Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
I was still a little kid when I started my fascination with elephants. This happened after I watched those Hollywood movies featuring the “strongest beast of burden.” So, when I learned that one of the itineraries of our recent tour in Thailand is the Mae Sa Elephant Camp, I was totally excited.
“Elephants have been revered in Thailand for many centuries,” the information notes given to us said. “In Thailand, elephants were important in battle, with kings mounted on elephants fighting the Burmese to defend their country on many occasions. Elephants have also been noted for their intelligence, memory and pleasant nature.”
The elephant camp is located in Chiang Mai, about an hour flight from Bangkok. Called “the rose of the north,” it is well above sea level and lies in a valley ringed by mountains. Its flowers, mountains, temples, and colorful festivals have made the city as one of the most popular places among Thais and foreigners.
In Thailand, there is this legend which said that marriage could be compared to that of an elephant. The husband is considered the front legs that choose the direction while the wife is the back legs, providing the power.
It was on our third day in Chiang Mai when we finally visited the elephant camp. Existing since 1976, it is actually a conservation center for domesticated elephants acquired from across Thailand. The animals were once employed in the logging industry, but when heavy machines came, the elephants found themselves “out of jobs” and ended up roaming the streets begging for food.
The camp took them, and they again found their self-worth – as artists, entertainers, or being themselves.
“Elephant is the largest mammal surviving in the world at present,” the camp’s website said. “Since the ancient times, the elephant was raised by men for many advantages such as a royal vehicle of kings in the wars, or even as a worker in the forest.”
The Mae Sa Elephant Camp flanks a rushing river in a picturesque valley surrounded by lush forest canopies. A mere twenty minutes scenic drive from downtown Chiang Mai, it is home to more than 70 domesticated elephants and their mahouts (trainers). Each day, the elephants undergo a routine of bathing in the river, feeding, and performing a string of talent shows.
Sounds very interesting, right?
When we arrived, the elephant show had already started. What we missed was the parade of elephants welcoming the audience.
Two elephants were playing football. One elephant threw the ball using his nose while the other elephant at the end tried to intercept it.
Once the ball made it, people watching the show clapped their hands. In response, the elephant kneeled one of his feet before the crowd.
After playing, the two elephants exited, and three new elephants with their mahouts entered the ground. This time, the trio exhibited their skills in painting. The mahouts provided each elephant with a brush (one brush for each color).
About ten minutes later, the mahouts displayed the painting each elephant had created. I couldn’t believe what I saw: one painted a bunch of flowers while another painted a tree. I didn’t see the other paint because I was on the other side.
The camp is said to be the only place in the world showing the painting of realistic pictures by elephant artists. Fifteen years ago, Ripley’s “Believe It or Not of Thailand bestowed “The Largest Painting by a Group of Elephants” to the camp for its 2.4-meter wide and 12-meter long painting by a herd of eight elephants. The collaborative painting, entitled “Cold Wind, Swirling Mist, Charming Lanna,” depicts Chiang Mai’s picturesque rural scenery in eight panels of the canvas.
After the awesome experience of watching elephants depicting something on a canvas, another elephant entered the scene. The mahout placed a mat in the ground and lied down. The huge animal massaged the mahout using one of his feet. It was a sight to behold but terrifying, though.
Can elephants play darts? Yes, it can. Two stands full with balloons were placed on the other side. An elephant and his mahout were standing on the left side facing the stand with balloons, while on the right side was a man (a spectator) standing facing the other stand with balloons.
The man threw his dart first. Once it hit the balloon, it exploded. The elephant followed, throwing the dart using his nose. This went on and on until the man had exploded almost all his balloons while the elephant missed hitting some balloons. To outdo the man, the elephant went on a “rampage” by hitting all the balloons using his nose.
Finally, elephants displayed their skills in logging: gathering the logs, placing them together in a file – of course, with the guidance of the mahout.
The show is about one hour. After all the displays of talents and skills, two elephants entered the ground again, bringing signage telling the audience that the show had ended: “Thank you and have a nice day.”
The elephants came one by one near the audience. I tried to have my picture taken. One elephant came near to me and hugged me using his nose; I was terrified at first, but the fear vanished when the elephant placed a cap on my head. It was good that my friend, award-winning Manila Bulletin photographer Erwin Beleo, took photos while it was happening.
Indeed, it was an experience worth remembering!