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HomeEthical travelEthical travel: end the elephant rides at Angkor
Ethical travel: end the elephant rides at Angkor

Ethical travel: end the elephant rides at Angkor

If you’ve been bitten by the travel bug like me, you’ve probably got a bucket list as long as your arm of all the amazing experiences the world has to offer.

For many developing countries in particular the tourist industry is essential to livelihoods, and it’s important to try and support local producers and businesses when you’re travelling. But in all the excitement we don’t often stop to question how ethical our tourist activities are.

I’m ashamed to admit that when we were in Cambodia I selfishly overlooked a crucial ethical issue in favour of ticking something off my bucket list.

At the Angkor temples you can take an elephant ride. Deep down I knew that I probably shouldn’t be supporting this activity as there’s a lot of ethical issues to consider around working animals, but it was so easy to get carried away in the excitement of seeing one of my favourite animals up close.


This was an incredible moment. I’d just fed the elephant a pineapple and he swallowed it whole! They’re one of my favourite animals so getting this close was amazing. However, now I know about the darker side of elephant rides I wish I’d done my research and found a more ethical way to interact with them – like visiting a sanctuary.


Elephant rides at Angkor have recently hit the headlines around the world as the death of elderly female Sambo highlighted the poor working conditions of the Angkor elephants.

Sambo had been working to provide tourist rides in a 40 degree heatwave and sadly veterinarians concluded that her death was caused by the hot temperatures which caused stress, shock, high blood pressure and a heart attack.

Several tour companies have stopped promoting elephant rides, and the charity World Animal Protection has named the activity as the top most cruel holiday activity you can do.

I’m ashamed to say that I knew elephant rides were an option before we travelled to Angkor. I could have easily researched the ethical considerations and made a decision not to take part before we got there, but I didn’t.

Once I was there I got swept up in the excitement and didn’t stop to consider whether I should take part or not. It took a heart-breaking picture of poor Sambo to pop up on my Twitter feed to make me re-consider my actions once it was too late.

Asian elephants are classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conversation of Nature, and there are around 70 domesticated elephants in Cambodia.

Elephants are incredible creatures and seeing them up close and interacting with them was an unforgettable experience – but knowing now about the poor conditions and cruel treatment they are subject to I wish I could take it back.

Unfortunately I can’t take back my elephant ride, but I can educate myself on the issues, sign the petition and help raise awareness for other travellers. Animal exploitation won’t stop unless demand stops. In future I’ll be researching the activities before I go and I’ll definitely be planning a more ethical itinerary for future trips.

If you’ve taken part in a tourist activity and later learnt about it’s less than ethical credentials, don’t beat yourself up. There’s a lot of issues to consider when it comes to living ethically, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed.

My top tip for anyone trying to travel ethically is to research as much as you can before you go. Check out the activities you want to take part in and try and find some more sustainable activities or local organisations you can support too – you never know what treasures you’ll find! (That’s actually how the idea for our business Little Lotus Boutique was born. Check out the full story here).

Have you got any tips for travelling ethically? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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