The Lucky Elephant of Thailand
In the lore of Thailand stands the majestic elephant, a noble hard working beast that even led men into battle. Decorated in ceremonial attire, these eternal symbols of the land paraded through the streets in a regal manner. Their ability to toil in the timber yards dragging large teak logs and sure-foot ways on the trails of mountain forests endeared them to the Siamese. Once bestowed upon the national flag and honoured by being one of the highest royal decorations, the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, the gentle nature of one of the earth's largest animals is reflected in the character of the Thai people.
With such a rich tradition of respect for these gentle giants, it is no surprise that Siamese believe they bring forth good luck. Although a few thousand remain in the wild and others are trained at camps to supply the teak operations, you will most likely encounter a lumbering beast in the middle of the road. Such was the case in the streets of Sungai Kolok, a southern border town across the river from Rantau Panjang in Kelantan.
In between the darting motorcycles and lumber laden lorries, a grey mass sauntered from side to side at a slow but steady pace. In the afternoon sun, children scurried out from air-cooled shops and covered restaurant stalls to catch a glimpse of this creature of fable and myth. Enthusiastic at a distance at first, both kids and adults stepped back from the pavement when the thick-skinned brute came near to pass, dwarfing every observer in its path. Stopping in the shade of a multistoried hotel, silence surrounded the crowd gathered to pay respects to this Asiatic legend.
A weathered faced mahout (driver), seated behind the bulging head, carried a two-foot long wooden stick with an iron hook extending six inches outward to help guide and direct the elephant. Three young Thai men walked ahead of the one animal caravan carrying small plastic containers filled with trinkets and pendants, mostly made of ivory. A message emblazoned in colourful chalk and displayed on each wrinkled side of the mobile signboard, one side in English and the other in Thai, proclaimed:
Walk under the elephant 3 times for good luck, 29 Baht.
Waiting to transport hotel guests to nearby venues, a stable of motorcycle drivers watched in awe of the power put forth by the elephant's log-like legs and strong hindquarters. Crisply dressed tourists took a long second look at the sidewalk spectacle before heading off to shop for border town bargains. In contrast to the quick glance of Malaysian visitors, Thai locals seemed to mill around the beast longer in order to check out the reality of this fortunate arrival. Several petite teenage girls tried to coax each other into acquiring some luck, pushing one another towards the mature animal. From the opposite side of the street, an attractive Thai woman clad in a smart black dress calmly approached the beast. Led by one of the helpers and bent at the waist, she walked beneath its belly and under the dangling trunk three times, before paying for the privilege.
An exiled castaway from the working herds in Surin, the 59 year-old pachyderm travelled the highways in a vehicle to various locations between Bangkok and the southern boundary. Maybe owing to age, only one tusk remained and the edges of its outer ears and upper portions of the snout exhibited a pattern of black dots against a pale brown background. Pounding the pavement to earn its daily meals, the handlers fed it a daily diet of bananas and coconuts. Following a cement trail, the magnificent mammal spent up to ten days in each town before exhausting its pecuniary potential.
Before moving on to another busy corner, two curious kids, too scared to pass close to the huge brute, quickly scooted through an opening and detoured around a telephone pole. Adults observed from a safe distance and fingered the jewellery offered by the elephant boys, who also tried to encourage others to take the lucky walk.
The smallish eyes of the mammoth elephant seemed to expose a sense of sorrow. In Thailand, deforested jungles and agricultural encroachment relegate wild Asian elephants to the sanctuaries of national parks. Domesticated herds work the northern hardwood forests and ivory poachers pose a constant threat.
Perhaps the luck of the elephant is running out. In the decades ahead, will children rely on picture books and paintings and will adults depend on memories to breathe life into sculptured museum models? The illustrious elephant may have enough good luck left to share with humans, but it would be better if they could give themselves a good dose of their own magic.
Published on 10/29/01