It makes me sad to see working elephants in Asia. The process of breaking elephants that is used here is unimagineably cruel, it is literally based on torture and ‘breaking’ the spirit of a young elephant who is tethered, beaten and isolated until fear makes it comply with human direction. There is loads on the internet about the process if you can bear to look at it. EARS Asia gives an overview in relation to the tourist industry, which is utterly indefenseable, but there are other working elephants around too, broken using ‘traditional’ techniques of phajaan.
I asked our guide again about the elephant we saw that appeared to be a working animal not for the tourist market. He explained it was probably someone from the mountains. Some of these people are regarded as being skilled in the use of herbs for traditional medicine. He reckoned probably this person was traveling from place to place to sell such traditional herbal medicines to local people. The elephant is a way to gain attention and drum up trade. I hope this poor creature has a better life than the tourist animals, but I doubt he had a better start. He will have still gone through Phajaan.
Our guide clearly feels strongly about this topic, he isn’t just saying what Intrepid require in relation to not doing elephant rides on our travels. He told of two horrible things he’d witnessed at Angkor Watt. One elephant was protesting, not wanting to carry tourists. He saw the handler not just beat the elephant with a stick, but attack it in the eye. It was horrible. The next time he went back, he asked what happened to the elephant. Apparently it was now dead. Killed presumably, I dread to think how. Another time, an elephant just dropped down dead of overwork on the site. I can’t believe this practise is perpetuated in the name of tourists. It’s bad enough when it is a cultural tradition and therefore inevitably it will take time for views on that to change, but to torture elephants for the entirely pointless exercise of portering tourists around breaks my heart.
Why can’t we worship these grand beasts instead? The three headed elephant that is often seen at each side of every gate way seems majestic. It was however also subdued, by Indra, the sky god presumably, who is often depicted riding him? I must do more homework on Cambodian symbolism, but for now, can we think about elephants, mourn their plight and beg anyone we encounter NOT to ride Asian Elephants. It really is indefensible. Not once you know.
If you want to see elephants in Cambodia, there is an elephant sanctuary Mondulkiri project in the East of Cambodia where there are just four, you can ‘help’ bathe, which are NOT used for rides, but retired from such work. I haven’t been, but it sounds a reasonable option. They also have a post about why you shouldn’t ride elephants in Cambodia (or anywhere else in Asia frankly) and especially not at Angkor Wat.