- A mural of Wat Suwandaram in Ayutthaya depicting the elephant battle between King Naresuan and the Burmese Crown Prince. A mural of Wat Suwandaram in Ayutthaya depicting the elephant battle between King Naresuan and the Burmese Crown Prince.
- Foreign tourists enjoy an elephant care program at the Elephant Retirement Park Phuket. Foreign tourists enjoy an elephant care program at the Elephant Retirement Park Phuket.
- An elephant at Ko Samui shows off her painting skills for visitors. An elephant at Ko Samui shows off her painting skills for visitors.
- Surin Elephant Round-up Surin Elephant Round-up
- Tourists enjoy elephant riding at Khao Lak, Phangnga province. Tourists enjoy elephant riding at Khao Lak, Phangnga province.
- Elephants roam freely in their natural home at Phuket Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. Elephants roam freely in their natural home at Phuket Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
Elephant is the national animal of Thailand that has been revered for many centuries. They are an important part of Thai culture and way of life. In the past, a white elephant was particularly considered a sacred animal and precious treasure of the king and honored with noble title. It was used as a royal war elephant when the king waged war against an invading enemy in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods. White elephants are rare but considered sacred and are a symbol of royal power. According to Thai tradition, when a white elephant is found, it must be presented as property to the King of Thailand. Therefore, the status of kings was evaluated by the number of white elephants in their possession.
From 1855 – 1916, the national flag of Thailand was a white elephant on a red background and today the white elephant still displays on the Thai Naval Ensign. Therefore, elephant is formally acknowledged as a Thai National Treasure until this present time. The 13th March was declared as the National Elephant Day since B.A. 2506.
Thai Elephants: From Past to Present
In ancient Thailand, all wild elephants were deemed to be the property of the king. There was a Royal Elephant Department under the Royal Household Division, in charge of maintaining all royal elephants, including capturing and training wild elephants. They occupied a very prominent role in battles as the kings rode elephants into battle. Almost all the famous Thai kings in history were great warriors on elephant-back. King Ramkhamhaeng, King Naresuan and King Narai were the most outstanding examples. Murals depicting battles on elephant-back can still be found in several places today. One of them is in the ordination hall of Wat Suwandaram in Ayutthaya, showing the brave King Naresuan defeating the Burmese Crown Prince in 1592.
In Ayutthaya period, especially in the reign of King Narai (1656 – 1688), live elephant was one of the major export products of Siamese royal court, and India was its major trading partner. The Indian merchants came to buy trained elephants for forestry work and also use in warfare. Elephant was the most important trade in exchange for Indian cotton textiles from Coromandel Coast. Most of these elephants would be transported to Bengal region, the source of timber, for use in logging industry. Siamese elephants were in high demand because they were well-trained by skilled mahouts, most of whom were the ethnic Kui and Karen people.
There was a historical record that in one big trade deal in 1684, the Indian merchants had to use 6 ships to transport 115 elephants to Masulipatnam (a city in Krishna district of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.) As mentioned in the book “The Ship of Sulaiman”, which is an account of a Persian embassy that went to Siam in the reign of King Narai, elephants were an important export product of Siam. It also states that every year the king would arrange an elephant round-up and each time a total number of 200 – 400 wild elephants were captured, then most of them would be trained for work and sales.
The use of elephants as shock weapons gradually became obsolete after the advent of firearms. Later, they were used to transport people, goods and haul lumber. In some mountainous areas in the North, they were mostly trained for hauling logs. In 1989, the government logging ban to preserve the existing forest areas – which amounted to only about 25 percent of the country – caused 70 percent of domesticated elephants to become unemployed. Because of the logging ban, and the emergence of ecotourism in Thailand in the late 1980s, elephants and their mahouts have turned to work in the elephant camps which have sprung up in all regions of the country.
According to the latest estimation, there are some 6,700 elephants existing in Thailand today, of this total number, about 3,400 are domesticated and the remainder living wild in National Parks. Most of domesticated elephants are kept in elephant camps where they learn to work in the forests and mountains. And their most significant role is to entertain hundreds of thousands of tourists who go to see and ride them each year.
Recently, there was a good news about the elephant conservation project in Thailand. On 29 August 2019, the Royal Thai Government Gazette announced the royal command of King Maha Vajiralongkorn in which His Majesty appointed the 35 members of the Committee of Wild Elephant Conservation Project in the forest area of the five provinces in the eastern region. Besides, His Majesty the King graciously takes the position of the chairman of the board of advisors and takes the project under his royal patronage. The purpose of the project is to conserve the wild elephants, solve the problem of elephants invading plantations and promote peaceful coexistence between humans and elephants.
Some Best Places to Enjoy with the Giants
Surin Elephant Round-up
The Surin Elephant Round-up is the world’s largest elephant festival and major cultural festival of Surin Province, the land of elephants. It is held every year on the third weekend of November. The festival has its origins in the royal hunts which were conducted in Surin Province during medieval times. The Kuy, the indigenous residents of Surin, are skilled mahouts who have been capturing and training elephants for centuries.
The two-day event includes a variety of shows displaying the physical prowess and skill of the elephants, such as soccer games and tugs of war with the Royal Thai Army. Elephants pulling logs, painting pictures, playing polo, and whirling hula hoops on their trunks are also incorporated into the show. The finale of the show is re-enactment of a historical battle between Siamese and Burmese forces.
There are many elephant camps and villages around Thailand offering elephant tours, especially in major tourist provinces like Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Pattaya. Anyway, the most popular area is the north of Thailand, which is surrounded by mountains and dense forests. And the largest number is in Chiang Mai, where many visitors go to visit to enjoy elephant riding or trekking.
Most elephant camps usually offer elephant shows where the elephants show off their various skills and abilities, such as playing football, racing, dancing, painting, etc. At every camp, visitors can enjoy a ride through the jungle surrounding the camps that is available in various lengths.
Some camps even offer mahout training courses for those who want to get close to and interact with the jumbo animal. The program includes meals, accommodation and mahout clothing which consists of blue cotton shirt and baggy trousers. The basic courses, lasting from one day to three days, usually consist of: introduction of Thai elephants and their behaviors, feeding elephants, learning the basic commands for elephants, learning to ride elephant bareback, and washing elephant in the river.
Thai Elephant Conservation Center
The Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), founded in 1993 under Royal Patronage, cares for more than 50 elephants in a beautiful forest conveniently located in Hang Chat district, Lampang province. Beyond being an exciting tourist experience, the TECC is also known for its pioneering work in conservation and science. The TECC also proudly houses six of His Late Majesty King Bhumibol’s ten white elephants in the Royal Elephant Stables. Besides, the TECC operates an onsite hospital and manages Thailand's first mobile clinic, treating needy elephants free of charge.
As Thailand’s only government-owned elephant camp, the TECC offers many enjoyable activities. Day trip includes watching elephant bathing, the elephant show and a visit to see baby elephants. Most guests take an elephant-back ride and tour its hospital. Overnight activities include the popular homestay program and trekking in the forest. For more details, visit www.thailandelephant.org.
Samphran Elephant Ground & Zoo
Samphran Elephant Ground & Zoo is located in Nakhon Pathom province, only about 40 km. west of Bangkok. This popular attraction has a park-like landscape with a great number of large shady trees. It is famous for its elephant theme show which includes the re-enacting “Yutha Hatthi”, an ancient battle scene on elephant back with surround sound system.
The show runs for 30 minutes and consists of the following -- elephants greeting the audience by sitting and raising the front legs in “wai” position, elephants round-up, elephants hauling logs, elephants blowing the mouth organ, picking bottles, dancing, beating drums, playing hula hoops, and kicking balls. The last show is Yutha Hatthi, the mock-up battle between King Naresuan the Great and the crown prince of Burma.
After the show finishes, the visitors will have a chance to buy sugar canes and bananas to be given to elephants. Besides, they can enjoy riding on an elephant’s back to explore the tropical garden and waterfalls.
Nongnooch Tropical Garden
Nongnooch Tropical Garden Pattaya is the largest botanical garden in South East Asia. The vast gardens, set in an area of around 600 acres, contain a great number of plant and flower species in a particularly well-kept environment.
Visitors can enjoy a number of shows at Nongnooch Garden. There are Thai cultural and traditional performances like Thai wedding ceremony, traditional Thai dance and musical performances. You can also watch a demonstration of ancient fighting techniques like sword fighting, martial arts and a demonstration of soldiers fighting on elephant back like in the days of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. There is an exciting elephant show, featuring elephant talents in sports and dancing. The elephant shows are offered five times daily -- 10:30, 13:30, 15:00, 16:00, and 17:00 hrs.
Phuket FantaSea is a Thai cultural theme park - the world’s first entertainment park that presents Thai culture and tradition as its main theme. Fantasy of a Kingdom, the Park’s highlight, is a Las Vegas style Thai cultural show infused with cutting edge technology and state-of-the-art show elements. Fantasy of a Kingdom is an audio-visual extravaganza that incorporates Thai culture with magical illusions, 4D special effects, aerial ballet, acrobatics, pyrotechnics, elephant performances and stunts, into an unforgettable theatrical masterpiece. Apart from 400 cast and crew members, there are also over 44 elephants, 3 tigers, 40 goats, 40 chicken and 400 pigeons that form a significant part of the cast!
The show is performed once a day at the “Palace of the Elephants” theater at 9 pm, and approximately 70 minutes in duration. The Park opens from Friday to Wednesday, 17:30 – 23:30. It is located on Kamala beach, about 10 km. from Patong beach.
Elephant Retirement Park Phuket
The Elephant Retirement Park Phuket is a caring wildlife sanctuary for retired and rescued elephants that are free to roam, graze and swim in the natural surroundings. The Park has been established to create a haven for retired elephants, and a sustainable habitat for the elephants to live in a safe and natural environment. The Park is proud of its strict policy in the treatment of its elephants. There is absolutely no riding, chaining or beating of any kind.
Visitors and volunteers to the park can expect an enjoyable and rewarding experience working with the local mahouts to care for these majestic animals. The Park offers a number of interactive elephant care programs suitable for all visitors and volunteers. It welcomes you to visit for a truly amazing time and experience the joy and excitement of walking, feeding, bathing and learning about the wonderful elephants!
Elephant Retirement Park Phuket is located at Boat Avenue, nearby the entrance to the Laguna Phuket Resort Complex.
Phuket Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
Phuket Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, located on Naithon Beach, is the most ethical sanctuary in Phuket. It gives visitors a unique opportunity to interact with magnificent elephants in the safety and security of their natural home. Its trained English-speaking guides give visitors insight into the behavior and the personal history of its elephants, while its mahouts help people realize incredible life experiences such as bathing elephants or feeding them by hand.
You can visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary at two different times during the day. The morning visit takes place from 6:30 am to 12:30 pm and the afternoon visit from 12:30 to 17:30 pm. With the money it raises from visits and donations, it can contribute to their welfare by rescuing them, feeding them, provide veterinary care and giving them land and infrastructure for them to live on.