We did and didn't want to see the elephants around Chiang Mai. You can't walk 100 metres around the central city without seeing adverts for elephant interactions - apparently there are something like 70 elephant tourism operators in northern Thailand. On the one hand, who wouldn't want to get up close and personal with some gorgeous, enormous, hopefully friendly pachyderms? But the ethics are worrying and complex and there's a lot of information and misinformation around when you try to make a good decision. (If you want a much better discussion of the issues around elephant tourism than I can give, I recommend this article from The Atlantic: www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/483138/)
But in brief: once logging was banned in Thailand in 1989, the captive elephants that were a big part of the logging trade were out of a job. No job, no food. Elephants are critically endangered and about about half of Thailand's elephants live in captivity. They are expensive to feed (they eat about 250kg of leaves and stuff a day, at a cost for owners of about $US1000 a month) and there isn't enough jungle remaining to support them all. In the wild there is also the problem of poaching, and of elephants getting into trouble by straying into villages and eating crops or damaging property.
The answer? There isn't one, but experts seem to suggest that while elephant tourism isn't ideal, done properly it is one solution to how to bring in money to keep captive elephants fed and healthy.
So the next question is: What is "properly" and how to chose an ethical operator?
Again there's lots of literature, but no simple answer. We chose an organisation (Chai Lai Orchid) that says it hires almost exclusively Karen ethnic people as its mahoots and workers, and puts money back into the local community. It rents its elephants (and their mahoots/trainers?) from less scrupulous tourism operators - ones that keep them in bad conditions and allow chair riding. (The latter is when two or three people sit on the back of the elephant in a sort of cage thing - like you see in the pictures from the time of the Raj - which apparently causes nasty sores on the elephants.) In fact, Chai Lai Orchid doesn't encourage even bareback riding.
But what if the less scrupulous operators then go off and replace the elephants being rented out to nice operators by poaching them from the jungle in Myanmar? As I said, it's not easy.
However, we made our decision (right or wrong) and out the three of us went to the Karen tribal area in the back of a fire truck taxi. It took about an hour.
The first impression: shock to find the elephants chained in a clearing - we weren't expecting chains - funnily enough the operators don't mention that in the spiel on their websites. Though if I had read the Atlantic article before we went I would have been less surprised. The operators argue that without chains how are you to keep the mahoots, the tourists and the locals safe from a group of 5000-kg eating machines with unpredictable tempers? We discovered the elephants are also kept chained at night, but the chains are longer.
As promised by Chai Lai Orchid, the (human) group was small (just us) and we were given bags of bananas and introduced to the 11 elephants, all females and ranging from 50-year-old ex-logging elephants to toddlers. All the elephants were enthusiastically interested in our bananas and happy to do what it took (photos with tourists, lifting their trunks on command, sneaking into your banana bag when you weren't looking) to separate tourists from bananas. It felt much like dogs with treats or children with lollies. It was undoubtedly a wonderful experience (for us).
Then the three of us Mandow/Goddens, plus three (now unchained) elephants, three mahoots and an English-speaking guide went for a wander in the jungle. Again the elephants appeared very cheerful, interested largely in maximum eating along the way, and getting bananas off us whenever possible. If you think it's hard to resist when a cat looks at you imploringly while you're eating dinner, try ignoring an elephant's silent pleas as she pushes her trunk in your direction in a cute "I know you've got a banana in there" fashion.
After our walk, we went down to the river and two baby elephants were brought down for a bath. They lay down in the water, we climbed in too and scrubbed them with sand and water. In return, they sprayed us liberally with water from their trunks - on command from the mahoots. They appeared to be happy - playful even, though I'm not sure if I could tell if an elephant was a bit grumpy. (On the other hand, I suspect you can tell if an elephant is very grumpy!) The mahoots didn't use sticks or chains, just voice commands.
We took lots of touristy photos. It was a wonderful day.
I still have no idea if we did the right thing.