Bowing to the Thai Spirit House
Every afternoon, we made the main meal: 2½ tons of food. We worked under a skinny, middle–aged Thai man who didn't speak any English, but he showed us what to do and clapped his hands at us if we moved too slowly. We collected armfuls of sticky, scratchy "elephant grass" and sugarcane from a waist–high heap, and fed the bundles into a roaring, rusty mulcher. Green clippings poured from machine into battered plastic baskets, filling one about every five minutes. Then someone had to haul the basket to the next station, where the grass was churned in a cement mixer with molasses, vitamins, and protein powder. It was dirty, sneeze–inducing work in the hot part of the day, and our arms were soon covered with scratches from the prickly grass.
We worked in slow rotation, each volunteer lifting an armful of grass, queuing to feed it into the roaring machine, and then returning to the pile, which never seemed to get smaller. Every now and then the machine would jam, the chopping blades would cough to a stop, and the mahout would leap over cables and dash to switch off the electricity before the motor died. He looked agitated each time this happened, and sometimes swore, I think, in Thai, as he leapt to the power switch.
As we worked, sweating, bending, standing, and shoving grasses into the machine, one of the old elephants sneaked away from its place and tiptoed up to the pile of food that we were working on. He stood there, delicately chewing trunkfuls of grass, until we noticed him blocking out the sun.
The mahout looked up and grimaced, then walked, barefoot, across the messy concrete to poke the elephant in the jaw. He grumbled at it in Thai, and the elephant backed away, still chewing, and returned to its proper place to wait for dinner.
Besides the "old girls" we were caring for, and the mamas and babies, the Thai camp includes a herd of elephants who work in the nearby town of Ayutthaya, giving rides, promoting the camp, and raising money. Some of the elephants perform in shows, and some of them wear costumes and do "tricks" for money. They were the animals I felt so sorry for, the ones whose suffering I'd hoped to relieve. But the elephants in the camp did not appear to be suffering: they were well cared for, stimulated, and well loved.
Each working elephant had its own mahout, a best friend /trainer/keeper who was responsible for the elephant's well–being. Every day, the mahouts rode the elephants to work, and every afternoon they'd come lumbering back to camp, where each mahout bathed and fed his animal before putting it into the night paddock. On their way out of the village and on their way back in, the mahouts stopped the elephants before the small, raised "spirit house," where the bones of the dead elephants are kept, and where the senior mahouts practice elephant magic. Every morning and evening, each mahout on each elephant in the long line would pause and bow to the spirit house, and often the elephants bowed, too. This devotion showed me that the mahouts saw the animals as more than simply machines—they revered the spirit of the animals who served them.
The Buddhists believe that an elephant's soul is one step removed from being human. If an elephant lives a good life and behaves well, it will be reincarnated as a human. The mahouts want their elephants to behave well and gain spiritual advancement. By judiciously using the hook, by training an elephant to co–operate with people, the mahout is preparing it not only to be part of the community but also to advance in the spirit world. This, surely, was a way of "relieving suffering" in the true Buddhist sense.
Penom, founder of the Royal Elephant Kraal program, is so devoted to the elephants' well–being that he even rehabilitates killer elephants. Currently he is developing trust and respect with Natalie, a large female elephant thought to have killed as many as ten people. Penom has let Natalie live with the babies, and, as the mothers trust her with their offspring, she has regained self–respect and earned a place in her new community.
As Penom was talking to Natalie one day, a toddler ran by, within easy reach of Natalie's trunk. Penom grabbed the child and spoke sharply to him, and sent the little boy running back to his mother. His mother gave him a light spank, which made him cry. I was horrified, but Eva explained that the child had to learn to respect elephants, and stay out of danger. It was a demonstration of how the kid—like the elephants—had to learn the rules of how to live together.
It was hard to leave the elephants. Besides falling in love with Pisamy and four–month–old Opal, I'd learned that even the working elephants are not suffering. While their conditions may not be ideal, they cannot be "returned to the wild," and anyway there is not much wild left to return them to. Meanwhile, the elephants at the Elephant Kraal have far better lives than those of most domestic elephants in Thailand. I will be going back to help, ready to articulate why in a better way next time.
Gillian Kendall is an American writer living in Melbourne, Australia. She works part of the year at the Victorian parliament, reporting, and the rest of the time she writes fiction and essays. She is the author of Mr Ding's Chicken Feet, which the New York Times Review of Books considered one of the "notable" travel books of 2006. She also edited the anthology Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Glamour, Curve, Girlfriends, and many other magazines, and she's won a number of obscure awards.
Acrophobia Down Under by Gillian Kendall
Picnicking at the Ruins of Angkor by Michael Buckley
Morocco: Give Me the Simple Life by Jim Johnston
Thoughts of Theroux, Back on the Train by Michael Shapiro
Other Asia travel stories from the archives
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