Elephants: Separating Myth from Fact

Elephants at Chai Lai Orchid in Chiang Mai

Elephants at Chai Lai Orchid in Chiang Mai


"Elephants are majestic and easily captivate our imaginations and our hearts. But some people watch an emotional 30 second video on Facebook and feel their passion makes them experts on elephants. If we are to protect elephants, it’s very important to understand facts: their biological needs, history, legal status and cultural context. In Thailand, elephants are endangered and stuck in a precarious, uncharted gray area between wild and domestic animals." Naka Elephant Foundation

Chai Lai is dedicated to providing guests and volunteers knowledge to be effective elephant activists. Instead of telling tourists only what they want to hear we engage openly and honestly with the public about our practices and struggles. 

Why can’t the Elephants just go free?

There is very, very little natural habitat left for elephants that remains uninhabited by humans. Habitat destruction is undoubtedly the greatest threat facing wild Asian elephants. Deforestation from logging, rapidly growing human populations, and clearing land for industrial agriculture have destroyed the forests. Elephants natural homes are lost to the environmental destruction that comes with “development” Clearing forests for agriculture inevitably leads to elephants raiding crops and then to the farmers’ retribution, resulting in many dead and injured elephants. Habitat destruction also leads to fragmented, isolated populations and the subsequent danger of inbreeding.

What does “Ethical Tourism” really mean?

Over the last few years, Western media have launched a glut of television shows and news stories implying or even flatly stating that to visit an elephant camp — particularly camps that offer rides, shows, or mahout training — is to be complicit in abuse or even torture. Many sensitive Westerners conscious of animal rights and welfare will jump to the conclusion that elephant camps are bad and that the only ethical response is to boycott them. The problem is that they probably constitute less than 5% of the tourists who will see elephants. They are greatly outnumbered by tourists from countries where very few people are conscious of animal welfare. Examining the top 20 tourist arrivals in Thailand by nationality in 2015, the first country on the list is China, numbering 7,934,791. Over 16 million people from other Asian countries visited Thailand. In contrast, visitors from the UK numbered just under a million. Most tourists also want their visits to be as cheap as possible, forcing many camps “squeeze” their elephants, working them far too hard, and exploiting their caretakers.

Boycotting elephant camps and feeling good about it provides no consolation or help to the vast majority of elephants stuck in less than ideal camps. A further twist is that because tourism is basically the only legal form of work in Thailand — where over 95% of the elephants are privately owned — it is only tourism that can provide the money that owners need to care for their animals. Without it, there’s no reason for owners to keep these animals alive, as their upkeep is very expensive.

The problems facing Thai elephants and their owners and handlers — and the thoughtful tourists considering visits — are exceedingly complex. Making snap judgments (“All elephant camps are cruel and evil!”) is simplistic and not doing the elephants any good.



These activities and tools should be analyzed before condemning them. They are not the pure torture they are often painted to be.


The "No Elephant Rides" Trend

The problem is not riding in general; it’s poor elephant care. Working elephants for too many hours means exhaustion and malnourishment. By far the largest traditional form of employment for elephants — was transportation, moving both goods and people. Thousands of elephants worked as draft animals in Thailand. Elephants were used here much like horses have been used in the West, and were particularly useful in the rainy season because of their uncanny ability to walk easily through mud in villages without roads.  Like other traditional practices, rides do no harm so long as they are carefully limited loads, limited hours, good shade and resting time. Just like the use of horses as ride animals in Europe and the Americas, it all depends on how it is done. A healthy elephant can safely and comfortably carry a human.

....And No Chains

Chains are often presented as bad and sometimes as pure evil. In fact, things are not that simple. First, chains are needed to protect humans from elephants because there are no alternatives. Most people who criticize and even vilify elephant tourism camps focus on two activities of traditional keeping, shows and rides, and two pieces of equipment, chains and elephant hooks. Most critics come from countries which have elephants confined in zoos, fortresses where the elephants are separated from the public by millions of dollars of walls and moats. Clearly, massive enclosures are a luxury which most local people in Southeast Asian countries cannot afford. Unlike in Zoos in the West, Asia’s elephants are often on the move and often mingle very closely with people. Further, chains are often needed to protect elephants from other elephants who would attack them if left free. Chains also prevent elephants from raiding the crops of farmers, a boon to the elephants’ owners and even to elephants, since farmers may hurt or even kill an elephant that wrecks their livelihood.


Outsiders often misunderstand how chains are used in Asia. Many critics wrongly assume that chains always fix the elephant in one point and that therefore an enclosure would be better. However chains actually enable elephants to be constantly moved to fresh natural food sources and walk in the jungle. The chained elephant is much better off than a chain-free elephant confined in a small pen, because in a pen the only option is to throw in food — often stale and poor quality — and shovel dung out. The use of chains in Asia is very complex, and to condemn outright is to dangerously oversimplify. Skillfully used chains benefit captive elephants.


Enclosures can be dangerous to Elephants. Elephants in small enclosures have very little to do each day. Being intelligent animals, they become bored. Boredom itself leads to a variety of behavioral problems including heightened aggression and depression. Foot disease, caused by standing on hard floor surfaces for long periods of time is the number one source of elephant pain, suffering and premature death. Prolonged standing on hard flooring and lack of exercise causes arthritis and other chronic, sometimes fatal, orthopedic disabilities. When elephants stand on wet floors, foot infections may also result. Obesity is another dangerous problem linked to enclosures as in nature elephants walk Long periods each day, up to 18 hours a day and cover great distances.


The Elephant Hook or Bullhook


Throughout much of Asia, mahouts carry an elephant hook, usually called just “hook.” In classical literature it was often called “ankus”, an ancient Egyptian word. The much maligned hook looks like a cruel and dangerous weapon, but if used by a good mahout, the hook causes no harm. It is a tool for guidance, not an instrument of torture.

The hook has two primary purposes. First, it can be used  to gently touch key pressure points on the elephant’s body, points based on the elephant’s nerve network and carefully refined over many centuries. Another use of a hook is simply to extend the mahout’s reach, effectively making his arm longer. When sitting on the neck he can tap the middle of the back, signaling the elephant to lay down on its belly. When the mahout is on the ground he can put the hook over the elephant’s ear and lightly tug to signal it to the ground. While harmless in the hands of a competent mahout, misuse of hooks is indisputably bad. In nearly all Asian countries today, the quality of mahouts is rapidly declining as the job is difficult, dangerous, and underpaid. In the past they would have had to work for many years as an assistant before getting their own elephant. We believe it’s so important to care for the elephants caretakers as well.



Threats to elephants separating myth from fact


Best care practices for elephant owners and camp managers http://www.thailandelephant.org/en/caremanual.html

The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/05/elephants-tourism-thailand/483138/

Patara Elephant Farm  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Bc3pbBzbxk


South East Asia Safety Tips for Female Travelers

female traveler


Safety Tips for Women Travelers

We believe that through education and supportive services, women can change the world; no dream is ever too big. We are vigilant addressing the risks women face today, at home and abroad. We’ve compiled a list of welfare and wellness tips for female travelers to stay safe while they take off on their adventure.


Wifi is everywhere in Thailand. For documents, keep front-and-back copies of your credit cards saved to cloud storage like Google Docs or Dropbox, as well as a copy of your passport, train tickets ect. That way if you lose them AND your computer or phone, you won’t be totally up a creek.


What are the best neighborhoods and the ones you should avoid? Are there only certain kinds of taxis you should take? Crowdsource your information so you know that it’s more objective than a hotel booking site.


What are the locals wearing? The more you stand out, the more you brand yourself as someone who is unfamiliar with the location, which makes you more vulnerable to criminals. In Chiang Mai that means no elephant hippy pants (yes they are so comfortable) and chang beer tank tops.


Be aware that food and drink spiking occurs, mostly around popular backpacker destinations such as Khao San Road in Bangkok the night-time entertainment zones in Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket, and during the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. Choose a drink that you open yourself like a beer or wine cooler. Thailand has really yummy wine coolers with flavors like apple cider and mojito.


Try to leave your valubles at home. But for the stuff you do bring you should have a day bag into which you can fit all of your important items: your passport, your camera, your medication, your jewelry, your credit cards, your smartphone, and any other technology, photography or otherwise valuable equipment. Keep some emergency cash $50 hidden somewhere secret like in a tampon applicator, just in case.


Penalties for drug offences are severe and include the death penalty. The possession of even small quantities of "soft drugs" for recreational purposes can result in lengthy jail sentences. South East Asia has so much to offer, you can have a great time without being high.

Smile, you are on holiday!

When you appear to be friendly, other people will reach out to you to help you. Thailand isn’t known as the Kingdom of Smiles for nothing. Thai people don’t expect you to speak their language, and they probably don’t speak yours, so a simple smile says a lot there.


There are lots of great networks to connect female travelers all around the world. You can ask them about the customs and things to do in their area, or even make plans to meet up. We like:



As a solo female traveler or even a woman traveling in a small group, you have to be extra cautious. Going out into the jungle with strangers can be nerve-wracking and may limit you from getting all the experiences you hoped for. If you’re visiting Southeast Asia, fear no more. Chai Lai Sisters is the first indigenous women-run tour company in Thailand. Chai Lai Sisters goal is not only to empower Indigenous female tour guides but also our female travelers. Traveling in remote parts of the world is thrilling, but it also comes with a great deal of vulnerability. Reports of sexual harassment and worse are unfortunately common for female travelers around the globe. All women should have the right to feel safe and comfortable, wherever they are. Chai Lai Sisters brings women together to create a circle of female trust, security and safety. They have many different tours and homestays to choose from. They’re eco-conscious, too, planting 3 trees for every guest. Chai Lai Sisters gives you a chance to travel and do good by supporting local, ethnic minorities and the environment.


If something noteworthy happens in the country you’re in or at home, they will let you know ASAP. And download their Smart Traveler app.


Ask you host or hotel to book a taxi for you or arrange a private transfer from the airport when you arrive, especially if you’re arriving at night. If it’s in your budget, this can make getting your bearings easier. Track your cab via Google Maps so you can tell if you’re going off route.


You might be excited to meet new friends and live like a local but unfortunately there are charming con-artists who make a living of tourists.


As a woman traveling alone, insurance may come in the form of a cell phone. Though you should rely far more on your intuition than a cell phone in the event of a dicey situation, knowing that you can call ahead to secure a hotel room or contact a friend can be extremely helpful. If you plan on being in a country for some time, having an unlocked GSM cell phone with a local, prepaid SIM card is a great option.


No, 911 is not a universal number that you can dial to get help! However, many countries have a simple number that one can dial in case of an emergency. Here is a list of emergency phone numbers for every country in the world.

Check out Buzzfeed's list of 46 Incredibly Useful Safety Tips For Women Traveling Alonehttps://www.buzzfeed.com/jessicaprobus/46-incredibly-useful-safety-tips-for-women-traveling-alone?utm_term=.lfqoyqP5V#.ihxBNARX3

wanderlust travel


U.N. development goals

The United Nations 70th General Assembly has designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

This is a unique opportunity to raise awareness of the contribution of sustainable tourism to development among public and private sector decision-makers and the public, while mobilizing all stakeholders to work together in making tourism a catalyst for positive change.

People today travel more than ever before in history. Sustainable tourism is the concept of visiting a place as a tourist and trying to make only a positive impact on the environment, society and economy. Sustainable tourism actually benefits everyone involved, and not just one half of the equation. Unsustainable tourism might be fine from the point of view of the tourist, but it’s unlikely to benefit the host community.

In the context of the universal 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the International Year aims to support a change in policies, business practices and consumer behavior towards a more sustainable tourism sector that can contribute to the SDGs.

The #IY2017 will promote tourism’s role in the following five key areas:

(1)        Inclusive and sustainable economic growth

(2)        Social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction

(3)        Resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change

(4)        Cultural values, diversity and heritage

(5)        Mutual understanding, peace and security.

Learn more about why tourism matters and how you can make a positive impact here  http://www.tourism4development2017.org/why-tourism/


The Bamboo Raft

Mae Wang river

Chai Lai Guest and Chiang Mai local, Francesca Fletcher writes about the simple beauty of bamboo of rafting.

It’s not the first time I’ve been bamboo rafting, but today I’m back for more. This afternoon is perfect for it: the sky is blue and cloudless, and it’s hot, so hot the dogs are panting in the shade and the elephants are constantly spraying themselves with sand to cool down.

It’s sweet relief as we set off in the back of the pickup and the wind rises, ruffling my hair. We sweep round the curves of this mountain road, snatching glimpses of paddy fields and cultivated rows of plants, elephants grazing and little roadside stalls selling grilled meat. The trees around us give off a sweet smell in the sun; cicadas thrum, unperturbed by the wheezy engine of our drive.

Too quickly, we arrive at the jetty and are submerged in forested shade as we drop down to the river. We jump out of the truck. I know our guide, and practise my rusty Thai on him: “Sawat dee kha, Pi,” I say - Hello, brother. He smiles and greets me in return before ushering us down to the riverside, where a huge pile of rafts lie waiting.

Bamboo raft

Bamboo rafting couldn’t be more different from its white water equivalent. The rafts are not the fluorescent, bobbing crafts we are used to, but graceful constructions built from the materials found right here in the jungle, and driven with poles, like punts. Long sturdy pieces of bamboo are tightly bound together each morning and undone each night when they are collected at the bottom of the hill. Traditionally, they were bound with thin strips of bamboo: this is a laborious process, as I found at one kids’ camp, and while it creates the most beautiful rafts, it is tough on your hands. Today raft builders often use rope and recycled tyres to bind and stabilise.

Our guide points out our raft and with his help we heave it off the pile and into the water, where he straightens it and directs us to climb on. Despite plenty of yoga, balance is a challenge for me: this is a little tricky! I slip off my shoes for better grip and wobble on to the raft nervously. The guide giggles. My friend hauls on a cooler box and settles into a cross-legged position. We spread our weight across the raft.

Some people, when they do this, like to challenge themselves to stay standing for the whole ride, ducking branches and staggering hilariously when the raft hits rocks. It’s fun, and a bit of a workout. That was me the first time. Today, I’m happy to sit and wallow in the inch or two of water that covers the raft, letting the water lap my legs and cool me.

It’s going to be a slow journey downriver. It’s hot season and the water is low: we’ve got time to grab a beer out of our cooler and relax. And if we’re lucky, our guide will let us swim off the raft when the water gets a little deeper.

I lie back, close my eyes; the sun flickers through leaves, making patterns of dark and light behind my lids. It’s very quiet: all I can hear is birdsong and the quiet splashes of the pole the guide uses to propel the boat. The gently tugging movement of the raft lulls me.

I love this. It’s a beautiful opportunity to switch off, unplug. There are few moments I’ve felt further from the stresses and pressures of my life. The daily grind, the commute, the money stresses - I feel it all lifting from my shoulders, an almost physical sensation of relief. My friend nudges me and passes me a beer. Perfect.

In April Songkran will hit Thailand and this area will erupt with hedonistic Thai tourists seeking joyful moments away from the crush of the city. Then, the river will be full of rafts, end to end, with giggling boys and girls calling, falling, playing… the whole valley will sing with laughter and terrible karaoke. It will be busy and wonderful. But this moment, this is my favourite. The calm before the storm. When the whole river is quiet and sleepy, and even the water moves sluggishly.

Too quickly, the leisurely journey down the river is almost over. We pass another raft girls from Chai lai,  young women who’ve become friends of mine over the times I’ve stayed here. We wave and exchange splashes.

And then it’s over. The last few yards gives us a little buzz, as we fly over a rapid. Our raft joins a crowd of others, all painted with each company’s colour, like a herd of sheep. We jump from raft to raft to the shore to thank our guide. Then it’s the walk past the rafting stations where the guides are beginning to wind down with a beer. The smell of bbq pork and drift through the gathering evening and I realise, with surprise, that I’m hungry.

You can read more about bamboo rafting in Chiang Mai here at one of the cities best blogs https://www.tielandtothailand.com/beer-buddies-bamboo-rafting-chiang-mai/

bamboo rafting Chiang Mai