Though many foreigners traveling in Thailand have misgivings about the ethics of riding elephants or attending elephant shows, it’s important to note that Thais have been living and working in close quarters with them for thousands of years. Mahouts (traditional elephant trainers) have evolved a reverent and conscientious approach to establishing a mutually-beneficial relationship with the massive creatures. Owing to the fact that elephant and human life spans are so similar, many mahouts and their wards establish lifelong bonds.
There have been dark periods in the history of human and animal interaction in Thailand. Until fairly recently, many elephants were used in the brutal and dangerous logging industry. Following the banning of such practices by the government in the late 1980s, many animals were killed or abandoned and the population continues to decline by about 3 percent per year. Today, the most humane occupation that most elephants can expect to participate in is tourism.
One of the best places to interact with elephants is the Pattaya Elephant Village, located approximately 100 miles (160.9 kilometers) south of Bangkok. Primarily an elephant sanctuary and hospital dedicated to caring for sick and wounded elephants, the village is also famous for its elephant shows and a variety of treks and elephant rides. Plan to arrive early and stay late, as the extended tour involves an hour-long elephant ride, some additional sightseeing, a ferry ride across a local lake, a ride in an ox cart and a homemade buffet lunch.