On my last morning I took a final look at the map of Ayuthaya that the guesthouse gave me when I noticed a small cartoon-drawn elephant with the label “Elephant Kraal” in the top right corner of the page. With a piqued interest, I looked into this further and discovered that this was the last one of its kind in all of Thailand that dated back to the 16th century.
I hopped on my clunky rented bicycle with map in hand and the words of the guesthouse owner, “Just always go left” in my mind. The cloudless blue sky, refreshing temperature and gentle breeze made this morning perfect for an adventurous bike ride.
After crossing the bridge over the Kong Muang Canal, the streets narrowed and became congested with local traffic, where motorbikes whizzed around parked cars, pedestrians and at least one bicycle – mine. After bearing left yet again I breezed by decidedly more trees and passed open fields and I felt like I was getting somewhere. Focusing on the beauty of the day and how freeing it was to be bicycling alone in a foreign country, I had arrived before I knew it.
It surprised me to see the place completely abandoned and I began to wonder why the Royal Elephant Kraal was listed on a tourist map. But, I had come all that way so I began walking around taking stock of the historical significance of my location.
I first stood where the king had stood so many years prior, trying to imagine what he saw as he looked out over the kraal. Perched up high it must have been quite a sight to oversee the fenced courtyard full of elephants undergoing the Trapping Ceremony in a time when elephants were used in battle.
Then, I decided to climb down the stairs to see this hallowed ground from the perspective of the elephants. I walked through the same big gate that many wild elephants had been forced through and as the gate shut behind them they would have found themselves trapped inside the courtyard, not being able to escape again.
As I walked around the fenced in courtyard, my thoughts led me to wonder what, if anything, the Kraal is used for today. Coming across a heap of elephant dung, it became clear that it is still is use. Elephants had been there! But to what end?
Nearing the back of the open space, I stopped in my tracks as I took in a magnificent sight. Standing under a large tree, a majestic male elephant was just on the other side of the second gate. What a beautiful elephant, silently and methodically eating from a small pile of food that had been left for him. The joy of discovery passed, however, when I noticed that he was secured to the fence on a very short chain.
As I turned the corner I saw many other elephants on very short chains, rocking back and forth from distress (stereotypies) or trying hard to stay awake, while a little baby joyfully played just outside the shelter of chained elephants, clearly unaware of the Phajaan Ceremony she would undergo in her very near future.
My heart fell and my eyes filled up with tears as I saw the life these elephants were leading.
The Elephant Kraal was, unfortunately, not an isolated incident of elephant abuse that I witnessed in Ayuthaya. Elephants with heavy tourist-laden benches strapped to their backs walked in the streets amidst traffic (I saw one get a beating for not moving fast enough) and I observed an elephant show where the entire audience was invited to walk under a large male elephant’s stomach. This act was portrayed as good luck to the prominently-Thai audience and several, as they walked underneath, rubbed the belly of the elephant, who was rocking back and forth, clearly in distress.
While I enjoyed photographing the Buddha head in a tree, visiting the ruins of the former capital of Siam and taking the river boat ride at sunset, none of these outweighed the pain I felt for the rampant suffering of Thailand’s most revered animal.
Initially, I was quick to point the finger at tourists turning an apparent blind eye to the suffering that elephants must endure in the name of “entertainment”. However, I realize that after learning about the Kraal, elephants have very much been a part of Thailand’s history. Perhaps no one is actually turning a blind eye, but instead people simply can’t see what they’re looking at.
This made me question whether there is anything that I see as “normal” from my culture, but that others may see as cruel. How we, as North Americans, treat horses came to mind immediately. I have even ridden horses several times throughout my life.
Without much effort, it is quite easy to draw direct parallels between these two species:
- Both horses and elephants have been used, injured and killed in war
- In order to control the animal, bullhooks and slingshots are used on elephants , while whips and spurs are used on horses
- An uncomfortable bench gets strapped to elephants’ backs, while horses are forced to wear saddles
- Both must be “broken” to tame their wild spirit
- Both are used in competitions for our entertainment, such as horse racing and elephant soccer
- Both are forced to perform in circuses, sometimes even sharing the same stage
Often it takes an outside experience to open our eyes to aspects of our own culture, and looking into this mirror has led me to the decision to no longer ride horses.
11 thoughts on “Elephant Kraal in Ayuthaya”
I guess we are doing something similar by putting leashes on pet dogs.
Seeing dogs in clothes (rain coat, fur coats with hoodies) and booties is for me pampering against the animal’s nature and not good for their health. The dogs have their natural fur coat growing. To cover this up will cause skin problems and is uncomfortable for the animal. It’s what people like and find cute!
The more I travel the less at ease I become with any kind of tourism activity that involves animals. It’s almost always a sad story.
Wow, it’s really unfortunate that these kinds of places still exist. I hope by bringing light to them, things will start to change. Thanks for sharing
You know … before I came to Thailand, I had zero idea what life was like for these elephants. My first few days here, I just assumed that if animal tourism happened, it was legit and they were treated well, because why on earth wouldn’t they be? Who wants to hurt animals? I have no idea why I even entertained an idea such as that, but for some reason I truly believed that if animals were being used for entertainment, etc., it was because it was OK and I could never fathom someone hurting a creature for our entertainment gain. THINGS CHANGED. Quickly. You bring up a good point in your post — people don’t know what they are looking for. I read Trip Advisor review after Trip Advisor review for terrible animal attractions — “oh, the elephants looked so happy!” “They don’t drug the tigers! They are just super tired in the afternoons, sillies.” “The monkeys riding the bikes look like they were having such a blast!” No one stops to think why these animals are behaving the way they are, they just assume if they are behaving in a certain way, it is not a problem. Thankfully, more and more people are speaking out, educating, and opening peoples eyes to what really goes on. I know education completely changed my view point and made me become an advocate for those who cannot speak. I expect it articles like this can help more and more people understand the importance of dropping their preconceived ideas about how the world of animal tourism works and let them change their opinions about what they choose to support.
Knowing what you know now about elephants, would you ride horses again? I would never ride an elephant again (I did when I was younger and naive-er) but I still do enjoy concessional horse-back riding tours. I wonder if there is some hypocrisy there, though.
Mindy & Ligeia
We have decided not to ride horses again. In fact, we have decided not to visit zoos or participate in any activities that use (exploit) animals. We have come to believe that animals exist for their own purposes and serving humans (via food or entertainment) is not one of them.
Giselle and Cody
We ended up going to some of the Elephant camps in Ayuthaya and we were so shocked to see Elephants dancing to Techno.
Tourists were loving it and it was so sad. I can only imagine how it would have been before. Once you start to open your eyes towards animal abuse it seems like it is never ending. Thank you so much for posting this Ligeia <3
Raymond @ Man On The Lam
I spoke with a stable owner in Southern California who ran horseback riding courses, and she had as much disdain for those horseback trail rides as I do for the elephant rides. I guess it all depends on perspective and how well the animals are treated.
Sebastian | Off The Path
There is still so much education to do… It’s really sad to see how they treat animals all over the world…
I lived in Thailand and never visited one of those sanctuaries and will never do and always tell everybody to avoid them!
Our travels have changed the way we view animals as well. I used to love zoos and now I haven’t been to one in many MANY years.