In Thailand, March 13 is designated as National Thai Elephant Day. The Thai elephant, ‘chang Thai’, is the national animal of Thailand and plays an important role in Thai culture.
National Thai Elephant Day was introduced in 1988 to recognise the significance of the elephant in Thai history and culture. At some elephant centres, Buddhist ceremonies are held on March 13 to bless the elephants and the kwan chang (mahout).
Elephants in Thai culture
Anybody who travels around Thailand soon notices the significance of elephants in Thai culture. Decorative elephants can be seen at temples, shrines and in artwork. A towel elephant may be sitting on your bed when you check into your hotel and the national animal of Thailand features on many souvenirs.
Elephants have always featured heavily in Thai culture. According to Buddhist belief, the mother of the Buddha, Queen Maya, conceived after having a dream about a white elephant. The elephant is also significant in Hinduism and there is some overlap into Thai Buddhism with depictions of Hindu gods and deities often seen at temples and shrines in Thailand. One of the most commonly seen is Ganesh, the Hindu god with an elephant’s head and who is known in Thai as Phra Phikanet. Another is Erawan, who was the companion of Indra and regarded in Hindu and Buddhist culture as the lord of all elephants.
In ancient times, the elephant was used in warfare. While modern warfare made elephants obsolete, the animals were still used for transport and in the logging industry. During the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV) in the mid 19th century, the elephant appeared on the flag of Siam and the white elephant still features on the ensign of the Royal Thai Navy.
Thailand’s wild elephants
The Thai elephant is part of the Asian elephant family. The Asian elephant is an endangered species with an estimated 50,000 living in Asia. In Thailand, the number of elephants is estimated to be around 7,000. Around half that number live in the wild with most of the wild elephant habitat covered by National Parks. If you’d like to see elephants in the wild in Thailand, two of the best locations are Khao Yai National Park north-east of Bangkok, and Kui Buri National Park south-west of Hua Hin in Prachuap Khiri Khan province.
Ethical elephant centres
In 1989, Thailand introduced a ban on the logging industry. While the move was applauded by conservationists, it did create another problem. With little warning, elephant handlers found themselves without a job and no means to feed their elephants. Some continued to work in the illegal logging industry while others took to the streets with their elephants to beg for food. It was tourism that provided a viable alternative.
Sadly, at some tourist locations in Thailand elephants have been abused. There are, though, an increasing number of ethical elephant centres around Thailand. If you are planning a trip to Thailand for the future and wish to see elephants up close, the best option is to visit an elephant centre that genuinely cares about the animals they look after. See our advice and suggestions in the links below for more information:
- How to choose an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand
- Helping Thailand’s elephants during the Covid-19 pandemic
- Elephants World, Kanchanaburi
- Supporting responsible tourism in Thailand
- Responsible Thailand Awards, 2020
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