Phajaan is everything that is wrong with elephant tourism.
We’ve known for years that elephant tourism is a typically unethical concept, Phajaan is pretty much the reason why. Put simply, Phajaan is the process of breaking an elephant’s spirit and crushing their soul. Phajaan literally means crushing in Thai. It’s a form of sustained and endless torture designed to bend a baby elephant to the will of the humans who have captured them.
Phajaan originated from Thai hilltribe communities living in the areas where Asian elephants roamed freely for centuries. The process was usually carried out by tribe shamans who aimed to separate the elephant’s soul from their body and then allow them to be controlled by their human owners. In reality, there is no spirituality to this process at all.
Phajaan in Reality
The truth of the matter is that the elephants appear to be willing to follow commands but only because they are terrified of being tortured or hurt again. The intensity and ferocity of Phajaan depends on the mahout or the captor. The lower their moral compass and the more willing they are the subject horrors onto an animal, the worse it is.
Most young calves, for the Phajaan to be effective, need to be removed from their mother before they are 3 years old. At this age, the calf is considered too young to be separated and this process alone will lead to long lasting mental damage.
The elephants go through this process due to the demands of the tourism industry. They’re needed for trekking or for circus style acts. As time passes, fewer people are visiting unethical elephant camps, but there are still thousands and thousands each year. As long as people visit and give money to these camps, the practice will still exist.
What is the process of Phajaan?
This isn’t a pleasant read, so be warned. From the moment that a baby elephant is captured it is placed into a Phajaan cage, or crush cage. This is a cage designed to be too small for the elephant to stand in and they have their legs bound together and stretched. Throughout this time they are stabbed with sharp tools and hooks, beaten and screamed at. They will also be deprived of sleep, starved and given only enough water to survive.
The hooks used by the riders and captors will be introduced during this time. The hook is stabbed into the head and slashed across the skin. Their ears will also be ripped and torn using the hook.
After days and weeks without relent, the elephant is broken and desperate. After this stage they are introduced to the person who will become their handler, their Mahout. It is this person, who has been complicit in the process, who will release the elephant from the cage, bring them their first meal and give them water. The elephant, sadly, sees this human as their savior and trusts them. That said, many mahouts still beat their elephants as a reminder of their place.
An elephant never forgets.
Elephant memories have been scientifically proven to be on a similar level to humans, therefore this level of abuse will stay with the elephant long into adulthood. It should, however, be noted that not every elephant you see in Thailand will have gone through this process.
Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand
Luckily, in the modern era of Thai tourism there are, now, many ethical elephant camps that you can visit. Many of them rescue elephants from the Phajaan process and some take care of elephants born in captivity. These camps are well worth a visit and are definitely worthy of your support. If you’re visiting Thailand and love animals, we highly recommend giving rescued and rehabilitated elephants some TLC on our ethical elephant sanctuary tour in Chiang Mai.