I didn’t know how little I knew about China until I spent a month with my boyfriend’s family in a traditional Chinese home . I had what I thought was a lot of experience. I have a East Asian Studies certificate, took multiple classes on Chinese culture and politics, and did research on China.
This did not prepare me at all for a long term stay in a Chinese home that doesn’t value personal time and I paid that cultural tidbit little mind when I agreed to go on a trip to Thailand with the Nanhou Tour agency.
The Chinese tourism industry is enormous. In 2014, the China Travel Guide said, 117 people million people traveled outside of China, and when they went abroad they spent $498 billion. forty million of those traveling went through tour agencies. Tourism in China has taken off in the past twenty years, the industry is reliant on tour groups. In 2015, according to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, Thailand was the most visited country in 2015 with 8 million people. One of the problems of a Thai tourism industry that caters to the Chinese tourism industry is animal abuse, which was rampant throughout our trip. In our five day trip, animal shows were one of the main highlights. We saw four different animal shows in five days and a cultural show that included an elephant.
The first stop of our trip was a crocodile farm/zoo to watch an animal show. Circuses and live animal shows have gained a cruel reputation in the United States, but animal rights have yet to take off in China, or in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand. I was unprepared for the show where two guys poked with sticks to get the what seemed to me to be at least mildly sedated crocodiles to respond, prodded with the same stick when they didn’t respond and tried to swim away and finally they were beaten on the head to get them to perform the tricks. I couldn’t believe that animals that were supposed to be terrifying, and vicious were being sedated and beaten to keep their mouths open for a show.
My boyfriend described what was taking place as Zhi shuo- which means you have seen something so horrible and sad that it will take a couple months off of your life. I think it applies. After we left the show we walked out and there were these sedated skinny tigers in small bar cages, like the ones you see in wildlife fund ads or in films reels of the circus in like 1910.
By this time anyone could see that I was pretty upset. The liberal American culture I was raised in was a place where the Ringling Bros. should be banned and didn’t allow for animal abuse, and at that point i’d never seen anyone hit an animal. My boyfriend started talking to the guide about the show. She said that the crocodile hitting was just for the show and reassured us that Thai people are in general very friendly to animals. She also she said that only the Chinese tours go to the crocodile show, and the western tours go someplace else. This proved to be true for every other tour stop we had.
The last day we drove back to Bangkok from Pattaya. The first stop of the day was the Chiang Siam Elephant Park outside of Pattaya, a miserable, terrible place. We walked through the building that had a caged sedated tiger you can take pictures with. Then entered a large holding area that led you to a two story structure where you could ride the elephants. I immediately started getting very distressed because all the handlers had bull hooks, long sticks with pointed metal hooks that are used to beat elephants, tigers and other animals in animal shows into doing tricks and whatever the trainer wants. The elephant on the side that was chained to the ground and swaying back and forth because it couldn’t move. This elephant was there so tourists could take pictures being held by the elephant’s trunk. I was horrified. The most i’d come into contact with this type of animal abuse was awareness videos on facebook. The young couple from Hainan Island in the tour group asked my boyfriend what was wrong and he told them I thought the elephants were abused. They just kind of sadly smiled at me and moved forward with the line. Liberal guilt over animal abuse hadn’t reached them yet.
One of the reasons that Chinese tourism is so profitable is “lai dou lai le” you are already here, why not — which basically means you’ve already paid for it so you need to participate. This applies for things that aren’t actually included in the trip for which you need to pay extra, and for saying no to the already scheduled events on the tour. This manifested itself at the elephant ride. After some discussion, which was basically about how sharp the bull hooks looked, how bad the conditions of the park were and how abused the elephants must be, juxtaposed with the fact that neither of us had ever ridden an elephant and never plan ride to ride one again. Which was really a moral decision- to harm the animal or not. the immoral choice one and we joined the rest of the tour group to get our elephant.
The elephant we got was a little smaller than the others, and we set off around the loop that they do. The loop is covered in elephant feces and mud. You also go by the wooden shacks that the elephant handlers live in and then get to the main goal of the ride, taking pictures.
When we are about to get off, an elephant in front of us started to become agitated, and its handler beat it with the bull hook tip. It’s not even like it’s a little hit. He stands up on the elephant and beats several times. Then he leads the elephant away from the pack, probably to be beaten more. I cried, and everyone just smiled sadly at me. I think cried for the pain of the elephant and I couldn’t help it, I cried because I rode the elephant even though I knew it was wrong. Even I couldn’t say no to the “lai dou lai le”. I cried because I knew by joining the trip I was part of the abuse tourism taking place all throughout Thailand.