with elephants, dating all the way back to the construction of the Angkorian temples here, especially at Angkor Thom, where the famous Terrace of the Elephants continues to wow visitors even to this day. Check out my own personal experience at Angkor Thom!


I have taken a ride on a camel in Egypt, and I have tried (and failed) to ride a horse on more than a few occasions, but animals as intelligent and social as elephants really do not need to be used for circus acts, all for the benefit of a few lazy tourists. Most of these tourists are unknowingly participating in “Elephant Tourism”, and I wonder if they actually knew of the processes involved to tame one of these animals then they, like me, would just hire a bike.

13 thoughts on “The Ethics of Riding Elephants

  1. I am really glad you posted about this topic. It has always made me sad to see how many tourists don’t realize what has to happen before they can parade around on the elephants. Sure, it looks like fun but it’s not for the elephants. They are such intelligent animals. Thanks for sharing!


  2. WOW!!! I had no idea it was like this, its a shame! I feel so sorry for the elephants, they dont even have a choice. Its great that you shared this story with us, I will never participate on such cruel thing! I believe that many people have no idea about this, I doubt there would still be a line of people to ride an elephant if they knew. Great post.


    1. Thanks for the compliments and thanks for reading! I agree that more people need to be made aware of the cruelty most of these elephants will suffer, and when they are made aware, maybe they will choose not to give money to the captors.


      1. You’re welcome, its always a pleasure.
        Yes, I agree… awareness is the best way to try to change this kind of situation. It might take a while, but its not impossible, and you are already doing your part! 🙂


  3. Great post! Hope a lot of people see it and stop with the – torturism*- just to take an “interesting” ignorant selfie or satisfying the “wild” personal ego. People who actually love animals don’t do things like this, but just admire them from a distance…

    * my way of saying “torturing while traveling”- just to be clear that it is not refered to any religious or some other meaning that this word have


    1. Thanks, and I agree with your every word – even Torturism, which is a good one 😉 Admire elephants from a distance si something I wish everybody did in Cambodia, but I guess it’s not going to change any time soon… shame.


  4. I hope and wish that one day that human beings can connect with, or atleast understand mother nature and co-exist with other animals without having such a detrimental effect on them and our own health and happiness x

    Liked by 1 person

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