I have a love-hate relationship with being a tourist. On the one hand, I absolutely love to travel the world. Travelling drives me. Travelling is me. My international experiences have made me a better person than I would be otherwise—enlightening me, humbling me, motivating me to be better. My desire to travel is a big part of the reason that I went into teaching. There are not many other professions where you get the opportunity to spend nine months out of the year teaching kids about the world and the other three traveling and learning about it yourself.
But there are a lot of negative aspects to international travel too, especially when you’re a white dude from the United States of America. The tourism industry that was built to serve people like me is oftentimes reminiscent of the old colonial relationships between the “developed” and “developing” world where the privileged and powerful exploit the weaker and less fortunate for their own benefit. Even though I try my best to be a responsible tourist abroad, my masochistic desire to overthink things still sometimes leaves me wondering if our collective impact as tourists actually does more harm than good.
I thought about this a lot during my recent trip to Southeast Asia. There’s no doubt that the tourism industry over there has created a lot of jobs and generated a lot of dollars, but I still question how far reaching and inclusive those benefits are. For instance, do the jobs created by the imitation Western restaurants that we patronized and the mass-produced manufactured goods that we purchased outweigh the loss of the more traditional establishments and occupations that they most certainly replaced? It was great to have English menus and cheap goods, but pizza and bro-tanks are probably not the most authentic way to experience Southeast Asia. Does the commercialization of ancient landmarks and temples help to preserve indigenous cultures by educating us tourists about their history, or does it instead work to erode those cultures by transferring access and ownership of venerated sites to Westerners with deep pockets? I learned a lot about Eastern culture at Angkor Wat and Wat Pho, but I received this education amongst a sea of other white people. Also, depending on the venue, there can be something a little unsettling about converting somebody else’s sacred place of worship into a venue for my entertainment. And who ultimately ends up with the majority of the dollars that the tourism industry generates? Public revenue can build hospitals and schools and employees of the industry hopefully earn high enough wages to make a comfortable living, but something tells me that the corporate fat cats out there are still ending up with an oversized slice of the tourism pie, while the locals living in urban ghettos and impoverished rural areas are stuck with the crumbs.
But to dwell on such negativity does not do justice to all the tremendously transformative experiences that our adventure provided—experiences where tourism was done right and where tourism felt good. Nothing fits that bill better than the day we spent at the Elephant Park in Phang Nga, Thailand.
It’s not hard to find an elephant camp in Thailand. They’re all over the place. But if you care in the slightest about the well-being of the world’s largest land mammals, most of these camps should make you feel pretty sad. They are packed full of elephants—sometimes caged, sometimes chained, sometimes both—awaiting the next group of visitors to parade around town in carriage-like saddles alongside busy highways and tourist attractions. While the saddle and chains usually don’t physically harm these enormous beasts, the psychological effects do. Elephants are smart and have a tremendously elevated level of consciousness. This means that, unlike an idiotic gold fish oblivious to its own bowl-shaped imprisonment, elephants are quite aware of the fact that they are imprisoned, and quite aware of the less than stimulating environment that their imprisonment provides. If you have ever seen a captive elephant in a zoo or a circus doing something like this, then you have seen an elephant displaying documented symptoms of zoochosis—a medical condition that describes the strange behavior exhibited by captive animals who are clinically bored out of their freaking minds.
The Phang Nga Elephant Park was not like this. Although the upfront costs made this experience one of the more expensive things that we did on our trip, it was pretty clear upon our arrival that this park was not trying to make a few extra bucks by cutting a couple of corners. Their mission was an admirable one—providing elephants with a healthy, caring, elephant-first environment in which they can safely interact with human beings. During our day at the park, we were able to ride, feed, and bathe our elephants, all the while receiving a thorough education in what it means to care for nature’s gentlest giants.
Most of the elephants at this camp were rescued from Thailand’s waning logging industry where elephants have been traditionally used as beasts of burden. Due to this physically demanding occupation, these elephants are often in need of major care, and because of their domestication, have also become dependent upon human beings for their survival. The park attempts to provide the elephants that care minus the exploitative treatment so ubiquitous in other camps. You could perhaps say that while visitors in other camps are often unknowingly participating in the exploitation of their elephants, Phang Nga visitors are instead actively learning how not to exploit theirs.
The park is not perfect. Still in the nascent stages of its development, Phang Nga is temporarily dependent on contracts with private companies who bus in their tourists for brief ventures into the park. These for-profit companies continue to require saddles for the elephants rather than the more natural, bareback riding preferred by the park owners. Chains are still used as well. Limited space, human presence, and surrounding private lands create situations in which elephants cannot always roam freely. This is less than desirable, but also represents a necessary concession that the park needs to make as it continues to search for additional lands and funding in hopes of creating the most ethical elephant experience possible. Despite these shortcomings, the passion that park owner Jake and his several employees have for their elephants is undeniable. Their words reassure that they are doing the absolute best that they can with the resources they have, and that the well-being of their elephants is first and foremost in their hearts and minds.
The Phang Nga Elephant Park was not the only feel good tourism that we experienced in Southeast Asia. Public projects like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh provided powerful educational experiences that provide all kinds of eye-opening knowledge and life-altering lessons, particularly for people who grew up in parts of the world where war and poverty are problems seen on TV. The most southern point of the island of Phuket prohibited certain vendors from its premises, allowing foreigners and locals alike to enjoy an unintrusive visit to one of Thailand’s most beautiful viewpoints. Many of the hostels and restaurants that we chose to patronize were not owned by Western chains that swipe away Eastern tourism dollars, but local small business owners who are able to earn an honest and respectable living by catering to their country’s visitors.
Still, being a responsible tourist is difficult. It’s hard to know where your dollars ultimately end up and who or what those dollars are ultimately supporting. We tried to be responsible and respectful tourists during our time in Southeast Asia, and at times we almost certainly failed. But at a place like the Phang Nga Elephant Park, that task became easy, at least for a day. Phang Nga shows what the tourism industry could be—not an adversarial showdown between two parties trying to make or save a buck, but a partnership in which both parties work together to achieve common goals and do something cool.
These are the kind of feel good experiences that should be sought by all travelers who carry with them a certain sense of responsibility as they move through the world. They help us to transcend our role as tourists and become contributors to the countries that contribute so much to us through the enlightening experiences that they provide. They allow us to work in cooperation with the people and wildlife in a particular corner of the planet in hopes of making that corner a better place. In turn, these experiences also follow us home and motivate us to do better in our own country in the ways that we treat our own people and wildlife in our part of the world. Phang Nga Elephant Park certainly provided this motivation for me and my crew, and if any of us ever find ourselves back in Phuket, we will almost certainly take advantage of their open invitation to return to the park free of charge and help to care for some of the most awesome creatures that walk the planet today. If you’re looking for a similar experience, perhaps for an extended period of time, keep reading below.
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Plug: Love animals and looking for a volunteer opportunity abroad??? Phang Nga Elephant Park might be exactly what you’re looking for. Click here to email owner Jake about a potentially cost-free volunteer opportunity at their eco-friendly elephant sanctuary and provide some care to creatures that need it. The elephants will appreciate you for it.