My last day on my week-long townhopping adventure, and my final destination before reaching Chiang Mai is the town of Lampang!
Lampang is also known as ‘The Horse Carriage City’, due to the common and alternative method of transportation to the tuk-tuk available.
After getting my bus into town, I wander over to The Riverside Guesthouse and am greeted at the reception by the friendly Italian owner.
My feet are blistered up from 7 days townhopping and I am genuinely excited about chilling out for at least one more day in the same location! I drop my bag in the room and then come down for a chill-out beer in the outdoors guesthouse restaurant overlooking the Wang River.
It’s probably time for bed, but as I slept a lot on the bus over (god knows how, considering how bumpy and windy the roads are in the North), I’m not tired. I grab my camera and wander through the town. Completely unexpected, but I stumble into the busiest night market I’ve seen since whilst staying in Thailand up until now…..after a week of being in these quiet towns it was a shock to the system to be in the middle of a crowd again!
After taking in the sights, smells, and just a bit of the food, I extract myself from the masses, find a bridge, and wander over to the other side of the river. Despite the number I’ve seen, I’m still not quite finished with temples just yet – especially when they are lit up like Wat Pong Sanuk in the night-time.
The next day, I decide to hire a bike from the guesthouse…..thanks to a lot of post traumatic stress therapy to get over my first and only bike lesson in Kaohsiung, I’m finally ready to take the next step and get back on the horse……I mean bike.
It was brill….the sun was shining, the roads were quiet, and I could just zip around town and take in the sights and general feel for the town.
My my bike confidence levels now back to all time high level (probably a little too much), I take a left, out of the town and onto the Lampang-Chiang Mai highway……I’m going to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre to see some elephants.
Now, deciding to visit the elephant conservation centre came after a bit of thought and a few chats with people, building up over the past few weeks – Animal tourism in Thailand is a very popular and, after talking to a number of people about it and reading a few websites and articles, seems to be a bit of an ethical hotbed.
By reading the information on the Elephant Conservation Centre website (and that of many other parks), you would get the impression that all is well and above-board. The park hosts an impressive selection of features including an ‘Onsite Elephant Hospital‘ (for sick or injured elephants on site), a ‘Mobile Elephant Clinic‘ (to treat elephants outside of the facility up and down the country), an ‘Elephant Rescue Unit‘, a nursery, and a range of accommodation packages and facilities for ‘Mahoot’ (elephant handling) training. They have even been honoured with housing the King’s own 10 white elephants!
After entering the park, I was directed to a large viewing area just in time for one of the elephant shows that are run throughout the day. A selection of the elephants are lined up and then demonstrate a bunch of impressive skills which include traditional logging techniques, painting, command taking (raising and lowering flags, bowing to the audience), and dexterity – turning 180 degrees whilst balancing on a log. After the show is over, you have the option to feed and ride the elephants, as well as exploring the other facilities around the ground.
So? Sounds great. What’s this ethical problem?
Well, the problem is that this ‘tourism entertainment’ aspect (Elephants doing tricks and being ridden) can be considered as animal cruelty – it is viewed as neither natural, desirable, or healthy for the animals. The 2 main points around this are:
- Riding elephants does damage to the elephant in the long-term. As unbelievable as it sounds (looking at their size and strength), their spines are not designed to handle the human weight over a long period of time.
- Elephants are not meant to be trained. Wild elephants are not subservient to humans by nature. They do not take commands, do tricks, or accept being ridden. The common process used in order to tame these elephants is known as ‘The Crush’ – the breaking of an elephant’s will at a young age via beatings (and sometimes even stabbings using a ‘bull hook’). Even throughout my short stay, these ‘bull hooks’ could still be seen in the hands of many mahoots during the day….although I didn’t see any used to injure an elephant, the threat alone is present.
Check out this excellent write-up by the Expert Vagabond on ‘Why you shouldn’t ride Elephant’s in Thailand’ for more in-depth information on his experience and some amazing photos.
His experience was in another park in Northern Thailand – the Elephant Nature Park, a park which prides itself on the welfare of the elephants. No riding, no circus tricks. Feeding bathing, and generally spending time with the elephants is what is on offer.
It’s easy to compare the 2 parks, side by side, and make a judgement as to which is the ‘ethical one’.
However, trying to look at the other side of the coin……
Since logging was made illegal around a quarter of a century ago in protected areas, elephant tourism became the primary ‘occupation’ for these ‘domesticated’ elephants. The tourism provides the funding to shelter and feed these animals (adult elephants can eat between 200-600 pounds per day).
The Elephant Nature Park seems to be the exception…..from what I could find, they seem to be the only park who do not offer elephant rides. If the elephant-tourism industry is both thriving and labelled ‘unethical’ at the same time, where should the blame lie? The vendors, or the buyers? If a magic wand could be waved and all parks transformed to the ENP model overnight, how much tourism would be lost? And, as a result how many jobs – for both the people……and the elephants?
I’m not sure if I know the answer any further…..my personal decision was to take a trip to a random elephant park and have a look for myself, but to not take a ride. Like a lot of other things for me, this doesn’t fall into a category of black and white……it’s somewhere on a scale with a shade of elephant grey.
I finish up the day, and now my town-hopping week, and head back to the hostel for my second night in a row. Time to slow things back down again for a while and explore a city. Next stop – Chiang Mai!
The hostel dog…..always happy to see me return safetly!