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Thailand may be a country steeped in superstitious and supernatural beliefs, but Friday the 13th, March was just another day in the Land of Smiles. Unlike Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and eating junk food, the superstition surrounding Friday the 13th is one Western concept that has failed to gain a foothold in Thailand. However, it was a day of significance for one group of Thais.

Friday the 13th of March was Thai Elephants Day, although, even if you live in Thailand, you could have been forgiven for missing it.

The iconic but often neglected and abused Asian elephant is a national symbol of Thailand. It is a source of national pride to some Thais and a source of personal income to others. As such, it is both revered and exploited in equal measures. The sight of a herd of wild elephants gathering at a watering hole is a magnificent spectacle; the sight of a solitary pachyderm being led through the choking night traffic of Bangkok is not.

There are some 3,000 wild elephants living in the forests of Thailand, and while they live happily and free of danger for now, there is growing concern among some conservationists that this is a situation heading for change.

The Permanent Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, Saksit Tridech, told the Bangkok Post that falling birth rates among Thailand’s captive elephant populations may see them die out within 14 years. He went on to warn that this would result in a return to the poaching of wild elephants to meet the high demand.

Thailand has had captive elephants as long as it has been a nation. Currently there are estimated to be 2,400 and while they were originally beasts of war, they also served an important function in construction, logging and agriculture. One by one their roles in these trades have been replaced by machines, which suggests to me that the demand for captive elephants may not be as great as Saksit believes.

However, during the dry season, up to 200 elephants are to be found being paraded around the streets of Bangkok by their owners in search of an income. The vast majority of the beasts are brought from Thailand’s elephant capital, Surin, in the country’s north east.

Surin is famous in Thailand as the home of the annual elephant round up and festival held over 4 days in November each year and for the nearby elephant village where elephants perform in shows. I have never been to the elephant round up, but I did visit the village once as part of my sister-in-law’s wedding day.

As an Englishman, there was some conflict of opinion about the show. The animal lover in me felt that it was morally wrong to train animals for human entertainment. It always angers me to see elephants being paraded around the heavily polluted central business districts of Bangkok so that the owners can sell bananas or sugar cane to tourists at ridiculous prices for them to then feed to the elephants. However, at the elephant village in Surin, the air is clean, the animals are kept in large corrals and they appear to be well looked after, apart from the trick training.

Training elephants in Thailand is a part of the culture that dates back centuries to when they were used for agricultural purposes or as war beasts. The show is just a case of adapting to changing circumstances. Tractors have replaced agricultural elephants, and tourists have replaced invading Burmese. My internal moral debate settled, I opened up to my cultural lesson of the day.

At the village, there is a small show arena with crude terraced seating on two sides. We took the main stand and settled down ready for the performance.

First up was a simple parade, with about ten elephants walking tail in trunk around the arena. Next, two young pachyderms climbed onto large elephant stools, first standing on their hind legs, and then performing a kind of hand stand on their front legs. The Surin elephants are partial to some games and sport it seems, and the next act was elephant darts, with one of the creatures trying to pop balloons on a board by launching darts at them. This was followed by more young elephants, this time playing trunk hoola-hoop while they elegantly changed position from sitting to standing to balancing on their front legs. Regardless of what you think of animal shows, it was an extraordinary display of strength and agility by such large yet graceful creatures.

It was now time for the audience to get involved. A Thai girl, looking decidedly nervous, was ushered forward by her friends. She was then cradled in an elephant’s trunk much to her friends’ delight and her chagrin. One of our party was next to volunteer, and she had the dubious pleasure of laying face down in the middle of the arena while an elephant patted her backside with its foot. Three of our party followed and took up a similar position. They were lined up a few metres apart and a walking elephant stepped carefully over them.

On came the big boys, with older and larger elephants taking part in a spot of football. For the record, England beat Germany 5-0 on penalties. Next The Surin Globetrotters gave a demonstration of basketball skills, and the show ended with the obligatory feeding of bananas to the elephants by the crowd. No elephants were hurt during the performance, although one seemed a tad upset at not getting its fair share of the bananas.

Elephant trekking is another activity popular with tourists. It’s possible to ride an elephant at dozens of places around Thailand. My first experience was on a hiking trek in Chiang Mai.

We arrived at a village to find the elephants being washed in a stream and saddled up. I paired up with a Canadian named Dave and we mounted our pachyderm ready to be majestically transported through the jungle.

It was a rough ride. Sitting in the platform seat saddle (or whatever it’s called), you are swayed relentlessly from side to side as the animal lurches along. I would certainly not call it the most comfortable ride I have ever had but after taking up the opportunity to sit on the elephant’s head briefly, I was quickly back in the saddle. It’s a long way down from the head to the ground, and when the elephant decides to lean out over a sheer drop to snap off a leaf to chew, it feels like you are being tested by the world’s biggest practical joker.

Elephants are truly majestic creatures, but they make lousy taxis.

Paul Snowdon – March 15, 2009

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