I started my degree in education in 2009. The program was a 5 year integrated program where I would earn a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Education degree. For your fourth and fifth year, you had the opportunity to travel to somewhere else in the world to complete part of your practicum. One of the options was Thailand, which could only be completed in the 5th year.
Always wanting to travel, this seemed like something I definitely needed to do.
But I didn’t go to the information session and missed my shot.
Why didn’t I go?
I’ve always been a bit of what you would call a ‘hesitator’. An opportunity comes around and I hesitate. I try to keep this quote from Mark Twain in mind:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.”
When I missed the opportunity to spend my fifth year (I was in fourth year at the time of the info session) in Thailand, I was indifferent. Until I started seeing pictures of friends who had not missed the opportunity.
On Facebook, they posted pictures of them riding and washing elephants, and cuddling tigers. The animal lover inside me squealed and I knew that I wanted to go there.
So when opportunity knocked again (after a bunch of things falling apart and being put back together), I answered. I went to the info session, adamant on going to Thailand, had an interview, and started attending weekly meetings with others who would be going out there as well.
I was so excited to go to the other side of the world — my first time living away from home and my first time travelling outside of North America. It was a whopper for the first time: 10 months.
I didn’t know much about Thailand but I knew I’d be able to see tigers and ride elephants, and that’s all that I really cared about.
But then the internet got to me, as it does.
I had reservations about leaving home. I even put off telling my family until a couple months before leaving so that no one would inadvertently convince me to stay. Every time I had doubts, I thought of that Mark Twain quote.
Internet dwellers weren’t filling me with doubt about that though.
Instead, I found out that elephants aren’t actually built to carry heavy loads — especially since most weight is carried on their necks. No animal is built to carry that amount of weight on their necks.
I wanted to see elephants though!
Broken-hearted, I asked these lovely internet folk what a better alternative was and they directed me to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It’s a sanctuary for elephants who have been injured due to logging, tourism, or poachers. And it was a brilliant experience.
There were five of us in Chiang Mai. Three of us wanted to go to the sanctuary while the other two decided to go to one of the tiger places. Those two missed out immensely.
We were picked up outside of the hotel where the three of us shared a room and a king-sized bed. Others were already in the van — we were last on the pick up list.
As we drove towards the park, a video was played that introduced us to the park and the abuse many elephants go through. Right off the bat, we were informed and distraught.
At the park, which was beautiful and green and very different from parks in Bangkok to say the least, we were fed delicious Thai food (I was starting to get into it a little more at this point, three months on). And then the fun began: the elephants!
We fed the elephants, bathed the elephants, patted the elephants, watched another sorrowful short film about elephant abuse, causing tears all around… and took pictures with the elephants. All very respectful: keep your distance, approach only when allowed, stay away from babies, and no riding. It was an excellent place that offered a new life for these elephants, some of which were missing parts of their legs or had holes in their ears or were missing their sight due to branches having blinded them in the logging trade. It was all on the up and up, and I was thankful for the suggestion from the friendly redditor.
I never saw the tigers.
The same internet people told me about how terrible the two tiger places are. I asked if there was one that was okay and was basically told one was the lesser of two evils.
Tigers at these places in Thailand — Tiger Kingdom and Tiger Temple — are force bred because the cubs earn more money than the adults. Tigers are drugged to be docile. Tigers earn both places a lot of money and neither of those places spend the majority of that money on their inhabitants. Both tiger businesses put profit above the welfare of these animals and they experience abuse their entire lives. That is no place I want to support, so I never saw the tigers.
When the other two said they preferred to go see the tigers while we went and saw the elephants, I got up on my righteous soapbox and tried to inform and stop them, but they were set on it. They had no interest in seeing the elephants (were they crazy? Who doesn’t want to see elephants?!).
So they saw the tigers…
And they were disappointed.
The tigers were clearly drugged and barely moved when they interacted with them. It was not worth the money or the support they gave.
If I hadn’t been browsing that random reddit thread, I wouldn’t have known about the treatment of tigers and elephants in Thailand and would have ended up supporting a terrible tourist trend.
I love animals, so it’s kind of scary that these things happen because people don’t research where they’re going. If you’re doing anything that involves animals, you probably love them, so you probably don’t want to support something that makes their lives miserable.
Whether it’s a sanctuary, nature park, or zoo, do some sort of research — ask questions, do simple Google searches, find out local treatment of these animals. Don’t support something that you’ll regret; find something enjoyable and helpful towards our four(ish)-legged friends.
And, if you get the chance, go see Elephant Nature Park. 10 months in Thailand and that is my favourite memory.