The elephants of Thailand

Last week we had the annual elephant festival here in Surin, which brought with it lots of tourists, lots of elephants and an array of conflicting emotions.

Elephants are the biggest land mammal, with more muscles in their trunks than a human has in their entire body. They are gentle, happy and beautiful creatures. Beautiful and exploited.

The way some of them are treated is diabolical. They are beaten into submission, and the ones used for street begging are sedated beyond consciousness, stabbed with the mahout's hooks and dragged through crowded streets and stuffy markets. 
When you look directly in to an elephant's eyes, your gaze is not met by a blank stare. Rather, it is returned with feeling, expression and emotion. And unfortunately, a lot of the elephants I saw at the Elephant Round up in Surin seemed traumatised, scared and depressed. They may not be able to speak, but they sure can communicate their feelings. It was heart breaking to see, and I was in tears more than once. 

The elephant festival lasted a week, and ended with the (in)famous Round up. The tricks the elephants were made to do were disturbing. I have never seen something as unnatural as an elephant painting a picture. There was a 'battle reenactment' which was a tribute to the historical use of elephants in war. Before it started, the elephants were lined up waiting to go on to the field. However some of them did not want to go on, they started trying to turn away. The mahouts responded to this by beating the elephants over the trunk with a hammer. I was horrified at the blatant abuse, and wondered why the elephants wanted to leave all of a sudden. Then I realised. Suddenly multiple loud explosions went off and petrified all of the elephants. I was startled by all the unexpected noise so I can only imagine how distressed the poor elephants were. Clearly theyremembered the experience from previous years and wanted to avoid it: An elephant never forgets.

The elephant festival itself wasn't all bad though. As the token foreign teachers of our school, we were invited to take part in the celebrations by dancing on stage one evening at the festival! We all attempted to master some of the grace and elegance with which the thai women dance.. Most of us still looked like clumsy robots, but at least we tried! We certainly provided the audience with a few laughs. 
On stage!

Our dance outfits

The following morning we were up at 5am for the elephant parade, as we were representing the school as part of the procession. We dressed in traditional thai costume: yellow silk shirts and beautifully patterned sarongs. It was amazing to walk side by side with the elephants, leading them to the elephant buffet, where we got to feed them fresh food. People line the streets with mountains of donated fruit and veg, which the elephants joyfully devour. It was a real celebration of their existence, and one of the best experiences of my life.
An elephant enjoying the buffet
Wearing our thai sarongs!

Post- lunch power nap after the early morning 

I seem to constantly be in a state of awe here: learning about the unique thai culture, experiencing breathtaking moments, finding my way as a teacher, and changing my perception of myself and the way I view the world. I honestly do not know how I will be able to go back to England with its stuffy health and safety laws, its unnecessarily huge amount of red tape, it's stressed population of overworked individuals, and the cold weather. Thailand is an amazing place and I don't ever want to leave!

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