My first trip to Thailand was back in 2009. I accompanied my mom to her hometown of Chiang Mai to meet my Thai family. They brought me to all the typical sites to showcase the best of Chiang Mai and Thailand.

Elephant Camp 2009

Back in 2009 at a Chiang Mai elephant park

One of those attractions was visiting an elephant park. My exhilaration of being up close to these gigantic creatures was new and different. It was a story to share with all my friends back home.

A friend from New York visited me while I was living in Chiang Mai. One of the first things we did was to return to the same park to see and ride the elephants. I have a picture of us sitting atop of an elephant posing perfectly for our picture with his trunk lifted in the air and what appeared to be a smile on his face.

Living in Chiang Mai 9 years ago, owners paraded young elephants around the city. Seeing these animals among the noisy and exhaust-filled streets with tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and pick-up trucks zipping all around could not have been comfortable.

A poignant memory is from a night out with some new friends having a late night meal. A man pulling a young elephant by chains approached us. He asked us to if we wanted to feed her.

We did feed the elephant because it felt wrong had we not.

Elephant tears

Young elephants paraded around Chiang Mai in 2009

There were traces of moisture under this creature’s mournful eyes. Perhaps it was my human interpretation. We asked questions about the treatment of the elephant. Maybe I was feeling guilty. I wasn’t sure but I didn’t feel good about the situation. The man clearly agitated moved on to other people. We walked away with no real answers but I left wondering about the camps that I visited with my family and my friend from home. The memory is a heavy one.

I wish I had done my research.

I didn’t know back then about the harm and horrific conditions these magnificent animals went through for the sake of tourist.

A lot of information has come out since 2009 and much has been exposed about the treatment of elephants and other animals at popular tourist attractions around the world, especially here in Thailand.

This new awareness has resulted in major changes and where riding riding elephants has been prohibited. I met a fellow traveler last week who visited an elephant park recently and it got me wondering.

Many of these parks market themselves as ethical “sanctuaries.” Talking with my new friend, he saw elephants chained up. I asked him whether he thought that was a good thing for the elephants. His answer was they had to be chained up because a level of control had to be maintained.

The more he spoke of his day, the more it sounded like another orchestrated experience where elephants continuously forced to take selfies with tourist.

How ethical are these parks? What happens when the tourists go home at the end of the day?  Are elephants actually well-treated and are they able to roam free? Or is this all just a form of green-washing to attract travelers?

Questions I had 9 years ago returned in a new form. I’m not here to tell anyone to avoid these attractions, but these are necessary questions to ask and doing some research is important.

The Kindred Traveler Credo

One of the ideas behind The Kindred Traveler is to become a more responsible traveler. I am no expert but it is an important goal for me as a frequent traveler.

What is responsible travel?

My experience nearly a decade ago raised an awareness about the choices I could make while traveling. It’s similar to the buy local movement at home, choosing environmentally-friendly products, or using fewer plastics.

There are a lot of terms that fall under the umbrella of responsible travel such as ethical travel, eco-travel, community-based tourism, sustainable travel, and other related terms.

Generally, the idea behind responsible travel is being socially, culturally, and environmentally aware of the impacts of our travels.Responsible travel asks us to consider how we choose to spend our money that can be benefiting to the local community. It’s about engaging in meaningful and positive experiences within the communities we visit while minimizing negative impacts or leaving positive ones.

Let every individual and institution now think and act as a responsible trustee of Earth, seeking choices in ecology, economics and ethics that will provide a sustainable future, eliminate pollution, poverty and violence, awaken the wonder of life and foster peaceful progress in the human adventure.
– John McConnell, founder of International Earth Day

Next week I will be meeting with some people in Chiang Mai spearheading efforts to address the challenges tourism has on Thai culture, the environment, and the local economy.

During my stay in Thailand and throughout my travels, I’ll explore the ideas around responsible travel,  apply them to my own travels, and share what I am learning.

Thanks for coming on this journey with me to become a better traveler. I’d love to hear your stories and ideas of how we all can become responsible travelers in 2018.


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