How Long Does Guilt Last?

Elephant 2012.png

This week, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of guilt when I was flicking through some old travel photos. In 2012, as a prelude to yet another volunteering stint in Cambodia, my younger sister and I visited Angkor Wat. There, we rode on an elephant around Bayon temple. We weren’t the only people to do this. In fact, it remains one of the most popular activities in Siem Reap, aside from seeing the temples themselves. But in recent years, there has been so much negative press surrounding these elephant rides and the treatment of the animals that just looking at a five-year-old photo made me feel guilty. Why? And how long will it be until I stop feeling guilty?


My actions five years ago are now in violation of my moral and ethical code. I believe animals should be treated respectfully and with dignity, well cared for and well fed. The animals forced to traipse around in blistering heat all day with ignorant tourists on their backs sadly do not receive these basic rights. The eyes of the world’s animal activists honed in on Angkor Wat in 2016 after an elephant collapsed and died of a heart attack while walking around the temple. Petitions were signed and many animal rights groups highlighted the inhumane nature of elephant rides. Some people sat up and took notice but the rides are still happening and tourists are still paying to sit astride these majestic, wild animals.


There are two popular routes for these rides: around Bayon temple and up a hill opposite Angkor Wat itself to watch the sunset. However, there are also a number of sanctuaries in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces, such as the Mondulkiri Project who are working hard to educate locals and foreigners about the dangers of elephant riding for the animals themselves and rescuing working elephants from the companies who continue to offer elephant rides.


Every time I go to Siem Reap I see people riding elephants. And I look at them disparagingly and think “don’t you know what that animal suffers every day for you to complete your bucket list item?” Except I was no better five years ago. The simple fact that I once rode an elephant, supported this industry and put an animal at risk makes me feel guilty every time I think about it. But why? What is guilt?


Guilt is an emotion which is generally categorised as negative. Putting aside Freud’s explanation of guilt which, typically, focuses on sex, guilt can be seen as an emotion we experience when we think we have caused harm in some way. We feel it, therefore, when we believe ourselves to be directly or indirectly responsible for the misfortune of someone or something else. There are actually five types of guilt, according to psychologists:

1.         Guilt for something you did

2.         Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to

3.         Guilt for something you think you did

4.         Guilt that you didn’t do enough

5.         Guilt that you’re doing better than someone else (survivor’s guilt)


In the case of the elephant ride, I am certainly suffering from the first on this list. I feel guilty for my actions. For paying in support of, let’s face it, animal cruelty. For climbing onto the back of an animal who really didn’t want me on it. For sitting there oblivious to the discomfort of the elephant as we strolled around Bayon, taking photos without a care in the world. I am guilty of thoughtlessness.


Now, however, perhaps I’m thinking too much. What happened to that elephant? Is it still working? What condition is it in? Is there anything I can do to help? Could my good deed of the day be donating to a charity working to rescue these beautiful animals? Yes. Will that act assuage my guilt? Probably not. When you feel guilt for something you know is wrong and you know you cannot directly make right (I can never go back in time and un-ride that elephant), the emotion will never truly fade. All we can do is learn to live with it and atone for our actions in other ways.


In 2015, my parents and I travelled to the Mondulkiri Project and spent time with the elephants in their natural habitat, fed them food and helped to bathe them in the river. The elephants were free to walk off whenever they wished and indeed they did. They were relaxed, happy and well taken care of. I feel no guilt at all for having taken part in this activity and the fee we paid for the experiences goes directly towards helping save more elephants. If you want an experience with elephants which doesn’t make you feel guilty, contact an ethical elephant sanctuary and enquire into their services. The same goes for big cats, bears and other exploited animals.


Go, do, experience. More Good Deeds.


Mondulkiri Elephant