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Chiang Mai Thailand - All About Chiangmai Thailand


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Monday, 07 July 2008 14:45


Elephants are an important part of Thai culture and the Thai way of life. They are a traditional symbol of royal power, an essential feature of Buddhist art and architecture, an a spiritual mentor for people of all walks of life. In the early part of this century, elephants roamed freely and in multitude throughout Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Prior to the 18th century they were the main machine of Southeast Asian war, a Thai king of the late 17th century having had 20,000 war elephants trained for battle. Elephants in Thailand have always been a symbol of both power and peace. They have always performed the most exacting physical tasks. And they have always been well loved.

The number of elephants in Thailand today is limited to about 2,600. Most of these are at various elephant camps around the country where they learn to work in the forests and mountains and to entertain the hundreds of thousands of people who go to see them each year, and where they live, play and reproduce in a setting that is as close to the wild as possible.

Here we present some of the many traditional roles the elephant has played in Thailand since the days of old Siam. The elephant is acknowledged as having many wide attributes, and perhaps the most obvious is talent. Talent for a stately presence, for delicate foot movement and agility, for intelligence on the field of sport, and at the same time a particular gentleness that makes the elephant not only a highly respected creature of the land but also one that is appreciated and loved.

The White Elephant has always been an important symbol of royal power in Thailand. It originated in ancient India, where the multi headed elephant of the Vedic god was white and where, in one of the Buddhist Jataka Tales, Vessantara (Buddha) gave a white state elephant to a drought-stricken people because it was believed to have the power to bring rain. In Southeast Asian kingdoms, the white elephant has traditionally represented divine royal power. The number of white elephants held by a king largely determined his power in the eyes of regional adversaries, and the white elephant was the featured emblem of the national flag of Siam until the name of the country was changed to Thailand.

 The role of elephants in warfare was always of paramount importance in Siam and the older kingdoms of Southeast Asia. They were the main form of transport to and from the battlefield, and they constituted the main force of an army. Serving the same purpose as a horse cavalry in the west, the number of manned elephants for warfare often determined the ultimate winner of the war. This feature of War Elephants was most renowned in the 300-year-war between Burma and Thailand which resulted in Burma's sacking of Ayutthaya in 1767. Today, elephant war tactics are recreated at a number of Thailand's elephant training centers. Called the "Kraal Paniad", staged battles on elephant-back are an astounding display of elephants' innate talent and ability to learn.

Elephant Racing is one of many sports the elephants engage in here in Thailand. Races were actually part of the elephant war training in old Siam, where the elephants were lined up and on command charged. Today, elephants are taught the delicate steps and maneuvers of such tactics in order to recreate the battle scenes of the " Kraal Paniad". These races and accompanying tactics require the elephant to learn and respond to more than 60 separate commands. On the signal to take off, the elephants begin a stampede, and this quickly turns into a rhythmic, flowing ballet on the dust. The elephants are fast and as they gather momentum the race becomes an elegant performance of step, turn and curve.

 Elephants have a special talent for sports. They have their own games in the privacy of the forest and are often very competitive, but they play sports they are taught too. One of these is a competitive race on an obstacle course, where each elephant is required to pick up various items along the way, hold these with his trunk, and return them to the finish line . In one of Thailand's elephant training centers, the objects are Coke bottles . Another sport the elephants are taught to play is elephant football. In this game the elephants toss around a rather large ball,using their trunks and competing to see who can score the highest. These are fun sports for the elephant and require a little more thought than their traditional water games of spraying themselves and others.

The Elephant Caravan is a very special trained function of the elephant in Thailand. A long line of elephants with their packs and their passengers can travel over any terrain, however steep and treacherous. This was the most efficient form of land transport in Thailand until the arrival of the railway and the automobile, and in the jungle and mountain areas today is still the most desirable and the safest way to go. Elephants in a caravan have broad wooden seats strapped onto their backs and tied with heavy rope. Passengers and goods sit on these seats while the mahout, or trainer, rests on the elephant's neck and guides him a long. An elephant caravan can consist of any number of elephants, and they all stay together because they like the company of their own kind.

Tug-o'-War is one of the elephants' favorite games played with another species, man. Apparently very fond of competition, and all the more so when pitted against their trainers, elephants are extremely stubborn when it comes to push and pull. In Tug-'o-War, they demonstrate their true physical power in a way that leaves no one in doubt. It takes more than 70 men to bring one elephant to a draw in a Tug-o'-War contest. Some of Thailand's training centers stage the same competition with men on horseback, and in this case one elephant requires six or seven competitors to give him a real battle.

A Trek is something most of us think of as a walk or a hike on foot, and while this is true many of northern Thailand's treks include at least part of the journey by elephant. This is similar to the caravan, and trekkers always find the ride on those wooden seats a bit more physically demanding than they thought possible. But the experience is one of a kind. The elephants travel dense jungle area on a trek. They climb steep hills of mud and earth, traverse ledges between tree lines and hillside drops, and all the while sway back and forth in their efforts to maintain balance. Seldom will an elephant become afraid in terrain like this. What will scare him is a car, a truck, or a helicopter overhead, but not the jungle. All you have to do is hold on to your seat. It's fun.

Elephants, like people, place a high value on friendship. In any elephant group the elephants tend to pair up and stay very close together with their friends. They have their likes and dislikes, of course, but in a caravan or on a trek for example, the mahouts have to take special care in lining up the elephants before departure. They are placed one behind the other so that friends are together. If an elephant is placed apart from his friend, he will likely refuse to budge and the caravan will not move. Elephant friendship becomes most obvious when the female is about ready to give birth. She searches out her friend and solicits help in delivery. This the friend does willingly, and even helps separate the placenta from the newborn baby.

Dance is a rare talent but onto the elephants sees to have a certain knack for. They're intelligent, nimble and have a natural sway to their walk, but most of all they love music. In Thailand, elephants are trained to perform dance routines to various numbers in the rock, jazz and folk categories. Their trainers line them up and when the music begins they receive the command to start. They sway and prance to the rhythm, trunks swinging, feet keeping time with the beat, and heads swaying to and fro. When the music changes, they're steps change with it, perhaps from a fast tempo to a slow, melancholy waltz. The elephant's preference for music and talent for dance should not surprise us; music is how the great circuses of the world train their elephants to perform.

Logging is the vocation of the majority of Thailand's elephants today. This is the trade they're taught at the country's various elephant camps and it's a trade they like. It's a useful economic contribution in the many forested areas of the country where elephants have proven to be much more efficient than tractors and cables. Elephants are trained for 20 years before they're ready to work as full, independent and experienced loggers. At the age of 20 they begin their 35-year career of work, and at 55 or 60 they retire. During the working day, they have their regular work hours, their lunch hour, and their rest periods. The ease with which an elephant can pick up a log and move it almost anywhere demonstrates how powerful this creature is. You can view this and the many other talents of the elephant at any of Thailand's elephant training centers.

Elephants at Work

THINK ABOUT THAILAND and animals at the same time and thoughts will probably turn to elephants. Well-trained elephants with brave and daring mahouts were crucial to the felling of teak forests around Chiangmai and in the North in the past. Visitors to Chiangmai can watch logging elephants at work at the elephant camp in the nearby Mae Taman's Elephant Conservation Camp, or more adventuresome visitors can visit the Center for Training Baby Elephants near the city of Lampang. Elephant riding has also become a popular and common feature of Hilltribe trekking throughout the North.

The Asian elephant can reach a height of over three meters at the shoulder and is remarkable for its intelligence and longevity. Scientists rate an elephant's intelligence on a par with that of whales and dolphins, and they have a life span roughly equal to that of a human being. A Thai working elephant is considered to come into its prime at age twenty and is expected to have a further working life of approximately thirty five years, with retirement at sixty.

A man who wishes to be a mahout must master a number of skills involved with his elephant's work, such as knowledge of a proper diet, complex knot tying, the fabrication of various kinds of tack for his elephant, and the like. His primary task, however, it to learn to understand and manage his animal.

In the past, to become a mahout was like acquiring mastery of artisan skills, through a long apprenticeship. A would be mahout would join a logging team, consisting of approximately five to six elephants and fifteen men, in the teak forests. An apprentice who showed skill in working with the animals might be promoted to foot mahout, but several more years of learning and absorbing knowledge from the senior mahouts was needed before the apprentice mahout graduated to being a neck mahout. The rough logging camps were ideal learning environments as the range of possible activities was limited to conversation and work. The apprentice mahout could absorb the wealth of technical details which were necessary knowledge for handling the elephant and working in the forest through conversations with the senior mahouts and watching them in action during the three to five months of uninterrupted work in the forest.

The forest apprenticeship system produced mahouts who were skilled workers and controllers of their animals, but that is a thing of the past. Once there were several small elephant training centers in North Thailand, but in 1969 they were shut down and consolidated at the Center for Training Baby Elephants, located on a fifteen rai plot of land south of the city of Lampang. The center was intended to nurture baby elephants an successfully wean them so their mothers could be returned to work, protect them and provide them with veterinary care, as well as to train mahouts.

A baby elephant born at the center nurses at first and is gradually weaned to an elephant's natural diet. At age three it is corralled for a period of seven days with other babies to wean it from dependence on it's mother. It is then introduced to its two mahouts and all three begin an arduous seven year training period.

Mahouts control elephants by three methods; commands given by voice, those given using an elephant prod, a stick ending in a blunt hook, and by applying pressure with the feet and legs. The prod might be to tap parts of the animal's body to indicate the angle of work, the desired direction to move indicated with the feet, and the action begun with a voice command.

When training begins the foot mahout accustoms the animal to the various tack used in working and applies permanent leg chains which can be used to hobble it. The first order of training is to teach the elephant to lift either of its front legs so the mahout can step up to mount it, and to lower its head to facilitate mounting. This action is taught by prodding the animal's legs with sharp sticks.

The next skill taught is for the elephant to pick up objects with its trunk and give them to the mounted neck mahout. The animal is allowed to eat several pieces of sugar cane and then a piece with a cord attached is thrown down. When the elephant moves to eat it, the mahout jerks the cord, elevating the animal's trunk over the forehead. The action is repeated until the elephant is habituated to offer objects picked up with its trunk to the mahout before consuming them.

The next step in training is to accustom the animal to commands given with pressure from the feet or legs, used to guide it. Mahouts must shove or tug on the animals to get them to get them go in the proper direction in the beginning. But they eventually learn which way to go from pressure applied in the sensitive area behind their ears. Pressure administered behind the animal's right ear, for example, indicates the elephant should turn left. Directional training provides a good example of the closeness of the mahout-elephant bond. Accustomed to its mahout's voice, odour, and technique of applying pressure commands, the elephant will refuse to respond to commands given by a strange mahout.

Once the initial obedience training is complete, the elephant and its mahouts enter into a four-five year course in log handling and other specialized tasks the animal is expected to perform. The animal is taught to drag logs on a chain, beginning with small logs with the size gradually increased. The second skill introduced is to teach the animal to lower its head and push a log along the ground with its tusks. It is also trained to lift logs using the tusks instead of obeying its instinct to lift it with its trunk. A mature elephant is capable of lifting up to a 400 kg. log with its tusks and dragging a load of 1.5 tons. Logging training will also include habituating the animals to noisy machinery, such as saws and trucks, which they might encounter while working.

The animals train daily for six hours in the morning , ending at noon, with Buddhist holy days off and a three month vacation in the dry season. Mahouts must hustle to keep their animals adequately fed. An adult elephant consumes 250 kg. of vegetative matter and 300 litters of water daily.

The next time the visitor to Chiangmai ooh's and ah's at the elephant show or enjoys a trek in a swaying howdah, keep in mind the years of arduous training that gave the elephant and mahout those impressive skills.  

Thailand's Extraordinary Elephants

THE ELEPHANT has been a cultural icon of Thailand since ancient days. Inhabiting the lush mountain forests long before the rise of the first civilizations in the land that is now modern-day Thailand, these intelligent pachyderms (as zoologists insist on calling them) were found apt to domestication by man. Their great size and enormous strength were harnessed in many ways, and they became man's ally in labour and warfare. It is doubtful if the abundant teak trees of the northern woodlands could have been exploited so fully without these leviathans to haul the trunks (pardon the pun) to the rivers that were the highways of old. Elephants played their part too in the numerous battles fought between the armies of Thailand and Burma. Towering over the field of combat, fully panoplied and girded for war, they must have been an awesome sight.

But the elephant came to mean much more to the Thai people than a mere beast of burden. It has become a symbol of fortune, and the superstitious will pay to pass beneath the animal's body and receive a share of the luck that it carries. White elephants, through their very scarcity, adopted an importance of their own, and became the rightful property of the reigning monarch. This led to the super imposition of a white elephant on the red field of the national flag of Siam, as Thailand was once known. Early Siamese coins featured an engraved elephant, and their images can be found in abundance in the compounds of many of the older temples.

The Asian elephant, the species found in Thailand, is renowned for its intelligence and is known to actively think about its actions, rather than merely memorise instructions. The creature also has a fine memory and the expression "An elephant never forgets" entered the English language long ago. The term "White elephant", meaning something given that is not wanted, entered western speech many years back, and it is reputed that this originated in old Siam. It was the custom of the monarch to bestow the highest praise by giving a royal white elephant to a courtier as a mark of especial favour, together with a tithe of land to support the animal's needs of grazing and forage. The same gift could also be given by these shrewd rulers to show displeasure, as no land would be provided, and the gift that could not be refused had to be fed at the offender's expense.  

Nowadays the elephant is more fully occupied entertaining the multitude of tourists who visit Thailand, but its magnificent image lives on, advertising many modern events or attracting visitors to the numerous shops and factories that cater to their demands. Welcome to Chiangmai and Chiangrai sent their roving reporter to interview some of these descendents of the mighty elephants of old.  

Trust me to pose for an artist from the anti-tusk lobby.

Say what you like, I saw this log first.

Yeah, the colour's great but have you got the shirt in XXL?

Call me paranoid, but what will folk say if they see me wearing a hat like this?

No tail-pulling! I want you to separate and come out fighting clean.

This is the last time we get digitized for a Spielberg movie. 

Elephant Art Is Popular

 The Lampang Elephant Conservation Center managed by the Forest Industry Organization is under the government Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. The Center's main concerns are to sustainably conserve Thai elephants, to protect and to provide them with veterinary care, to support responsible development of eco-tourism and to take care of auspicious elephants known as "changpuak" or white elephants. In Tourism circles, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center received an award from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in 1998. The center has many activities in which elephants play a part which visitors can watch such as training elephants to draw and to play musical instruments.  

The drawing activity at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center was introduced and later supported by Nancy Abraham, Richard Lair and Alex Meiarmid of a team who developed the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project in New York USA. Selected elephants have been trained there since 1997 and mahouts are closely involved with this activity. The drawing instruments are paints brushes, paper or cloth. Elephants are able to draw because of their flexible trunks which can clasp a brush that has been dipped into the paint by the mahout. Then, the elephants paint on the paper or cloth using their imagination. The colors are selected by the individual mahout. Each picture that is produced is varied and beautiful. After a while the elephants quickly paint with confidence. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center has many intelligent elephants for example Pharatida, Lookkhang, and Lookkup. Their pictures are very interesting to visitors who are very kind when they see the paintings and donate money to the elephant artist. Visitors are thrilled to accept an elephant painting as a priceless souvenir. Besides paintings being sold at the Center, elephant paintings are shown in exhibitions attracting many visitors at many important hotels in both Bangkok and Chiangmai.  

Visitors and all interested persons wanting to see elephant drawings can drive to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center located km. 28-29 Lampang - Chiangmai Rd., Tambon Wiangtan, Ampur Hangchat in Lampang province. Elephant drawings are seen after the show of elephants at work and the parade of the adorable baby elephants. The daily shows can be seen at 10.00 AM and 11.00 AM. On government and other holidays there is an additional show at 1.30 PM. The entrance ticket is only 50 Baht.  

It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholders as related in a recent newspaper article about elephants in a European zoo painting fabrics. These fabrics were then made into women's fashions. There was one art critic who didn't appreciate the elephant paintings. A five year old girl who must have been scolded a few times about "staying in line" harrumphed and said of the elephants' work, "That's not painting -- that's scribbling".  

If you want more details about elephant paintings, please contact

Tel. (054) 228108, 228034 or Fax. (054) 231150, 228034. E - mail:  

Even Elephants Fall in Love 

ELEPHANTS IN THAILAND have always been a symbol of both power and peace. They have always performed the most exacting physical tasks. And they have always been well loved. In fact the Thai have special words regarding their tusked or tuskless elephants: a male with tusks is called a 'chaang plai'; a male without tusks (who, incidentally, is usually stronger than his tusked counterpart) is called a 'chaang seeh daw' and a female is called a 'chang paang.'  

The birth of a baby elephant is quite a remarkable event at the best of times, but when the father is 89 years of age and the mother nothing more than a girlish 8 year old, the occasion becomes even more special. The elephant mirrors the life patterns of a human more closely than any other living thing. Its life span is approximately 80 years and its growth rate similar to that of humans. An eight year old elephant is naughty, mischievous and often uncontrollable but is certainly not promiscuous, not reaching puberty until approximately 12 years of age, while an 89 year old male has lost his teeth, is frail and weak and has lost his sexual ability although it seems, like humans, he still retains the desires. Plai Aek has indeed lost his teeth and can no longer chew his natural food of grass and shrubs nor even enjoy a nibble at his favorite tidbit of sugar cane, instead the zoo staff have to feed him milled, unpolished rice mixed with calcium, cod liver oil, coconut and banana, but regarding his sexual ability, READ ON.  

The amazing love story of Plai Aek began way back in 1991. Plai Aek lived happily with his wife, Noy, in Chiangmai Zoo but unfortunately, despite a long relationship and happy marriage, they had remained childless. In the summer of 1991, a 5 month old orphan elephant was brought to the zoo and adopted by the loving couple. Sadly, in 1996, Noy passed away at the grand old age of 87, leaving Plai Aek deeply saddened. However, he still had Paang Mai, his adopted daughter to keep him company.  

On November 19, 1998, Paang Mai gave birth to Chai Yo and as the gestation period for elephants is between 21 and 23 months it does not take a genius to work out that Paang Mai was just a 6 year old girl when she became pregnant. This truly remarkable event appears to have established a number of records. At 89, Plai Aek is thought to be the oldest elephant father in the world while Paang Mai is considered the youngest mother in the elephant kingdom. A third record is also claimed in that Chai Yo is the first baby elephant to be born in a Thai zoo.  

If you would like to see this amazing old man, his lovely young wife and their remarkable baby, pay a visit to Chiangmai Zoo and enjoy a day out with nature in wonderful, natural surroundings. The location of the Chiangmai Zoo is on Huay Kaew Road as indicated on the maps within this issue.  

Chang Thai National Thai Elephant Day, March 13 2002

It is not unexpected that most Thai people hold the Elephant in such high esteem and reverence. When one takes a map and looks at the geographic boundaries of present day Thailand, it takes little imagination to realize that the country is shaped like an elephant's head and trunk. The head rests here in the North, the ears flare back to Esarn in the East and the trunk drapes down to Haad Yai in the deep South. Thailand is to the elephant as the elephant is to Thailand connected to each other traditionally, emotionally, symbolically, regally and Royally.

To honor this most gentle, yet powerful, of animals the National Thai Elephant Day is being hosted at the Maesa Elephant Camp (10kms along the Mae RimSamoeng Road) on 13th March. Admission to the Camp (from 12 noon onwards) is FREE so this will be a day for Thais, and visitors to meet and fall in love (again!) with that most noble of creatures the Elephant. 

Traditionally and historically, the elephant has had a long association with Thailand. It's strength, power, ponderous dignity and majesty has ensured it a special place in the hearts of Thai Kings for many centuries. Even today, H.M. King Bhumibol has a stable of Royal Elephants. A white Elephant is especially sacred and auspicious. When one is found, it immediately becomes the property of the reigning Monarch. Long ago, when Thai Kings waged war against invading enemies, it was the elephant which provided the "heavy" war equipment. Elephants were the battlewagons and tanks of the day from which, aloft the elephants neck, the King (or Noble) could see and engage the enemy. 

In more recent times during the last century, elephants were engaged in the extraction of heavy teaklogs from the forests. These were working elephants and they were sent into forest areas where machines would cause too much devastation. For all of its ponderous size, and elephant is very surefooted and surprisingly dainty and swift of step. A mature, working elephant can readily lift 700kgs weight or haul a towton log for one kilometer without a break. To have an elephant work in a disciplined fashion requires years of training. This begins when a baby elephant is 3 years old and sent to school (a visit to the Young Elephant Training Centre at Haang Chatt District, experience). The young elephant is introduced to his, or her, "bosses" an experienced mahout and his apprentice. Both will be bonded with the elephant for as long as life permits and will be totally responsible for the elephant's training, future work schedule and career. Not only will they train and work with their charge, they will also play with their elephant because elephants love a bit of fun and can be quite mischievous. 

Nowadays, with the Thai timber industry in decline, the friendly elephant is seeing more and more of the millions of visitors who visit Thailand each year. They have adjusted well to being the centre of tourist admiration they are happy to take the visitor for a ride a top that massive back or further afield on a trekking expedition. The elephant is happy to entertain by demonstrating how it used to work by hauling and stacking logs Elephants are "team" player in such operation. It is also a team player when a friendly game of soccer is arranged just see how nimble footed they can be! And, just to show how unabashed they are in public, the elephant is happy to entertain by taking a bath in the nude! Like any creature which gives its loyalty and devotion to humankind, the elephant loves affection and attention and gives the same in return to those who care for it. 

On the downside, sometimes visitors will see unscrupulous humans exploiting elephants by making them beg for money in the streets of Chiangmai. Please do not innocently support such exploitation. It is not only against the laws of nature, it is against the laws of Thailand! Anyone seeing this exploitation should protest, in writing, to the Press, the Provincial Governor, the City Lord Mayor and, indeed, Thailand's Prime Minister Khun Taksin. These gentlemen have no wish to see elephants exploited by being forced to beg for money but catching the human culprits is not always easy. 

Chaang Thai the National Elephant Day on 13th March at Maesa Elephant Camp is to honor, support and pay respect to this wonderful animal which is so much a part of Thailand's heritage and culture. At the Maesa Camp, there will be a kantoke feast for the elephants, traditional blessing ceremonies and Chiangmai University's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine will be presenting an exhibition on elephants and a display of those endearing baby elephants. 

The Thai Elephant Warrior, Royal Pet. Workmate, Transporter and Entertainer a Friend worthy of the highest regard and respect. Do remember them on March 13 and try to get along to the Maesa Elephant Camp. 

Here is the Story of Pung Kammee.
by Soraida Salwala, Director
Friends of the Asian Elephant
Name : Pung Kammee (Pung means female elephant , Plai is male)
Age : 54
Former Owner : Mr. Putt Kaewtiwong
Present Owner : Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE)  

Pung Kammee came to our Elephant Hospital on the 28th of April 1997. I met her one month after her arrival. I learned from the previous report that she could not survive, having been abused for so long as a working elephant in the forest and with the prognosis of having been treated with amphetamines. Her condition deteriorated and she finally collapsed. We tried to retrieve her from the coma. It took 6 months for her to revive. The massive wounds on both her shoulders and all over her body were a sad sight. I could not have imagined how a person was that cruel to her. We treated the wounds and gave her vitamins, Anti-parasitics, Catosal, Glucose etc.  

In October 1997 Kammee was eating better and gained more weight. I went to visit her and she cried, wept with big drops of tears from both eyes when I talked to her. I asked her keeper what happened. He told me that the owner of Kammee came yesterday and mentioned that since she was gaining back her health he wanted to sell her. I touched her checks saying, " Kammee, my dear! No one can hurt you any more. You will stay right here with me and your friends. Don't cry ".  

I was not there to witness this, I could not believe it. Kammee wept even more. I calmed her and wiped away the tears. Poor thing ! She knows what is going on. I fought with the owner through the vet since the owner did not come when I was at the place. (I go there every month or sometimes twice,depending on what is happening).  

Finally on the 22nd of January this year he agreed to sell Kammee to FAE for Bht 80,000.00 Today Pung Kammee is still very nervous. She is scared of noise and strangers. She can never go back to work again. ( That owner wanted to sell her to a logger) I would have fought to the death if the man had sold her to others. I met her a few days ago, although she is still nervous and there are tears on her face when she sees me, I know they are tears of joy. She loves me. That's all I know.  

Thank you for helping us fight for the elephants, please contact FAE on where to send contributions. Mr. Teerawat Chanabhai, Fundraising Executive ( Special Events )  

The Thai Elephant --Symbol of Nation

 Elephants have been revered in Thailand for many centuries. Famous as the strongest beasts of burden, in Thailand they were important in battle, with kings mounted on Elephants fighting the Burmese to defend Thailand on many occasions. They have also been noted for their intelligence, memory and pleasant nature. A Thai legend has it that a marriage is like an elephant-- the husband is the front legs, that choose the direction, the wife the back legs, providing the power !

A white elephant is even included in the flag of the Royal Thai navy, and the "order of the white elephant" is one of the highest honours, bestowed by the king. White elephants, in fact, are very rarely completely white. The skin has to be very pale in certain areas to qualify as a "white elephant"  

 In the past, wild elephants were caught and trained. The city of Mae Hong Sorn was founded as a stockade for newly caught elephants, since that region had a high elephant population. This century, the number of elephants has declined so rapidly that the entire domesticated stock are one or more generations from their wild forebears. There are still a few thousand wild elephant in northern Thailand, in remote jungle south west of Chiangmai.  

The Forestry Department uses trained elephants to extract illegal stores of teak logs, which poachers keep in remote areas where the use of vehicles would be impossible. Most elephants nowadays, however, are used to carry tourists around -- probably easier and more pleasant work than dragging heavy logs !  

There are two main species of elephant in the world. The African Elephant -- Loxodonta, which is larger with bigger ears and a less docile nature. The ears help the animal to lose heat on the sunny open country it inhabits in Africa. The Indian elephant -- Elephas, is a native of thick forest, so is smaller, with much smaller ears. There have also been reports of pygmy elephants in South East Asia, only 1.5 metres tall, but these are probably extinct. The Indian elephant is 3 metres from the ground to the highest point of the shoulders (males 50 cm bigger). They weigh about four tons, and need 250 kgs of food a day, and 60 gallons of water.They are vegetarians, eating a wide variety of plants. In Thailand, their favourite food is tamarind, but as anyone who has been to an elephant camp knows, they seem to love bananas and sugar cane. Both sexes have tusks, although they are far larger in the male. Some males do not grow tusks, and are supposed to be better workers.  

The trunk is a highly sensitive organ -- capable of very delicate manipulations. I saw an elephant with an itchy leg pull down the branch of a tree to scratch itself. This did not quite do the trick, so it put one end of the branch in its mouth and chewed it a little, then tried again, with better results. This was a clear example of tool making and using -- which used to be a definition of 'human'.  

Elephant Society

In the wild, elephants stay together in herds of 5 to 20 individuals. There is always a leader, the strongest male. When threatened, the males, normally docile, will charge their foes. When families give birth, after a gestation period of 22-24 months, she goes to a grassy, comfortable spot with a 'friend', who acts as midwife. This friend clears up the afterbirth and placenta, and keeps mother and baby apart. There are cases of mothers, confused and exhausted, killing their new- born, if there is no friend to stop it. There is nothing sadder than a mother elephant who gives birth to a still born baby. She will stay with the dead body for several days, grieving. The life expectancy of elephants is in the 70's, and many over 100 years have been reported. The usual cause of death in the wild is the teeth, which were out, and the elephant dies of slow starvation.

Elephants only sleep for three or four hours a day, usually from 11pm to 3am. They simply lie down, yawning and later snoring just like humans. Only sick elephants sleep standing up.  


 Elephant calves begin their training when they are about four years old. They quickly learn and obey the words of command. They get to know their driver (mahout), and get used to being mounted and dismounted. For the first month they are kept restrained in a wooden 'crush' while they learn the basics.

Later, they learn more complex instructions needed to work with teak logs, including kneeling, picking things up, dragging, rolling, pushing, carrying etc. By the age of ten, they are ready for 'graduation', and the work of an adult. A working elephant can lift 700kg, and haul two tons of wood one kilometre without a break. Their natural walking speed is about 4km per hour. They reach their physical peak at 25 years old, and work until they are 60 years old, then they are retried and set free.  

Where to See and Ride Elephants

 There are several sites which have daily elephant shows. The closest is at Mae Sa, only 20 kms from Chiangmai. Further afield is Chiang Dao elephant camp, another 30 kms north. 80kms south of Chiangmai, on the road to Lampang, is the 'Thai Elephant conservation Centre'. Under Royal patronage, opened by Queen Sirikit, a large area of replanted teak forest is worked by donated elephants. The idea is to prove by doing it that elephants make more sense than vehicles -- they do not damage the surrounding forest so much, they do not require petrol, and damage the soil far less than vehicles. There is even a plan to manufacture teak furniture on site in a few years. There is an excellent show tree times a day. At all the camps, after the show those interested can enjoy a ride of various duration's through pretty scenery. There are also several smaller elephant camps, some with shows.

Most elephants in the north are owned by people of the Karen hill tribe -- in fact many of the mahouts wear the traditional red shirts of Karen men.  

I once fell off an elephant. Fortunately a very rare event. The beast did not have his usual mahout, and it was very hot. The elephant simply kneeled down, and I and my companion simple slid off. no-one was hurt, but it was quite a shock -- its a long way down!  

Young Elephant Training Center

 HOW MANY TIMES is the word "trunk" used in our English language -- main trunk line, baggage trunk, swimming trunks, telephone trunk call - are but some. There is even the song "Nellie the Elephant Packed her Trunk and said Good-bye to the Circus". This article is not so much about Nellie the Elephant, or a Circus, but about elephants in general and how they are trained so that they are integrated into everyday part of Thai life. 

Elephants -- sometime are regarded purely as "beasts of burden" although this is neither strictly correct nor very kind. True, they can carry or haul heavy loads but they also can be warriors, royal pets, trekking transporter and entertainers. It all depends upon their training. So, if you love elephants (and doesn't just about everyone?) and would like to see something of their "school", then the Young Elephant Training Center, near Lampang, is a must visit. 

At the Young Elephant Training Center, when an elephant is born, he (or she) remains with the mother for the first three years of life. By the way, the gestation period for an elephant is 21-23 months -- our lady readers will sympathize! Then, in July of the year of the youngster's third birthday, it's off to school. Just like us human folk, Mom Elephant may not want her baby to leave, and the little one may be reluctant to attend school. But, for everyone's benefit, it has to be done. Mom must return to her own work routine and "baby" must be educated for his future life career. 

The elephant school semester runs from June until February, the following year, and the young pupil will attend five days per week. Each school day morning will see the trainees being rounded up from the forest where they have spent the night. Lead by their Trainer "Mahouts" they are brought to the river or pond and, upon the learned order "lie", will drop to a comfortable position for their grooming. The Mahout will energetically scrub his charge free of any dust and debris from the forest (the elephant will obligingly spray water from his trunk) until the "toilette" is complete and then, well refreshed and breakfasted, our pupil is ready for lessons. 

Each elephant is trained in ten basic subjects for their future working career (which will last for about 40 years) and to respond to the commands from their mahout. Kneel, push, pull, move left, move right -and so it goes on. The mahout is an integral part of the elephant's training, and future career, because he will remain with his charge until the elephant reaches "pension" age and is retired back to the forest. Initially, there are two mahouts with each elephant; one will be an apprentice (also learning!) and the other will be a journeyman mahout who becomes a lifelong work-partner and friend to the elephant. As can be imagined, a special empathy develops between elephant and mahout but it is a slow, gentle and patient process. Many hours (sometimes days) of gentle persuasion can be spent before the elephant even permits its mahout to sit astride its neck. 

School holidays, when the young elephants go back to the forest for relaxation, interspace the years of steady training. Until, after nine years, our pupil is no longer a "baby" and is ready for graduation as a fully trained, working elephant. 

After leaving the Young Elephant Training Center, the elephants are sent to their employment in different parts of Thailand. Hauling and extracting logs, from areas where machines cannot access, is an important aspect of an elephant's working career, however, it is not the only one. You may see elephants at work pulling farm equipment or drawing a four-wheeled cart in a rural town. A mature, working elephant can comfortably lift 700 kilograms weight or haul two tons of timber for one kilometer without a break. Naturally all this energy output requires a lot of food input so our former-pupil will now be demolishing an average of 200 kilograms of food per day and sucking up 120 liters of water with which to wash it down. It's a lot to have on one's shopping list! 

The Elephant -Noble Creature -- intelligent, strong, sure footed, dexterous, hardworking and patient -beloved by so many of us humans around the world. Even Canada's ex-Premier, Pierre Trade, authored a book, "There's an Elephant in My Bed" -'though I think he was referring to his gigantic, neighboring nation rather than anything else! 

There are several Working Elephant Camps around Chiangmai but there is only one Young Elephant Training Center, in Haang Chaat district, close to Lampang city where you can see them as young pupils learning about life and their future career. Go visit them -- it's an endearing and rewarding experience which you're sure to enjoy. 

To get there: Drive about 70 kilometers south of Chiang Mai towards Lampang is the Thai Elephant Conservation Center located in Baan Tung Kwien (Thoong Gwian), Hang Chat District. Here there are two daily morning shows start at 09.30, and 11.30 with an extra show on Saturday & Sunday 13.30. The famous elephant hospital is also located here. Tel. (054) 229042.



This site was last updated: 25 January 2007

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