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The Elephant Not in the Room


The role of Thailand's elephants has evolved over the years, from a cultural icon and symbol of power to a component of war, a tool in the logging industry and, finally, a part of the tourism industry.

The people of Thailand are gracious, self-effacing individuals. They revere their king — perhaps to a fault — respect one another courteously, welcome visitors to their country amiably and seem untroubled by the political unrests in their country.

Like all Buddhists, they respect animals, particularly the elephant — white elephants, especially, have long been national and cultural icons in Thailand. The number of white elephants the king possessed symbolized his “great honor, power and success.” Until 1917 the national flag (of what was then called Siam) was actually a white elephant on a red background. The special white elephants in the Royal Kraal in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya were venerated and given special diets and medical supervision just as members of the royal concubine were treated in other ancient countries.

Interestingly enough, it is said that, because the care of white elephants was so involved and lavish, monarchs would sometimes make a gift of one to court officials who displeased them knowing the expense would ruin them and drive them out of the court. Hence the expression that something “was a white elephant!”

Then something happened to the legends of the Thai elephant: elephants’ roles changed from a cultural icon to an essential component in war, then a tool in the logging industry of Thailand and, finally, a symbol in the tourism industry.

The t-shirt shops surround tourists but even today the images show respect — though not the fawning worship by court members seen in ancient tapestries.

Different sources give conflicting numbers, but there are probably 1,000 elephants in the zoos of the world. A century ago Thailand had 100,000 elephants, but recent counts suggest only about 5,000 Asian elephants

which are smaller than the African ones

exist in this country today

(2,700 domesticated and perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 in the wild)


The Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), 60 miles north of Bangkok, is now supported by the Thai government, but it was started 20 years ago by a wealthy businessman, Kukrit Kharwlamai, who told us, “I bought an elephant for my daughter for her seventh birthday and it grew on me.”

TECC is not a tourist trap and is off the normal swing through the country that visitors usually take. In contrast to places that exploit elephants, the TECC is widely respected by the Thai government and visitors. TripAdvisor has accolades from Americans who have found their way there.

Our baby elephant is using its trunk to smell what visitors are up to. Their trunk, a fusion of the nose and the upper lip, “is sensitive enough to pick up a single blade of grass, yet strong enough to rip the branches off a tree.” We can’t see behind us but an elephant can survey the rear with its trunk, seen here checking out our mahout, our driver (bottom right). At TECC elephants get shampoos at the center but seemingly enjoy the river baths more.

In the early days of the TECC, there were fewer elephants and they formed their own social mix. Kukrit liked to give them a tidbit in the morning and, before long, an essential part of the elephants’ day was to wander past the owner’s lodge as if to wish him good morning.

They are intelligent animals — and seemingly artistic. Two Russian-born eccentric American conceptual artists and musicians, Komar and Melamid, not only taught Thai elephants to paint but wrote a book, When Elephants Paint, about their successes.

Popular attractions for visitors at the TECC are performances for tourists where the elephants are in facepaint or the widely acceptable, but more expensive, elephant ride.

Elephants also have a sense of fun. By the river a mahout is washing his elephant, which is almost completely submerged. As it starts to come up to dry off, our elephant follows what seems to be his ritual of “dip, suck and shoot!”

Elephants are well treated in most compounds in Thailand. In the TECC, the elephants are treated well because they are enjoyed and loved. Elsewhere, they may be looked after because they are valuable: A young female will sell for more than $20,000.

The sauntering pace of our elephant contrasts to the intensity of the scene we pass that commemorates the elephant in war.

There is an oddity about the Thais: They have fought their historical wars with such fury, yet welcome visitors and friends with the wai, the pressed hands, the bow and their ever-present smile in this country that has been called “The Land of 65 Million Smiles.”

Read more:

Elephanta Island, India: A UNESCO Heritage Site

Mattancherry Palace: Almost a UNESCO Heritage Site

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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