Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Where are the Elephants?

I was sitting at the restaurant down the road the other day, the open-air one with the year-round strings of Christmas lights for decoration, when I realized that it has been more than a year since I have seen an elephant lumbering by.

In fact I can't remember seeing any pachyderms anywhere in Bangers during that time, even in the tourist areas where they were most prevalent.

By prevalent I don't mean to imply that within the last few years large numbers of elephants rumbling down the streets was a common sight. However, if you visited the tourist areas of Suhkumvit road with its multiple beer bars and restaurants, one or two mahouts and their charges making the rounds was a regular nightly feature. Those areas simply for the fact that gaping tourists would happily hand over 20 or 50 baht for the chance to feed the out-of-place elephants that still added a sense of authenticity for the fools who enjoy rocking the rubes back home with tales of their exotic trip abroad. Even in the outlying suburb where I live I saw one of the peaceful grey behemoths every once in a while.

Their apparent departure is a good thing. The concrete streets mashed and splintered their feet and there was even the occasional sad case of one getting its foot lodged in a grating and having to be put down. Ignorant tourists simply enabled the inherent ill treatment for elephants existing in the big city by taking part in the banana-feeding charade.

Where did they go? Relegated to some tourist sanctuary in the countryside where they suffer similar treatment albeit in nicer surroundings and where the discomforts and danger to them are not as great? Quite possibly.

Thais have great reverence for elephants because of their quiet, grandiloquent stature and their place in the country's history; mainly their use in hundreds-of-years-old wars with countries such as Burma. The sight of the creatures in Bangkok caused most Thais I know some distress and the growing sense of sympathy and shame seemed to result in something actually being done about it. The Thai government passed a law a few years ago banning the elephants from Bangkok. After the expected grace period it seems this has had some real effect.

No more of the stately beasts in Bangkok but we still have Chang (elephant in Thai) beer to toast them, which appropriately packs a wallop at 6.5% alcohol content and only really goes down well when swilled from the large, well-chilled litre bottles.