Thursday, July 8, 2010

Mae Taeng Elephant Camp -- not so good

We are so very grateful to Lisa for telling us about Mae Sa Elephant Camp. And we are very glad we visited Mae Sa first. Otherwise we would have thought that all the elephant camps were like the one we visited today. And that would be a bad thing.

Today we took the Safari Tour with Journey Tours. The tour guide was very nice and a good guide. The van was comfortable and fairly new. They were prompt and followed the schedule pretty well. But we did not enjoy much about this tour. We visited Mae Sa on our own with the private taxi for about half the cost of the Safari Tour; and Mae Sa was infinitely better.

It was more than an hour's drive from Chiang Mai to the Mae Taeng Elephant Camp. The guide said we were only about 100 miles from the border with Burma (Myanmar). He also said the Mae Taeng Elephant Camp was connected in some manner with the brother of the King of Thailand. I'm not sure exactly what the connection is -- whether he provides money for the camp or if the tourists visiting the camp provide money to him.

First we rode small bamboo rafts down the river for an hour. The jungle and hillside scenery was pretty. We saw elephants bathing in the river and one small crocodile on the bank. Zachary poled the raft for awhile and BeBe also had the opportunity to try it. Thank goodness there was a man on the back who could steer the raft back to the middle when needed. There were 2 low wooden benches where we sat for this river ride. This turned out to be the best part of the tour.

The van met us when we finished the rafting and brought us back to the elephant camp. Then we spent several minutes touching the smaller elephants and interacting with their mahouts. Then we all walked down to the river bank and the elephants walked into the river for their daily baths. Each one laid down in the water and was scrubbed by his or her trainer. They appeared to really enjoy playing in the water. This bath is their treat before they perform in a show.

The show was very, very disappointing to us after seeing the show at Mae Sa. There were very few elephants to perform in this show. The elephants were not as well trained and did not appear to be as content with their lives in this camp. It was a big disappointment.

Only one elephant had been trained to paint. Her name was Suda. The painting she did was not as impressive as the ones we had seen painted by the elephants at the Mae Sa Elephant Camp, although to us any painting done by an elephant is unique because we had no idea that elephants could be trained for such a thing. For an elephant to be able to select colors and to arrange those colors with brush strokes into a recognizable pattern or form is absolutely amazing. The gift shop at the Mae Taeng camp had many paintings supposedly done by Suda, but those were far more elaborate than the painting she did during this show. I have strong doubts as to the authenticity of those gift shop paintings. One of the reasons we only bought paintings that we had watched being painted by the elephants at the Mae Sa camp a few days earlier.

Now it was time for the obligatory elephant ride. Neither Bill nor I wanted to ride an elephant; but this was a longer ride and part of the tour, so we didn't really have much of an option not to participate. We did not want the kids to ride off unattended on an elephant into the jungle for an hour. I rode with BeBe and Bill rode with Zachary. Our elephant was in front of Bill and Zach's elephant on the walk.

The troubles started almost immediately. There was a slope from the boarding platform down to the river that we were to cross. The slope did not seem that steep, but as the elephant descended both BeBe and I started slipping forward until our feet were on the elephant's back instead of on the foot brace of the passenger seat. I felt like I was going to slip right through and down onto the elephant's back. Consider this one grandmother who was not a happy camper.

Once the elephant reached the shallow river, we were able to straighten ourselves back correctly in the passenger seat. Going up the steeper opposite bank wasn't a problem. The mahout turned and told us several times to move either right or left in the seat; obviously attempting to get the weight properly distributed. The seat continued to slip throughout our entire ride.

We progressed down that side of the river for a distance, then angled back across the river to the original side. The mahout was having difficulty controlling our elephant. The elephant would stop and refuse to move (like a darn mule) and he would try to go off the beaten path. He just did not want to follow all the other elephants on this long walk. We made it up the opposite side of the river on a steeper bank.

Here there were a couple of vendor stands selling bananas and sugar cane sections to feed the elephants, but I did not have any money to buy any. Maybe the lack of treats at this point of the walk is what pissed off our elephant, because from that point onward he was very contrary and refused to obey the mahout. The other elephants continued on the walk and our elephant walked away down near a building and stood in the shade......while BeBe and I wondered what the heck was going on.

And that is when we received our first shower of elephant snot.

The elephant would gather liquid in its trunk and then turn its head to the right and put its trunk up toward us and blow hard.......covering us with a shower of what could only be described as elephant snot. This happened over and over again during the remainder of our walk.

Near the end of the walk the path diverged. All the other elephants had walked down the left path with the gradual slope. Our elephant instead decided to take the short cut down the steep slope to the right. This was not pleasant. In fact, it was downright scary and very uncomfortable. Our passenger seat slid forward until we were up against the back of the mahout. BeBe and I felt like we were sliding right over the head of the elephant and we were holding onto the seat for dear life. BeBe started crying because she was so frightened and was certain she was going to die falling off an elephant and getting stepped on by the big elephant -- like the baby elephant a few years ago at the Houston zoo that was killed when its mother stepped on it. We did eventually reach the bottom of the steep slope and then it was only a short walk down a paved road to the platform where we were allowed to get off this damn animal.

By this time we had been sprayed by elephant snot at least 20 times and our clothes were wet with it. Oh, I enjoyed this elephant ride ever so much!

Bill said our elephant had blood showing in several spots where our mahout had tried to control the elephant with his hook. This whole ordeal was very upsetting. Elisabeth said she liked the Mae Sa Elephant Camp much better because the elephants there were better trained and weren't tortured like they were in this Mae Taeng camp. I agreed with her. The elephants at Mae Sa seemed much happier. Part of this might be because each elephant was assigned a particular mahout. In the Mae Taeng camp it appeared that the mahouts worked with different elephants more often and not so much with their dedicated animal. This can't be good for the elephants because they can't bond with their trainer as well. At any rate, I was so glad to be finished with elephants at this camp.

Next was our ox-cart ride back to the main camp. Funny thing is that our oxen looked exactly like Brahma steers......or Bremmers as they are affectionately known in Texas. These looked nothing like any oxen we had seen before. All of the ox carts looked like they were being pulled by either Brahma steers or Brahma heifers. While riding the ox-cart back to the main camp we passed an old elephant that was chained beneath a thatch roof. The ankle of that poor animal was deeply scarred and indented by the chain ring. There is no excuse for treatment like that.

After a leisurely buffet lunch our next stop was an orchid farm. Gorgeous flowers. We didn't take any photos inside the orchid farm, but here is a shot of the small orchids they pinned onto our shirts as we entered.

We returned to the hotel for another swim in the pink pool. I will never understand why anyone thought a pink swimming pool was a good design idea; blues, greens, white or even black looks so much better. Then it was back to Miguel's for another Mexican dinner. We were going to eat Mexican food until we were burned out since there is none available in Malaysia.


  1. The statement about the "torture" that goes on at Maetang Elephant Camp is completely false. My family has worked for over 20 years on it. Do you know how much work it takes to monitor 300 people? Probably not. If you did, you'd know that there are scuffles that we can't always keep track but if there is any witnessing of ANY abuse towards the elephants then that employee is immediately fired. No exceptions. I'm sorry that the elephants "snotted" on you but remember, this is a WILD animal and some of the elephants are more playful than others. Our elephants are even more spoiled than those at Mae Sa. Every day they get to chew on piles of long grass laid out for each elephant, they get fresh fruit from the non-eaten leftovers from the buffet, they get a bath in a river, get fed sugarcane/bananas by the customers, and most of all, they are SAFE. All the paintings that Suda has made have been painted BY SUDA. The reason some seem more complex than others is because Suda, like most elephants has feelings and likes to change up her paintings. These elephants are not circus elephants. They're in their natural habitat with extra perks. It's citizens like you that make false accusations that hurt other people's business. How can you sleep at night?!

  2. To Anonymous (who apparently does not want to be identified): I stand by all my comments about the Maetang Elephant Camp. I know what we witnessed at both elephant camps. And the elephant that "snotted" on us was not being playful. The animal was being forced to carry passengers and did not want to do it. The animal was struck many times in the attempt to force it to perform (carry passengers). We saw no elephants struck by anyone at the Mae Sa camp. And I continue to believe that the complicated paintings were not all done by Suda or any other elephant. And, for what it is worth, people who are truthful have no trouble sleeping at night. Count me as one.

  3. I suggest that you do some correct research before you make such accusatory statements. I have lived in Thailand for 8 years, and gone to both elephant camps multiple times. Just a note, I'm not affiliated with either camp. As we lived there so long, we would have friends visit fairly often from other countries, and going to elephant camps was part of the experience. Now, I'm not going to praise either one of them, as my experience at both was basically the same. That said, I did enjoy Mae Tang Elephant Camp more than Mae Sa, but it's possible that I preferred the former as I went to it less often.

    A statement that stands out in particular to me is that you did not see any elephants struck at the Mae Sa camp. They use the prods there just as much as Mae Tang. This is not actually an issue, as elephants have some of the thickest skin in the world. Elephants are well protected in Thailand, and in some cases are considered sacred. For many years the Thai people relied on Elephants for their well being, and in the past, sometimes even war. There is a deep seated cultural attitude that elephants shouldn't be abused. I would go so far as to say that the mahouts treat the elephants as friends.

    I'm guessing that you did not go on an elephant ride at Mae Sa. The slipping around is quite normal. Yes, I agree this can be somewhat scary, but as I said, I have been many times, and never witnessed or heard of any accidents.

    As I said at the beginning of this post, I suggest you actually do some research before you write such a scathing blog. Do remember, some people's livelihoods rely on these things. Be considerate, and think before you speak/write.

  4. @Andre -- You are correct that I did not ride an elephant at Mae Sa, but my young granddaughter did. She also rode with me at Mae Tang. She and our 10-yr-old grandson thoroughly enjoyed the long elephant ride at Mae Sa. She was terrified atop the elephant at Mae Tang because of the slipping, "snotting" and the mahout hitting the animal while we were sitting on it. She plans to be a vet and is sensitive to animal abuse; she found beating the animal very upsetting. That elephant did not want to make this walk and carry passengers. The mahout struck the elephant repeatedly, both on the head and trunk and around the eyes and also on the legs. The strikes were not light strokes; he struck the elephant hard trying to get her to stop spraying us and to return to the path and keep walking. Nothing like this happened at Mae Sa. Also, none of the elephants at Mae Sa had open sores on their skin as did some at the Mae Tang camp. At Mae Sa we saw no old elephants segregated from the rest, left to stand in watery mud with deep sores on their legs and feet from the iron rings cutting deep into their skin -- which we did see at Mae Tang. This was out near where the oxen were kept.

    I do not know what research you would like me to do when I am reporting exactly what we experienced and what we saw. I realize that people's livelihoods rely on tourists visiting these camps. The people caring for these elephants also need to remember that tourists notice what is happening around them and bad treatment of the animals likely will result in negative reports.

  5. My main problem is that you just haven't made a fair comparison between the two camps. It's like for some reason you have some strange bias. What a lot of people don't realize, is that the striking is not abusive. As I said, the elephants have extremely thick skin and have to be hit fairly forcefully for them to feel it at all. It is true that sometimes the elephants don't wish to give rides. I had an experience once where the elephant turned around completely and tried to walk back. Funnily enough, this was at Mae Sa. Basically, the elephants don't want to give rides every day. They're actually smart enough to be able to get a "I can't be bothered" attitude. I have more stories about the Mae Sa camp that aren't exactly positive, but I won't go into them just here. There are some not so positive stories from Mae Tang as well. Elephants are animals, things will happen from time to time. I just don't understand how you ended up with such a strong bias against one camp and not the other. There is a feud going on between the two camps. Maybe someone said something to you at Mae Sa?

  6. No one said anything to us at Mae Sa about any other elephant camp. We had never even heard of the Mae Tang camp; it was just part of a day tour that we signed up for at the hotel where we stayed. I have simply related our experiences at the 2 camps. One was completely positive; the second was not. The animals were not well cared for in the second camp. All animals we encountered at the first camp appeared to be well cared for. If there is a feud between these 2 camps, that is a local matter that tourists are not likely to have knowledge about. If a feud exists, it does not concern us.

  7. Dear Judy & Bill,

    I just visited MaeTang elephant camp in early August.
    I was surfing the net and saw your story.
    My personal experience is that the elephants at Mae Tang are lovely and friendly. It was first time I ever came so close to interact with elephants. I fed a mother (who just had a 3 months old baby) bananas and sugarcanes. And I had been hugged by a young elephant.
    They are amazing animals and are extremely intelligent.
    The mahouts I talked to were nice to me and I love the smiles on their faces.
    However, I am sorry to hear that you had been sprayed. You must be terrified!


  8. Natalie,

    Our granddaughter was terrified. The hitting and use of the hook until the elephant was bleeding terrified her far more than the "snotting." That part was just disgusting. The slipping of the platform on the steep incline not normally part of the route was terrifying to both of us.

    Glad to hear you had an enjoyable time at the same camp. Different day; possibly a different elephant for the long ride; resulting in a completely different experience.

    We are now in the Med and finished with all elephants.


  9. Both camps should be closed down. Elephants should NOT be performing tricks at all. Is anyone aware of the terrible abuse and torture these animals have to endure before they learn to paint a stupid painting of an Elephant?

    The breaking process in Thailand is called "Phajaan" It is brutal and disgusting, and any one of you attending these greatly entertaining Elephant shows are funding torture and slavery.

    Why do people find it so amusing to watch an Elephant kick a soccer ball into a net, or pop balloons with a dart?
    Pay the money, go to Africa, and observe Elephants in the wild where they are supposed to be.

    Do you really think Elephants want you on their back?? Before you travel anywhere, do the proper research and travel responsibly and ethically.

    1. Giselle,

      Apparently you have not visited either camp because visiting them would be contrary to your beliefs. I can't imagine you riding an elephant when you say, "Do you really think Elephants want you on their back."

      You also may be misinformed when you say, "Pay the money, go to Africa, and observe Elephants in the wild where they are supposed to be." Do you really believe that is where they are supposed to be? Three living species of elephant are recognized: the African bush elephant, the African forest elephant and the Indian or Asian elephant.

      However, when you say, "do the proper research and travel responsibly and ethically," you are criticizing us. Our blog allows public viewing and public comments because we want to inform people of what we observed. We do not have an agenda such as tree hugging or protecting elephants.

      I could simply delete your posting, but I am going to let it stand because reasonable people will understand us and you.


    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Don't you feel silly sitting on an elephant?....or watching them paint? Why is it so important that elephants perform for you?

    1. Giselle and Anonymous need to read a wonderful book written by a man who has spent his life living with elephants. This book is about a particular elephant and the man who raised her and spent his life with her. I heartily recommend reading "Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived" by Ralph Helfer. This book will dispel some of the misconstrued ideas some people have about elephants and their training.


  11. im jelaous! i would love to ride an elephant and get sprayed with snot :D ive only had short rides on elephants.

    i find it rather amusing that so many people get worked up about their treatment. all animals that we use are 'abused'. dogs are forced to learn tricks for us, cats are banished to apartments for their entire lives, cows die to give us burgers, horses are 'broken' so we can ride them... the list is endless. the problem isnt us using animals for entertainment, it is us anthropomorphizing and thinking we know all about animals we never spent time with before.

    you cant know what it takes to train a horse or an elephant or a dog unless youve done it... over and over and over and over.. spent thousands of hours with an animal,then, maybe, you can be an expert. people like giselle, who maybe have seen pictures and read something and seen elephants at zoos think they have it all figured out. who are they to decide what animals can and cannot be kept for pets and trained??

    i think elephants may be alot like horses in that they are large(ish), intelligent and very unique in personalities. some horses can be controlled with just a rope around their necks, while others require whips and severe bits in their mouths. you use the tools that are required to get the animal to do what you want it to do. hopefully, though, you use the softest touch you can and use it with love and care.

    im sorry for the rant, i just cant stand people thinking they know what is best for people and animals they never met.

    you seem like you had a grand adventure, despite the slipping and the boogers! thank you for sharing :}

  12. I have just attended Mae Taeng Elephant camp, and it was awful. I guess it depends on what your definition of "abuse" is, but I believe that any hitting what-so-ever is COMPLETELY inappropriate and abusive. This place was marketed to me as a "rehabilitation center" where these elephants are "saved" from abusive places where they were forced to carry lumber. Well now they are forced to carry people for profit and a tourist attraction. It was not a loving environment, I did not see one individual who worked there petting them, speaking to them kindly, or lovingly. They all yelled at the elephants, and the elephants ran away from them out of fear. Those sticks with the hooks that were meant to "control them" and were said not to hurt obviously did as I saw many elephants with dried blood marks from being hit with the hooks, and scars as well. I saw one individual wind up his arm and slam the back of a baby elephant with the stick. I do not care if it was actually painful for the elephants, which I imagine it did not feel good, any place that advertises as "saving the elephants" would NEVER HIT THE ELEPHANTS. If I had known that is what this was, I would have never paid to support such animal cruelty. I will never again go to a place to see a wild animal in captivity unless I am SURE that they are put back in the wild or at least treated as beings with a soul. These animals should be seen as sacred and loved, never hit or screamed at. It was an emotional and eye-opening experience for me and I will spread this to everyone and ever website I can.

  13. People in this post need to WAKE UP! Elephants in any of these elephant camps are being mistreated (95% of elephant camps in Thailand are inadequate where the elephant is not getting enough variety of food and social interaction, is hit when they want to perform a natural behavior such as wanting to eat some of the leaves of a tree and put through a crush period as a 3 year old where they are beaten until submission) and this is not coming from someone "who has never met an elephant". I have been working for a conservation project for a year and a half where we bring elephants out of these camps where they are forced to paint, give rides with a huge crate on their back (did you know, unlike horses, elephants have weak spines? carrying these creates gives them severe back problems and causes exhaustion, think about that before you complain about the seat "moving" around, think of how this makes the elephant feel having to carry your weight and a moving saddles weight!!), playing football, dancing, THESE ARE NOT NATURAL AND IN ORDER FOR THE ELEPHANTS TO PERFORM THESE THEY UNDERGO HARSH TRAINING. Elephant training is nothing like dog training. These cannot even be slightly compared. I personally witnessed a small part of a baby elephants crush training and it has scarred me for life. These baby elephants are separated from their mothers a 3 years old, some are even brought from the wild in Burma are brought across the boarder after witnessing the killing of their parents and family by poachers. By attending elephants camps and giving praise to an elephant painting, tourists are creating a demand for this and it makes me sick. The project I work for bring the elephants back to the forest where we let them roam, forage, socialise and let them live as natural a life as possible, this is what people should want to see, Asian elephants in their natural environment (which is their natural place, contrary to what was stated before!!!!) Anyone reading this and trying to decide where or how to see elephants, please do your research and wake up to the reality of elephant abuse in Asia, elephants are beautiful and intelligent creatures who deserve to live as natural a life as possible, and there are a few good places where you can visit elephants where they are treated better. Nothing I have stated here is "misconstrued" as this is all from my personal experience. WAKE UP.


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