My response was immediate and positive. I was to join a diverse group of influencers and journalists for an incredible three days’ learning from vets, elephant welfare specialists and those working in elephant tourism and rehabilitation fields.
Let me introduce you to vlogger Christopher, photographer James and Insta Kate. Each has a passion for storytelling and sharing their experiences in Thailand on their social media channels in their creative and unique ways.
‘Overall this trip was a mix of incredible moments, differing views, eye-opening learning experiences and life long memories. I was very happy to learn how Thailand’s plans to change and better the lives of domestic elephants.’ – Kate
You couldn’t miss Instagram’s Go Where Kate Goes. Amongst a sea of dark-haired women, Kate’s bright blond hair and curly whirly eyelashes greet you across a crowded room, along with her genuine Canadian girl-next-door smile. As we gather at Lampang Airport ready for a day of tourism, temples and elephants, Kate is the only one in a floaty skirt, and with a split in the side at that.
This is the first time I’ve been on a TAT trip with an InstaQueen and I’m fascinated to see her at work.
During the week Kate works for an on-line English language school for children. Her emerging Insta stardom has materialised with part-time effort and eye-catching photos, encouraging others to go where Kate goes.
Kate is fun, and although I’m old enough to be her mother, we bond amongst the spirit-trees when I offer to take her photo. Kate has all the moves. A quick flick of the hair, a back turn with an over the shoulder glance, and with every click of the camera, a spontaneous and cute pose. The camera loves Kate.
She generously offers to reciprocate and photograph me, and I try to copy her moves but I look awkward and clunky! Kate, by day two, cleverly upgrades herself to the video creator talents of Christopher Lau of and the exquisite photography of James.
Christopher and James have between them nearly 100 K of followers and there is nothing they don’t know about getting a captivating photo, even with enthusiastic elephants desperate for their first fix of sugar cane for the day!
The guys stood out at Don Mueang Airport for having all the right gear. Christopher with his ‘that ain't a cheap video camera’ - a Panasonic GH5 with a fluffy pro microphone on top, his DJI Mavic 2 Zoom drone and a fittingly named Go Pro Hero 7 packed ready for action.
James, the quieter reflective, photographer with his camera equipment, a Samsung S20+, Note20 and Fiji xe3 camera.
‘I had an opportunity to spend a few days with elephants in Chiang Mai. I have learned a lot of things. For me, I understand that Thailand and elephants are long time partners. Elephants were used in fighting battles with enemies in the old war, and in the logging Industry, therefore elephants become the national animal of Thailand.
‘But when the time changes, everything changes.
‘Foreigners love to come to Thailand because it is a beautiful country and they can have new experiences like riding an elephant. Therefore, those images become the must-do lists when you visit Thailand.
However, now I think it is time to change those images and remove them from our tourism dreams’ – James
He still recalls the tricky conversation with his Hong Kong Chinese Dad back in 2017 telling him he was going to can his career at LinkedIn to travel the world.
Today he is a full-time YouTube travel blogger and content creator with over 50 videos on Thailand alone. His portfolio of previous work includes work at elephant sanctuaries, in Thailand and in Laos. You might think a pandemic and a newborn son might have slowed Christopher down? Far from it, he’s now in hot demand for family adventures.
‘Elephant riding has been a part of the Thai culture for hundreds of years, however, caring for and maintaining their well-being for the greater future is on Thailand’s radar.
Do YOUR part, and please do research before you decide to ride or partake in any type of animal tourism. Just a little research might change your decision for a brighter future! ‘- Christopher
James - ‘I’m just a guy who is passionate about photography’ - is Thai with an international upbringing. He too was educated in the US before taking off to study in Japan. He has been taking photos for four years and became serious when on a trip to Osaka his friend suggested he put some of his photos on Instagram. The world loves his photos, with nearly 35,000 followers. His clients have included Mercedes-Benz, Mandarin Oriental, Samsung and Air Asia to name a few.
There is an air of excitement amongst us all. We know how fortunate we are to roam free in Thailand, something not lost on us when looking at the plight of domesticated elephants. We are also appreciative to have been offered this opportunity and feel the responsibility to share our experiences and what we learnt.
It’s a complex situation, in Thailand elephants moved from the wild into warfare, into logging and into tourism. Wild elephant numbers are decreasing, as are their natural habitats. Elephant tourism has had its fair share of criticism over the years. Images of cruel training, inhumane conditions and sad elephants fill social media.
The dilemma is that Thailand’s elephant tourism does pay for the upkeep of the 3600+ captive elephants, some of whom are now third or fourth generation ‘domesticated’ elephants. It’s a tough, tough world out there without the tourists’ baht for people and elephants. World Animal Protection is urging travellers to find tourism opportunities that priorities elephant welfare.
These photos were taken at the following elephant sanctuaries:
Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, Lampang
A government-run centre and elephant hospital.
‘Elephant tourism is wildly popular in Thailand and many come here just to see the elephants. It is important we make sure we visit them ethically. It is good to know that Thailand understands this and is beginning the work to ensure healthy and happy lives for the elephants' - James @Jmspht
Kanta Elephant Sanctuary Chiang Mai
A new dimension of seeing, feeling and touching the elephants in the wild open space.
‘I chose this photo to show how intimate you can be with the elephants at a sanctuary. I like that these sanctuaries allow you to interact closely but in a way that is respectful to elephants. It was so much fun feeding them’ - Go where Kate Goes
Patara Elephant Farm, Chiang Mai
A rescue, recovery, reproduction and reintroduction back to the wild centre for elephants with education and meaningful tourism sharing.
‘The mahouts at Patara really let the elephants walk around and have some freedom. This photo clearly shows how majestic elephants are. They are happily grazing in the field and to me it shows them off more in a natural habitat’ - Go where Kate Goes
I reflect that TAT has a golden opportunity to develop an ongoing working relationship with these Influencers who, let’s face it, would be off travelling the world if the borders were open.
There was a beautiful, supportive camaraderie amongst all the Influencers keen to obtain the best images to raise awareness and discuss elephant care issues directly with their followers. They are articulate, interested and not afraid to speak up on the delicate issue of elephant tourism.
‘I learnt that it isn't easy releasing them into the wild. These elephants for centuries have been around people and it takes great preparation to release them back to nature. This is a long process and will take time before we notice colossal changes, ones important to Thailand’- Go Where Kate Goes
‘Elephant riding is cultural, it will not disappear whilst there is the demand. However, your tourist money can help control elephant tourism and in this respect, we are all Influencers. Educate yourself, and select ethical elephant centres. Through this, we can hopefully drive out the bad and support those who have prioritised elephant welfare’- Christopher See Lau Travel
Thanks to Kate @gowherekategoes, Christopher Lau @seelautravel and James @jmspht for their contributions to this article.
Little Wandering Wren is a Bangkok Blogger and Content Creator bringing you her light-hearted birds-eye view of life in Thailand. More can be found at www.littlewanderingwren.com