Thai people are often seen as being big-hearted. Hardly surprising when you come to realize that all Thais have a special place in their hearts for the elephant which is called as "Chaang" in Thai language. Elephants are inextricably linked with Thailand, its traditions and culture. So much so that in 1998 the government of the day ordered that March 13th would be recognized as being Thai Elephant Day.
I've always loved elephants. As boys in the cub scouts we would sit round the campfire singing songs about all manner of beasts of the jungle (and some in the pack) and the elephant featured prominently. Brought up on a diet of Rudyard Kipling I can still recall the names of the animals that sparked my imagination: Hathi the elephant troop leader, Shere Khan the fierce tiger, Akela the wolf, and Bagheera the black panther. Ah, those were the days when you could fly round the world on a sixpence.
But back to the pachyderms. The elephant's role in life has changed dramatically down the years in this country. In ancient times, rival kings or generals would charge into battle on elephant back, as opposed to horseback; the elephant being well-suited to traversing even the most challenging terrain. This noble beast became so revered in old Siam that his image was incorporated in the national flag. The Royal Fly Whisk, part of the royal regalia collection, has the hair from an elephant's tail dating back to the days of His Majesty King Rama 1V, and symbolizes the King's obligation to ward off any danger threatening his people. Indeed, even today, His Majesty King Bhumibol owns a stable of royal elephants.
The mighty elephant was used in the logging business for many years, but sadly, when logging was made illegal, Jumbo and his mahout were made redundant. There is a dark side to the fate of the elephant in Thailand, but that deserves a story to itself.
The elephant was the perfect beast for the logging trade with the power to move many logs in a single day. British teak-wallahs in charge of logging in the vast teak forests surrounding Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, valued these beasts so much that they were careful never to work their animals during the hot season, and worked usually to a pattern of three days on, two days off.
What did the elephants do with their leisure time? I imagine they grabbed a bunch of bananas at the local market and came down to Chiang Mai to visit a people camp, one of those places where men could be seen kicking a ball around.
Perhaps that's where they got the idea to move into show business. In today's Thailand elephant camps abound where elephants can be seen performing for most appreciative audiences.
In well-run establishments, such as the Mae Sa Elephant Camp out on the Mae Rim - Samoeng Road, the animals are well fed and lovingly cared for, and they seem to enjoy performing before live audiences. I imagine the abundance of free bananas and sugar cane might have something to do with it, although most mahouts (elephant trainers) I spoke with there told me that the animals, like children, simply love to play.
During a show I attended there were young elephants playing harmonicas, others playing football-(association football, not the American variety). I think the days of seeing a pachyderm Pele might be some way off, but these little guys could shoot for goal with all four feet and their trunks as well. They play to the crowd at every opportunity, bowing and trumpeting throughout their performance, and seem to enjoy being the centre of attention. Young elephants at the Mae Sa Camp behave as do most children; some excel at sport or music, while others are into the arts in a big way. Elephant painting made world headlines a couple of years back when a group of eight Maesa elephants completed a 2.4 meter high - 12 meter wide painting to enter the Guinness World Records. These Picasso pachyderms took six hours to complete this work, entitled "Cold wind, swirling wind, charming Lanna."
Using only nontoxic acrylic paint, the elephants painted eight panels that comprised the overall work of art, taking breaks for food and water every 20 minutes.
The older animals display traditional skills of moving heavy logs with amazing ease, and are also used to take visitors to the camp on short jungle walks. I tried the latter, expecting the ride to be similar to riding a camel, but ended up agreeing with the late Jackie Kennedy Onassis that "A camel makes an elephant feel like a jet plane."
The elephants at Mae Sa Camp scoff down no less than six tons of grass, bananas and sugar cane per day. I think I'll forget that stupid diet.
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