You don’t have to be a cowboy-wannabe to find the idea of riding exotic animals around the world enticing. After all, it’s not everyday you get a chance to climb on the back of an elephant or a water buffalo, right?
You’re already making some great travel memories on your trip, and this is just another chance to add to that tally – not to mention get a few interesting travel photos in the process. If horseback riding just isn’t enough to get your blood going, here are some of the animals you can ride around the world.
Ride a Water Buffalo in Vietnam
In Vietnam, and throughout much of Asia, water buffalo have long been (and remain) a typical farm animal for many families – like cows or chickens are to farms in other countries. For tourists, however, the opportunity to ride what looks like an animal you’d see in a zoo somewhere can be really tempting. The locals might think you’re a little wacky for wanting to ride their livestock, but if you’re willing to pay them for the chance then they’ll probably minimize their laughing until after you’ve left.
The Mekong Delta region of Vietnam is a good target destination if you’re intent on riding a water buffalo, and you should know that if you’re in the Philippines when the idea to ride one strikes you, the animal may be called a Carabao. Whatever it’s called, when it starts to move, hang on.
Ride an Ostrich in South Africa
The concept of riding a bird might just be the pinnacle of weirdness, but in South Africa you can easily arrange to hop on the back of an ostrich for a crazy spin around a corral. In the Little Karoo region you’ll find the town of Oudtshoorn, which is famous for having the world’s biggest population of ostrich.
As you might imagine, the big birds do end up on many a local dinner plate, but if you prefer the idea of interacting with nature while it’s still alive then head for one of the many ostrich farms in the area that offers ostrich rides.
Riding an ostrich is inelegant (to put it mildly), and although the ride will typically last no more than a minute or so you may feel the effects of the bird’s spastic movements for quite awhile. Make sure you get all the necessary tips from the ostrich handlers about how to stay on the bird before they remove its blindfold. Because by that point, you probably won’t be able to pay attention to anything other than holding on for dear life.
Ride a Camel in Egypt
Some call it one of the world’s biggest tourist traps, but riding a camel in Egypt is still on many travelers’ to-do lists. The good news is that a quick spin on the back of a camel is really easy to accomplish – and if you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous, you can also arrange for multi-day camel treks into the desert.
Almost anywhere around the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, you’ll find camel wranglers poised to get you on one of their charges so you can get your picture taken. But here’s a fair warning to anyone who must have this photo in their album – be prepared to pay a hefty price for it. Some tourists have been so eager to get onto the camel that they haven’t negotiatied the price in advance. Then the camel guide doesn’t let them dismount until they’ve paid some exorbitant fee. Others report that even though they agreed to a price before climbing on board, the camel guide then led them far away from their tour bus (and tour guide) and demanded more money before they’d take them back.
Although these shady practices are less common now than they once were, your best bet is still to have your trusted tour guide arrange a camel ride for you rather than approaching a camel keeper outside the Pyramids. Fortunately, those of you who are interested in a longer camel trek can generally book these in advance of your trip with companies that have good reputations.
Ride a Llama in the United States
If you’ve ever seen a llama up close, you’ll know that they’re not the burliest of animals. Although you can probably easily picture an elephant or a horse carrying an average-sized human being on its back, that idea just seems cruel when you’re looking at something the size of a llama. So it shouldn’t be surprising that llamas are really only suitable as either light pack animals or as riding animals for small children.
In some of the U.S. National Parks, including Yellowstone, there are llama-packing trips you can go on where the llamas are enlisted to carry some of your equipment. But if you’re traveling with the wee ones (and the llamas are agreeable), there’s nothing like the look in a child’s eyes when she sees the world from the back of a furry four-legged creature. Even more memorable is the look of terror in that same kid’s eyes when the llama decides that it’s had enough of being your beast of burden.
Ride a Yak in China
Like the water buffalo, the yak is an animal not uncommon in several parts of Asia where it’s used primarily as a pack animal. But any animal that big is bound to have a saddle thrown on its back at some point, whether by locals who just get tired of walking or by tourists who just think it’s fun. In China, it’s possible to take a quick ride on a yak as part of a trip to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain near Lijiang in the Yunnan province.
The area around Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Park includes mountains (obviously), gardens, and wide streams – and it’s at these streams where the yaks come in. You can hop on the animal’s back to get across the water in order to keep your feet dry, and get a great photo in the process. And the best news of all is that these animals generally move slowly enough that the ride won’t make you, umm, yak. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
Ride an Elephant in Thailand
One of the most popular things to do during a trip to Thailand is to ride an elephant. Like most of the other animal riding opportunities on this list, you can choose a quick on-off photo-op or you can go for something a bit more adventurous and actually go on an elephant safari. And while the cost of a multi-day elephant trek is going to be higher than a simpler half-day excursion, you’d be surprised at how affordable these treks can be.
Generally speaking, your best bet for riding an elephant is around Khao Sok National Park, Chiang Mai, or Phuket Island – and because each of those destinations offers its own set of great sight-seeing, you’ll have to read about your options in each place to choose where you want to go. And be sure to wear clothing you don’t mind getting wet, as you’re likely to get sprayed by the elephants when they go through water – nevermind that they’re supposed to keep you high above the water in the first place.
Ride a Giant Tortoise in Kenya
Like the llama, a giant tortoise isn’t immediately going to conjure up the image of “beast of burden.” But these oversized aquarium creatures are plenty big and sturdy enough to give a small kid a few minutes of entertainment – albeit at a very slow pace.
At the the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy in (you guessed it) Kenya, where the goal is rescue and return wild animals to their natural habitat, there’s an Aldabra Giant Tortoise who’s a permanent resident. Her name is “Speedy,” and she’s also the oldest animal at the conservancy.
Perhaps the best part of letting your child hop on Speedy’s back is that they’ll never look at those tiny turtles back home the same way again.
Ride a pony that’s painted to look like a zebra in China
When you’re thinking of animals it would be logical to think about riding, you’d probably think first of animals that look like horses, right? So it seems reasonable that riding a zebra would be not only possible but common, right? Well, just because something “seems reasonable” (or because that something was the subject of a childrens’ movie) doesn’t mean it is reasonable. Let that be a lesson to us all.
I spent some time hunting online for places where you can ride zebras, but got nowhere. But after my fruitless searches, I was sent this glorious piece of ridiculousness. Evidently, a park in China painted black stripes on a white pony, called it a “zebra,” and charged people to get their picture taken riding it.
And if that’s not brilliant enough, we have the “zebra” feeder’s reply when he was asked if it was, in fact, a real zebra: “It’s from Africa. What do you call it, if it’s not a zebra?” Umm, I have some ideas…
In all seriousness…
As an animal lover, I can’t finish this article without reminding all you travelers to be aware of the treatment of the animals you’ll encounter around the world. For instance, not all elephant safari companies are created equally – some mistreat their elephants, while others use some of their profits to aid sick elephants. You won’t always be able to determine the moral standards of the people who are handling the animals you’re thinking of riding, but often a little research is all it takes to weed out the bad apples. And if you’ve got any doubts, don’t give in to temptation. No photograph on an animal’s back is worth the heartache of knowing you’re contributing to animal abuse, after all.
And while I think most of you are going to be intelligent enough not to need this additional warning, I still somehow feel compelled to urge you – for the love of gawd, people – not to fancy yourself some kind of zebra-whisperer who’s going to tame whatever random wild beasts you see in your travels. If you’re going to ride an exotic animal, do it where such actions are sanctioned and organized. I’d hate to think of you chasing down a giraffe with a lasso or trying to wrestle a saddle onto an alligator.
About the Author
BootsnAll writer Jessica Spiegel was born on a horse farm in Connecticut and was one of those little girls who actually had her very own pony. She’s still got a deep and abiding love of horses and animals in general, although her current batch of fur creatures – which consists of three cats – isn’t really keen on the idea of being ridden. Jessica writes BootsnAll’s Italy Travel Guide.
photo credits: buffalo picture by Jesse Gardner, ostrich picture by Salem Elizabeth, camel picture from Sara Swanberg, llama picture by Chadica, yak picture by (salian), elephant picture by Rachel and Aaron, giant tortoise picture by Chuckupd, “zebra” picture from What’s the Crack