I took the overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok for my final day in Thailand. I was asked to visit one more location before leaving the country so I hopped on the train, back in the direction I had just come.
The Elephant Palace, also known as the Elephant Village in Ayutthaya, is a blazing symbol of what has become of Thailand’s revered elephants. Reduced to a tourist attraction with no resemblance of their true selves, blanketed elephants are paraded in crowded lines, laden with smiling tourists.
I will admit this experience, and the life these elephants are subjected to, hits an all time low for Thailand. Advertised as a historical experience on elephant back, riders are treated to a ride on a gravel road flanked by idling tour buses spewing smelly diesel fumes.
At the end of the 100-yard gravel road, the elephant is directed back to the loading platform. On the left stand the ruins, but towering tour buses blocked the riders’ view.
The elephants became jumpy as tour buses drove within inches of their backside. Mahouts responded by turning the skittish elephant to face the offender, allowing the diesel spewing machine to pass.
The elephants I saw were suffering from a variety of physical conditions, including:
- a severely deformed wrist consistent with injuries caused by logging accidents
- abscessed cheek
- stiff wrists
- injured back legs
- fresh wounds on the forehead
All this I observed in the first five minutes of my visit. It was difficult to remain longer.
On my way out I went to the stable area, located feet from the riding platform. There I found another 25 elephants chained by neck and feet, saddled and ready for work. One mahout showered his saddled/blanketed elephant. She was dosing, eyes closed, never acknowledging her mahout or the shower. Another young female paced and pulled on her chain. When tourists barged in with armfuls of sugarcane the elephants grabbed for the food. Mahouts stood by observing the activity.
Knowing that The Elephant Village had another facility where other elephant stayed until they were needed for rides, I found a taxi driver to take me to the kraal. This facility is not advertised and, in fact, several people denied that elephants live at the facility. I was warned that I would encounter the denial so I persevered. I was traveling with a friend and we finally found a driver who agreed to drive us there. Even then we were dropped off at a site down the road from our target destination. We could see the stables in the distance. When the driver saw us walking in the right direction he reappeared and drove us to the stables.
A group of volunteers wearing mahout training t-shirts were gathered around two elephants in washing racks. They were scrubbing elephants, receiving instructions from a foreigner who appeared to be in charge of this mahout training experience, one of the many ways tourists can engage with elephants. Interestingly, I did not see a Thai mahout anywhere near the mahout-in-training foreigners.
All around stood tethered elephants, tied to posts adjacent to or under shade stables. I wandered around a corner trying to avoid the piles of trash that were so uncharacteristic of Thailand. Every type of broken machinery and equipment was scattered and piled on the property, including a tanker truck stuck in a mud hole. A lone tusker stood in the sun tethered next to the tanker; head hanging, eyes half open. There was not a speck of food or even remains of any food around him. His long tusks dug into the soft mud. Except for a wasted effort to cool himself with a spray of water collected from a reserve stored down his throat, he stood motionless.
The scene was one of poverty. Encircling a yard of muck stood the mahouts’ dilapidated dwellings, littered with empty beer bottles and trash. This was not the scene I had observed in other places in Thailand. I wondered who was responsible for this depressing environment.
Even though I wished my final experience of Thailand could have been more pleasant, reality is a powerful motivator. I will be back.