Living in Asia, you get to meet interesting people. You meet interesting people wherever you go… but “Asian Interesting” is an entirely different breed. Their culture, surroundings, history, and dreams are so different from mine. And I love it. But you meet other people out here as well. Tourism is a huge industry and it manifests itself in an impressive variety of ways. The Thais specifically are renowned for doing anything for your money. While this results in incredibly entertaining interactions, it also leads to some less than fortunate ones as well. One that caught my attention is this current trend to discourage any activity that involves elephants. I have witnessed a near nonstop barrage of rumors and second hand misinformation regarding these wonderful beings. I had a few days to spare so I decided to go and see for myself. My plan was to talk my way into the most disgusting and heart wrenching environments I could find as well as the nicest, most lavish resorts and compare how the elephants are treated in each situation. My goal was to see if the rumored abuse existed, and if so, why.
What I found was a high correlation between the living conditions of the elephants to the living conditions of their owners. For the owners who live in poverty, making only a few dollars a day, their elephants lived in poverty as well. For those who lived within the nicest resorts Thailand has to offer, they lived like kings. My first stop was inland in an area I knew was poorer than your average Thai village. After asking around, I was introduced to a man that apparently trains the elephants that the jungle tours companies later buy. As far as the rumors went, these were the worst trainers that “broke” the elephants with whips and chains. This man was exactly what I was looking for – you could smell his poverty. After a short talk and a few quick jokes, he agreed to show me his place. I followed behind his scooter on my own and we went deep into the wet jungle. Finally we arrived at his property. It was a total dump. No power, no running water, and barely a roof over his head, this man lived alongside the elephant pens he had constructed. He could not afford walls around these massive pens so he simply chained them to a post. Plenty of room for necessities, however, it was still far from luxury. I did not witness any intentional abuse. No whips to be found, no signs of struggle, no open wounds on the animals, and the happy reaction given by these elephants to the sight of their owner was genuine and excited. He fed, pet, kissed, and snuggled them and they seemed to return all of his affection. He proudly showed me all of his animals’ best tricks. His favorite – “Kŏr Jóop Nòi!” (Can I have a Kiss?) If you have never been kissed by a baby elephant… well, then I have a suggestion for your bucket list.
From the deep jungle I decided to head towards the coast. I was looking for higher incomes and better living situations to see what effect this would have on the elephants. I had a strange tugging in my heart from that last experience but I shrugged it off and continued. The example of poverty I had held no signs of abuse, but I was still curious to see what it looked like when they actually had the means to provide a quality environment. Along my way I crossed golf courses and gated communities, terrible dirt roads branched off to newly paved Cul-de-sacs. I was getting closer. I picked the nicest resort I could find and after some quick wheedling with the guards, they were persuaded to show me around. This was an entirely different scenario. Each elephant had its own area to sleep and a large playground to eat and run around. It seemed no expense was sparred to make these elephants as happy as possible. I asked the main trainer why these conditions were the way they were. He told me the elephants were like a child. If you give them a toy, they’ll be happy for an hour. They just time this right so that hour is when these elephants are with the guests. Pleasantly confused, I thanked him for his time and made my way to the beach. This resort was absolutely abandoned. I walked through incredible gardens for several minutes without seeing another soul. No gate was locked and no guards were seen, so I wandered freely and enjoyed seeing the inner workings of these resorts. I finally heard some commotion as I arrived near the beach. It was time for the elephants to play.
Three elephants were let out and allowed to wander along the beach. They were accompanied by one trainer and two workers to clean up after these massive creatures. We were all given plenty of fruit and bundles of leaves to feed them and the elephants definitely weren’t shy. I walked down to the beach and one of them followed. He got near the water and had a seat. We shared my remaining pineapple and sat together, watching the waves go by. I was more shocked by the concept that elephants could sit than by the realization of just how precious this experience really was. But I enjoyed every moment nonetheless.
I saw a great difference between the two different scenarios. No sign of abuse but noticeable degrees of provisions and quality of living situations. I didn’t find any abuse but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there. I saw some intense people and impressively low standards of living. The poverty here is different than poverty I’ve seen before. It’s depraved. I remembered I still had a tugging in my heart after dealing with these people. It wasn’t until later that I realized what that was about. I was so focused on discovering the truth behind the quality of life of these animals that I completely overlooked the poverty stricken lives of their owners. These people live in the mud. No proper education and hardly any aspirations for a better life. These people are not stuck by any outside force. Only their content attitudes to hold them back. And that’s what was strange. Normally I would glorify a simple life… at the very least appreciate it. These men get to spend their day with some incredibly majestic creatures! There is no surprise why they have been worshipped for so many years. But perhaps it was their hygiene that allowed for my disconcerting feelings. I assume each situation is different, but for all the commonalities among these poor, two really stuck out from the rest: Poor Education and Low Ambition. My friends, never stop growing, never stop learning, and never stop dreaming of a brighter future. There is always room to better yourself. More importantly, there is always someone that could use your help. Be in a position in your own life to be capable and available to help those around you. Once there, contentment becomes appropriate.