When we visited Ayutthaya we took an elephant ride. The old city, now a world heritage site, was the capital of the Thai Kingdom from the 14th century until it was sacked by the Burmese army in the 18th century. High on the back of the elephant, beneath the ornately decorated sun umbrella, with my own mahout it was easy to imagine times past when festivals included large processions with hundreds of ornately decorated elephants and all manner of other (to the western eye) exotic creatures.
There’s quite a debate about the ethics of riding elephants. These links present both sides of the story. Would I do it again? Knowing what I know now, maybe not. Would I visit an elephant park if I had the opportunity. Yes, more than likely, especially if it promoted elephant welfare. Such things are never clear cut, not for me anyway. As a tourist how can I possibly assess the rights and wrongs of the traditions of another culture? From what I could figure out, the mahouts where we were took their responsibilities seriously.
Begging or not, legal or not, I was charmed by this baby elephant when he interrupted my breakfast in Nong Khai. It’s true what they say – its trunk was incredibly supple. He took the bamboo from my hand with all the force of a baby’s breath.
And the Saa Kaew Ku Sculpture Park sculpture park in Nong Khai, I blogged about it back in March, features a spectacular elephant statue. As I said then I often think about his dismissive attitude to the yapping criticism of the dogs baying at his feet.
So it was hardly surprising that when I saw an ornamental elephant for sale at Siam Paragon, Bangkok, I was tempted, but instead I admired him and I left him on the display shelf. He was too ornate for me. When it comes to design my tastes are towards the plain end of the spectrum: the classic look in clothes, no ruffles or lace; my furniture is wooden or leather, more country than shabby chic. It’s the same with my jewellery, one or two good pieces – definitely no bling. “Nothing Fussy” as my mother used to say. Anything I have on display in my house is there for a reason. Whether it’s kitch or artisan, mass-produced or custom-made it has a story attached to it; about where I’ve come from and where I might be going.
Generally when I travel I don’t spend a lot of time shopping but I do like to bring something home that reminds me of where I’ve been and the people I’ve met, a memento of my journey. What better than an elephant to remember Thailand? As the days went by and our departure approached I coveted him more and more, never mind that he was too fancy. His very fanciness would be a reminder of things Thai, I thought. And so I caught the sky train back to Siam Paragon on our very last night, just before closing, to claim him for myself.
Buoyed by the promises of the shop assistant that he would survive the long haul flight to NZ, I carried him home in my day pack. He sat at my feet throughout the flight. And I lugged him around Darling Harbour, Sydney while we filled in the six hours before our connecting flight to Wellington, NZ.
Now every morning I admire him and the patience, not to mention deftness, of the crafts person who hand painted his attire.
As I’ve mentioned before, in Buddhist tradition elephants are revered for their strength. White elephants even more so. According to Buddhist teachings, Maya, the mother of Buddha, dreamt that she was visited by a white elephant holding a white lotus flower in it’s trunk before becoming pregnant.
Incidentally, in Thailand all white elephants are considered the property of the King.
He reminds of me not only of my past adventures but of the importance of courage. And we all need courage, some days more than others.
For more posts on the theme of decoration visit Ailsa over on Where’s my backpack
Categories: Off-shore Adventures, Thailand
Hi Jill. Thanks for referring to our article. A fully-grown elephant can carry up to 150 kilograms on its back, but when you consider the weight of two people, the chair (it’s called a Howdah or saddle and alone can weigh 100 kilograms or more) and the mahout (who rides on the neck) you can see how this starts to be a heavy burden on the elephant. So if you really want to ride an elephant, consider riding on its neck. Elephants don’t belong in cities full stop – there are far too many examples of elephant accidents, injuries and death. There are some great local programs trying to get them off the street by providing alternative employment opportunities for their mahouts. Regards Adore Animals
Thank-you for your informative comment, Adore Animals. I fully appreciate your points, especially about elephants in the city and the risks with that. Do you have some links to programmes providing alternatives for mahouts? If so, please fell free to include them in a comment here. Sharing knowledge helps us all to be informed and make good choices.Very best wishes.
I also rode an elephant in Thailand, I know there is a lot of controversy involved but I think if we didn’t support the tourism then there would be no place for the elephants and maybe they would be a dying breed. I also bought a very small wooden elephant to remember my experience.
That’s a good point, pommepal. I think that many of the elephants would starve. Without the income from rides the mahouts would not be able to afford to feed them. I read somewhere that elephants can eat between three and five hundred kilos of food a day.
Have you read the book “Modoc” Jill? It is the true story of a boy and an elephant. Quite moving.
No I haven’t – I’ll follow that up, thank-you pommepal 🙂
Jill, its true, for up to 18 hours straight elephants can eat anywhere from 200 – 500 lbs in a single day. That is a lot of food!
Thanks for the news and views of your adventure. Would you believe we have an elephant sanctuary right here in Humboldt. TN. I will visit soon and blog about the experience.
Hi Meredith, That’s interesting – I’m looking forward to reading all about it.
I did an elephant ride in Thailand but I wouldn’t again. The place I went to seemed ethical (it was sold as such) but later I read some more reviews of the place that made me reevaluate my decision. It’s hard to know whether you’ve made the right choice sometimes so from now on if there’s even a shred of doubt I won’t do it!
Hello Dan B, It’s a tough call, isn’t it. Some of the reviews I’ve read recently said that riding them places too much strain on the elephant’s spine. I don’t know how to evaluate that one – people have been riding elephants for thousands of years.