Thursday, August 21, 2008

August 10: Not Wanting to See the Elephants

10, 2008

There is little as disconcerting as 2 huge nostrils snaking through a crowd right towards you. Oh, maybe a palm covered with elephant snot.

I went to Chiang Mai to see the Elephant Training Center, but I heard from someone about the techniques used to subjugate the huge animals into submission. Starvation, lack of sleep, beating with sticks. I didn't want to see that. These proud forest giants are humbled by puny man and used to do his bidding. I'm sure there must be more to it than that. I know the elephant owners depend on their animals and treat them well, but, to see the giant stride down the highway covered with chains was enough for me. So, in Chiang Mai, I stayed at the Bible College (which I discovered I'd been to before when the Nelsons taught agricultural techniques there) and hired a car to take me to the Hill Tribe Museum, Darapirom Palace, and a few wats in the downtown area. Jin Da sent Ber Lai with me. It was probably a good idea. Left on my own in a guest house I undoubtedly would have overdone it. I'm still limping from the accident. I went to Chiang Mae by bus with Boo Poh who went for a meeting at the Thai Karen Baptist Church office. Instead of the night market, I watched the Thai view of the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing.

We came home in stages: a bus to Tak and a (crowded) van through the mountains to Mae Sot. New Ton met us and brought us down to KTK and, wouldn't you know it, as we drove past the village Buddhist monastery and village grounds, there were 3 elephants: Papa elephant, Mama Elephant and Baby elephant though even papa wasn't as huge as the one I saw on the highway. The traveling elephant show was in town.

I watched them set up and took pictures, sneaking in a few monks while I was at it. There was music blaring to advertise the evening show and the elephants were dancing. Just a gentle swaying chorus line since they were chained to the tree.

I took Eh Ku Lweh to the show. She's scared of them since the ones in her village would sometimes go rogue and kill their owners. When the elephants walked toward us and passed by at toe-stomping range, she hid behind me. If you hold out food – sugar cane or bananas – they take it with their trunk, and sniff down the row of spectators looking for more. Suddenly, a nose was in my face. If you put a coin on your palm, they sniff it up and nose it to their trainer. They also sat, crawled, kowtowed, danced, twirled hula hoops while standing on 1 foot on a barrel, walked on 2 feet and pooped. Sorry, but it's true and huge.

I admit my feelings were mixed. I was in awe of them at the same time that I didn't really want to see it.

By morning, they were gone with only a pile of dung to mark their passing. I wonder if it makes good fertilizer.

In Burma, there are still elephants in every village. To own one is to be wealthy and Karens become stingy according to Paw Thwe and save their jiats in bamboo sticks to buy an elephant. When the Burmese army comes, they bury the sticks or throw them in the bush – but the army knows and often finds them. In Thailand, elephants have been replaced by machinery, just as the water buffalo are being replaced by tractors. The elephants are reduced to begging on the streets and tourist shows. Though I'm sure the Chiang Mai show is more impressive and polished, it's also filled with Western tourists. I'm glad to have seen the elephants in the village, surrounded by delighted villagers, the elders with memories in their eyes perhaps more excited than the kids.


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