My Biggest Travel Regret

Being a primary school teacher, I’m constantly encouraging my class to celebrate their mistakes. Mistakes help us learn and grow our mind. When a child makes a mistake in Maths, for example, I sit with them and, together, we overcome the mistake. The child then applies this to the rest of their work and voila, they’re a lot more confident and happy. Unfortunately, not all mistakes are ones to be celebrated and I made my biggest travel mistake in Thailand seven years ago- I rode an elephant.

I was a bit apprehensive about writing this post as I feel like a bit of a hypocrite. Part of the reason I started blogging was to promote sustainable and ethical travel.  Yet I’ve ridden an elephant. I go volunteering with wildlife once a year and I even volunteered with wild elephants in Sri Lanka last year. Yet I’ve ridden an elephant. It’s something that plays on my mind when I think about wildlife and it’s the biggest travel regret I have.

(All photos in this post are of wild elephants from where I volunteered in Sri Lanka)

A wild elephant drinking from a tank in Sri Lanka

When I was at university, I used the money I’d saved from my many jobs to go travelling with a friend. We went away for three months and spent one of these months in Thailand. Whilst there, we visited an elephant ‘sanctuary’. At the time I naively believed that the elephants were rescued and that by paying to ride them, we were supporting the efforts to save them. I thought I was riding one ethically. I was wrong. I was with a group of other backpackers and there was no mention of elephant riding being unethical. It seemed to be one of the ‘bucket list’ things to do in Thailand unfortunately and we were none the wiser. One thing I remember about the experience was that the mahaout (elephant trainer) would not touch the animals. He would use his voice to command them. It felt like they respected him.

If only I knew then what I know now.

A wild elephant would never let a human ride them so in order to allow tourists to do so, they go through something called ‘the crush’. Baby elephants are tortured to break their spirit. This involves ripping them away from their mothers and confining them to a tiny space where they can barely move. The baby elephants are then beaten, prodded with sharp objects, starved and deprived of sleep for days. You can see a haunting picture captured by Brent Lewin here. He wanted to document the horrors behind elephant riding. It’s horrible to see but it’s also important to be aware of the issue.

When I think back to all the happy, playful, wild, baby elephants in Sri Lanka, thinking about ‘the crush’ makes me feel sick.

A wild elephant family in Sri Lanka

Thankfully, there is much more awareness about elephant riding now, and I hope that others won’t make the same mistake that I did.

I know that I have contributed towards a cruel, unethical wildlife trade by riding an elephant and this breaks my heart. All I can do now is learn from the mistake, certainly not repeat it, and encourage others not to ride an elephant. I’m very cautious when looking into animal experiences, like my volunteering. Although I know of some places where you can have ethical encounters with animals, like Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, I usually try to find volunteer experiences where there is no contact with the animals at all. This is one of the things I loved about volunteering with wild elephants in Sri Lanka. We observed them from a distance in the wild with their families. It’s where they should be.

An elephant walking out from the trees in Sri Lanka

What’s your biggest travel regret?

Photo of an elephant and text for Pinterest   Wild elephants family and text for Pinterest

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20 Comments

  1. July 7, 2018 / 10:30 am

    Thank you so much for writing this! The first time I visited Thailand we drove past an area where there was a baby elephant screaming, I think it must have been part of the crush, and even though we knew enough not to go anywhere near elephant riding or thw tiger parks, it was that sound that still haunts me. I see so many bloggers partaking in animal ‘experiences’ and it breaks my heart. Thank you so much for admitting your mistake and using it to educate others, you are doing such important work xx

    • tashasoyster
      Author
      July 7, 2018 / 2:05 pm

      This comment means a lot, thank you. That’s awful that you witnessed the crush for yourself, I can imagine how that the sound must haunt you 🙁

  2. July 7, 2018 / 10:52 am

    This is so brave, awareness is so important to stopping things like this and writing about it in this way is very powerful. Thank you 🙂

    • tashasoyster
      Author
      July 7, 2018 / 2:05 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment. I agree, awareness is so important.

  3. Anna
    July 7, 2018 / 11:17 am

    Well done for writing this – it’s such an important issue and I often think back to the day I rode an elephant too, and it breaks my heart to think how ignorant I was. I’m in exactly your position! You’re doing the right thing by getting the word out and encouraging others not to do it, so thank you.

    • tashasoyster
      Author
      July 7, 2018 / 2:12 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m pleased that we both know better now and have been able to learn from our mistakes.

  4. July 7, 2018 / 11:33 am

    Thank you so much for posting this honest and heartbreaking article. In fairness to you, we are all told so much lies about ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘animal refuges’ and it turns out years later, the cruel practices for making money off tourists are prolific and widespread. Education is key and your article is absolutely part of that education so you have totally redeemed yourself! I have similar regrets and you’ve made me realize that only by being honest and writing about our experiences will we get the message through. I’m off to compose one myself.

    • tashasoyster
      Author
      July 7, 2018 / 2:34 pm

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I agree that education is key and I’m really happy that you’re now composing one too. Please send me the link when you have as I’d love to read it 🙂

  5. July 7, 2018 / 12:00 pm

    Like always you are such an inspiration!! I too have ridden elephants years ago and even dolphins when I was about 7. The thought haunts me too. The reality is we were living with blind ignorance. I thought “I love animals I want to be close and play with them.” Never once did I think what I did was harmful. The truth is I felt like such a fake for a long time that I didn’t want to write about ethical or sustainable tourism and risk being a hypocrite. Then I realized that I also used to eat animals and wear leather. That guilt isn’t going to stop me from proudly living a vegan lifestyle so neither should my past of (unknowing) negative animal encounters. I felt that the best way to fix it is to be an advocate and instead use my voice against it. While the tourist is a huge part of the problem, the tourism sector is the biggest. They do such a good job of hiding the cruelty and putting a mask over the horror. Especially when using the terms “sanctuary”. We need to unveil the truth to get people to realize what they are doing and stop the need for the most likes on Instagram. That cry you hear from baby elephants is just as haunting as the cry of a mama cow who’s had her calf torn away from her.
    Sorry for my ramble, this post hit so home for me. Your honesty is so refreshing, thank you for taking the time to write this important article!

    • tashasoyster
      Author
      July 7, 2018 / 3:02 pm

      I really appreciate your thoughtful comment. It’s not a ramble at all, I really enjoyed reading it. I thought exactly the same as I’ve also always loved animals and used to think that these types of activities were the perfect way to get close and appreciate them. It took me a while to start posting stuff about sustainable travel too but I’m glad the guilt isn’t stopping us from promoting ethical travel now. I love that you’re a vegan! Massive respect for you. I’m vegetarian but haven’t made the jump to vegan yet even though most of what I cook is plant-based. That’s so true about the cry being similar to cows. Thank you for your thought-provoking comment 🙂

  6. July 7, 2018 / 1:52 pm

    A few years ago one of my staff showed me a video of an elephant going berserk in a village in Kerala during festivities and we couldn’t understand why he focussed his rage on one person, though he destroyed much of the village. They came to know that the person was the trainer who had tortured him since he was a baby and now I know its called ‘the crush’.

    • tashasoyster
      Author
      July 7, 2018 / 3:22 pm

      I haven’t seen this video but I can imagine that it’s very emotional to watch, especially when you understand the elephant’s motivation. Thanks for sharing about this 🙂

  7. July 7, 2018 / 3:16 pm

    Okay, here goes. I swam with captive dolphins in the Keys. Thats now 14 years ago- and I was really thinking that they had it a lot better because they were basically housed in the channels off the ocean and in ocean water- they did have fresh water influx plus fish and other ocean life in the water- so certainly better than a pool but still…big no no.
    On the other hand I saw first hand how they train them and how they get them to do things- knowing this now I can actually give people a legitimate reason not to go and why.
    Especially because many do think that its okay in ocean water.

    I worked on whale and dolphin conservation boats since then and got to swim with them in the wild, fully understanding why they should never ever be kept in captivity 🙂
    Sometimes we have to screw up to learn from it, know about it and actually be the better advocate and educator because we know both sides.

    • tashasoyster
      Author
      July 8, 2018 / 7:49 am

      Thanks for sharing your story too I can imagine it was wonderful being with them in the wild. Now that you’ve seen it from both sides, it’s great that you can use your experience to educate others. Really appreciate your comment 🙂

  8. July 7, 2018 / 4:44 pm

    Thank you for educating us. I have never had an opportunity to ride an elephant and after reading this I never will. I was not aware of the cruelty that the elephants went through.

    • tashasoyster
      Author
      July 8, 2018 / 7:50 am

      I’m so pleased this post has helped you make a decision to never ride one. Thank you for your comment 🙂

  9. July 7, 2018 / 8:09 pm

    I think it’s so important to discuss these things. If you can recognise the mistake and educate others then I think it is worth sharing.

    • tashasoyster
      Author
      July 8, 2018 / 7:50 am

      Definitely. Hopefully others can learn from my mistake.

  10. July 8, 2018 / 7:42 am

    Awesome read. I was pretty young when I rode an elephant. I don’t really beat myself up about it but I know not to ever do it again. I guess when we’re younger there’s a lot of things we’re not aware of

    • tashasoyster
      Author
      July 8, 2018 / 7:51 am

      True and there was a lot more awareness too.

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