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.