Riding Elephants in Ayutthaya, Thailand
The Ethics Surrounding Captive Elephants
The ethics surrounding captive elephants in Thailand are complex. Many are indeed treated cruelly. Of the less than 5,000 native elephants in Thailand, over 4,000 are in captivity. With the use of elephants for logging banned since the late 1980s, mahouts (elephant handlers) have become increasingly dependent upon the tourist dollar to earn enough money to feed themselves and their animals.
The tour offering the elephant ride we took had been chosen by our cruise line, who exclusively uses a single group of handlers to ensure the elephants are well cared for. To my (inexpert) eye the animals looked healthy, had a good supply of water, and did only short rides with regular breaks. And, in addition to the treats we were allowed to give them, there was a supply of food to keep them going during the day.
Riding an Elephant
After we climbed a small platform, our elephant walked alongside, and some-what awkwardly we shimmied into a brightly coloured seat, complete with decorated canopy. Images from the Days of the Raj leapt to mind.
As I watched the other elephants I saw the colourful seats on their back sway with every step, yet our ride felt smooth and effortless. The heat and humidity of the day were no longer a problem.
In contrast to my scramblings, the barefoot mahouts mount their beasts in a jiffy. After the elephant delicately raises a foot, the mahout uses this as a step and in but a moment sits cross-legged on the animal’s neck, turning round to chat and point out the highlights as our elephant tiptoed her way along the streets.
Some seventy kilometres north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya was founded around 1350, becoming the capitol of the Siam Kingdom. An island seated at the confluence of three rivers, it quickly became a major trading port, and by the 16th century had grown to be one of the largest, and wealthiest, cities in the Orient. The court of King Narai (1656-88) developed strong links with the court of Louis XIV, whose ambassadors compared the size and wealth of the city to Paris – some estimate that by 1700 Ayutthaya was the largest city in the world, with over one million inhabitants.
Dutch and French reports of the 18th century portray a grand city, with large palaces and flotillas of trading vessels from all over the world. In 1767, however, the Burmese invaded, and the city was almost entirely destroyed. The abandoned city became overgrown by the jungle, and restoration work didn’t begin until the 1950s.
Ayutthaya: A Forgotten Temple City
Under the tropical sun, riding atop an elephant is a perfect way to view the remaining palaces and temples. (Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the ruins cover some 290 hectares.) In many ways it is much like wandering the Roman Forum, with many places to visit, and the sense of past greatness is palpable. Lavish architecture crumbles into the grass, yet the world has moved on, and a vibrant town has grown around the ruins. Indeed, one giant prang (or reliquary tower) serves as a roundabout.
The most famous wat (or temple) in Ayutthaya is Wat Phra Mahathat. Thoroughly ransacked by the Burmese, all that remains are numerous stone prangs, many defying gravity with their drunken angles. Here is the famous Buddha In A Tree – a serene face looks out from between the embracing roots of a bodhi tree. The space is considered holy by the Thai, and one is expected to kneel when taking a photo. To the back of the large complex sit a row of headless Buddha’s, patiently meditating as the grass creeps over them.
Bangkok’s famous Golden Buddha probably came from Ayutthaya. Ten feet long and weighing five and a half tons, this solid gold statue was at some time covered in stucco and coloured glass, probably to conceal its value form the invading Burmese. When it was taken from Ayutthaya is unknown, and not until it was being moved from a disused temple in 1955 was the stucco damaged and the gold underneath revealed for all to see.
The Ruins of Ayutthaya
Other sites to see in Ayutthaya include the Wat Chai Wattanaram, a replica of Angkor Wat built by King Prasat Thing in 1630. It symbolises Mount Meru, the abode of the heavenly gods. Largely intact, it gives a hint of how the old capital must once have looked. The main river runs beside this temple complex. We looked onto one of old palace compounds – Ayutthaya once boasted three palaces. Beautiful stairs, covered with lanterns, lead down to the water’s edge. It is easy to imaging the river covered with barges, small fishing boats and large trading ships.
If wandering Ayutthaya by foot or bike, it’s best to remember elephants have right of way. Motorbikes are happy to contest this, scooting almost between the animals’ legs in an endless battle to overtake all cars and other bikes. A group of wizened old ladies sat in the middle of the footpath, selling various beads and cold drinks. Our elephant stepped right around them, the women not even bothering to glance up from their gossiping. Next our elephant tip-toed through a tiny gap between a parked car and a fence, when she could’ve easily have crushed the car underfoot. Next our elephant stuck its trunk through the back of school bus, to the endless delight and squeals of the kids inside.
What to Wear When Riding an Elephant?
And what to wear? A hat and sunscreen are always essential in the tropics, plus comfortable shoes. Most importantly of all, a small hand-held fan (bought at any stall) gives an elegant solution to the heat and humidity.
When she rode an elephant in Jaipur, Jackie Kennedy radiated elegance in her silk shift with matching handbag and gloves. Perhaps I should have worn fawn or pale olive hat with an enormous brim, perhaps, tied around my chin with a flowing scarf of white silk – but such outfits are difficult to pack. Unlike Jackie Kennedy, I never managed to master the art of matching gloves and handbag.
I did discover, however, that elephants love cucumbers. While waiting in line we bought a small bucket-full. As each elephant had a break from tourist duty, she’d trundle over (for all the elephants were female) to enjoy a drink and a cooling hose-down by her mahout. Then she’d come to the waiting tourists looking for cucumbers – there was no point in trying to hide them. She’d take the offerings delicately from our hands, more than happy to let us pat her. A word from their handler, and the elephants returned to carrying tourists around Ayutthaya.
© 2013 Anne Harrison