Friday, July 2, 2010

Eight Feet Up

There was a time some years back when frequent trips to Thailand were not uncommon, and even included such exotic notions as one day retiring to live there. Many aspects of the country, it’s culture and people, fascinate me and it was always an easy place to get to and relatively inexpensive all the way around.

One of the things I continue to respect, and greatly enjoyed on my trips to Thailand is the relationship that the Thai people have fostered with elephants. I remember my first time in Bangkok when rounding a corner, I came upon a huge elephant lumbering down the street in obedience to his mahout. I recall standing on the street corner in open-mouthed surprise, wondering, ‘Where in the all fire hell is he going in all this concrete, traffic and pedestrian crowd?’ Well, no one answered my question, but I soon realized that it wasn’t an unusual sight in Bangkok, or anywhere else in Thailand to see elephants escorted about. Sometimes it is one, two, or more dressed and painted in festive colors off to join a parade. At other times it might be an elephant on his way to a worksite, where their great strength is employed to move heavy objects. (As a child did you ever go to watch the Ringling Brothers circus set up its big top with the help of their elephants?) Then there are the elephants trained to carry visitors on treks through Thailand’s northern forests.

During one of my trips north to Chiang Mai, I had the pleasure of visiting a baby elephant school, where the animals are bonded to one man, one mahout, and trained to be useful animals for the work of heavy lifting. With uninformed ideas some people reach the wrong understanding of this ancient custom, and imagine it is cruel treatment for the elephants. No such thing. The animals are well-cared for, well-fed, and treated in humane fashion by their trainers. One has to think that much in the way of working dogs, the elephant too gets some satisfaction from its labor. The photograph at the top shows baby elephants at school learning how to work with people.

On another occasion I climbed atop a huge specimen and rode off into the forest. Of course, it wasn’t anything I could do on my own, but was a forest walk guided by the mahout, with me perched eight feet up in a howdah, or wide chair on the elephant’s back. Despite the unlovely smell of my ride, it was a grand experience.

On one of my stays in Thailand I found in a Bangkok antique shop an old pre-1917 framed flag of Thailand, a flag from when the country was still known as Siam. That flag is in the bottom photo.

I’ve often thought that if it didn’t get so darn big, a baby elephant would be a welcome pet.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America