The elephant is the national symbol of Thailand; a gentle beast still used for transportation and labor in the rural areas up north. They are also a tourist attraction in the streets of Bangkok. In my first two months here I didn’t see any roaming the streets, despite seeing footage of the domesticated creatures on travel shows and in guide books. Then this week, I saw three.
On a night out with friends in Silom we came across a baby elephant and its busker. It was sweet; leaning back on its hind legs and bowing, gobbling up sugarcane offered in the palms of our hands. It felt nothing like I had expected; its skin had hard wrinkles and creases and its head was covered with hairs that felt like thin steel. But it was the animal’s eyes that had a haunting and heartbreaking effect on me.
Its pupils were dilated and it seemed as if it had been drugged. It is a debated issue as to whether or not they’re tranquilized. After all, an animal of that size and power is not meant to roam the fetid streets of Bangkok. It is a sad fact of life in this city; tourists are delighted and awed by these animals, paying money to feed them. The brief thrill for the visitor though perpetuates the cycle.
Thankfully there are ways for travelers to have a close encounter with these beautiful animals without condoning a cruel practice. The Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai that is a sanctuary and rescue center, and the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Amphoe Hang Chat provides medical treatment for sick elephants. They are both open to the public, who can interact with these magnificent animals in a more natural environment.
Looking back, it was a mistake to participate. But when a baby elephant is standing in front of you, it’s hard to resist giving it a pet. Next time though, I will go to one of the dedicated parks that protect the elephants. And I’ll bring some handy-wipes; elephant slobber on your hands is quite unpleasant.