Pow-wows with the pachyderms
Thailand's largest elephant village offers a unique tourist experience
For years, Thailand's national animal, the elephant, worked in the country’s forests.
Today tourists can only rarely view these magnificent creatures at work. However, meeting elephants in the flesh is possible at Thailand's largest elephant village at Ban Ta Klang in Surin Province and it's an experience you'll value for life.
"We are the largest elephant village in the world," says 52-year-old district spokesman Prakit Klangpattana. "There are 190 elephants and 1,400 people living here."
Some families, including Prakit’s, earn extra income by renting out guest rooms to tourists.
An overnight stay with full board, including three freshly prepared meals, costs about Bt750 (US$25). Use of a bicycle is often thrown in, as is a tour of the neighbouring villages on motorbike. Another excellent way to get to know the locals is by sharing some beers and cola in the evening on the terrace.
The most fascinating attraction for children has to be the chance to get close up to some baby elephants. "We have only been here three hours but I can already say that it is wonderful," says one father from Bangkok.
He had previously brought his family to other elephant parks where the shows, which he described as bearing a close resemblance to circus entertainment, were watched by more Germans, British and Russians than native Thais.
In Ban Ta Klang, visitors follow a group of about a dozen elephants, feeding them bananas and bamboo shoots.
Tens of thousands of elephants used to roam Thailand’s highland forests, but now just a few hundred remain.
The animals initially lost much of their habitat through forest clearances while the necessity for elephants in the logging industry was made redundant with the imposition of a ban on logging.
"The animals have a much better life with us than they previously had in the city," says a mahout.
There were still about 100 elephants living in Bangkok until 12 years ago. The animals and their owners survived by begging for food and money, but the government finally took action to end the practice after an elephant ran amok through the streets, frightened by the noise and traffic.
The elephants had to leave the city and many eventually found a new home in Ban Ta Klang. Elephants are revered in Thailand by the local populace and royal family alike. White elephants, meanwhile, are considered sacred and a symbol of royal power.
"We are hoping to secure more space for the animals as well as some land of their own for the mahouts where they can plant crops to feed the elephants. The local communities, government, sponsors and aid organisations are doing a lot but the amount of finance available is still limited," says Prakit.
The village is not equipped to deal with mass tourism but visitors are welcome as long as they respect the traditions and values of the inhabitants.
Nong, a mahout, rubs cream into the inflammation around the back and behind the ear of his teenage elephant Apow. "It's a mixture of herbs that works. The wounds will heal quickly," says the 29-year-old.
Each November, Nong and his fellow mahouts drive their elephants to Surin for one of Thailand’s largest elephant festivals where it quickly becomes clear how revered the animals are in Thai society.