National Elephant Day
By Kevin Cain
Almost twenty years ago the Thai government declared that the 13th of March should be Chang Thai Day or National Elephant Day. This annual day of celebration was created in order to promote awareness in the conservation of Elephants and to reinforce the act of 1963 by the Royal Forest Department naming the white elephant as the national animal of Thailand.
Traditionally and historically, the elephant has held a great place in the hearts of all Thais. The elephant also holds great spiritual significance in the Buddhist religion. It is believed that Queen Maya, the mother of Buddha, was only able to conceive after having a dream that a white elephant entered inside her. You can see this significance in many of the shrines and icons dedicated to the Hindu gods and deities all over the kingdom. The two most powerful are Ganesh and Erawan.
Throughout the long and rich history of Thailand, elephants have been used extensively to work alongside the Thai workers. Helping to co-construct temples, dwellings, palaces, clearing forests for planting and carrying timber for building. Thai warriors rode elephants into battle and the more elephants a king had, the richer and more powerful he was considered.This long bond between man and beast was recognised on the old flag of Siam, which featured a white elephant on a red background. You can still see remnants of this on the current Thai Naval Ensign.
Although National Elephant Day encompasses all elephants, it is particularly the white elephant that holds the most respect, in fact it is law that all white elephants in Thailand belong to the King. Do not be too confused over the colour, the term
“White” does not mean that the animal is albino, in fact “White” elephants are paler than their cousins, but more pink than white.
On March the 13th celebrations will be held all over the kingdom, in particular the elephant nature reserves and the palaces and temples that have a special affinity with the elephant such as Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai. According to legend, back in the 14th Century holy relics were placed on the back of a white elephant. The animal climbed the mountain at Doi Suthep and before collapsing and dying of fatigue, the sacred elephant marked the spot where the relics should be enshrined by turning round three times and trumpeting thrice. The current white elephant monument commemorates the legend behind the foundation of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
A Thai legend even compared marriage to an elephant:“The husband is the front legs, that choose direction and the wife is the back legs, providing the power “.
The best places to go and see elephants in Thailand are at Mae Sa just outside Chiang Mai and Chiang Dao at the elephant camp. South of Chiang Mai on the road to Lampang is the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. The Centre was opened by Queen Sirikit, and a large section of re-planted teak forest has been restored with the aid of the elephants. At all these centres and camps, after the shows those interested can enjoy a humane ride through the jungle and forest. Many wild elephants in the north of the kingdom are owned by the Karen hill tribe, in fact most mahout uniforms are based on traditional Karen dress.
The Thai nation is famous for its superstitions and beliefs, the elephant is held in high esteem and as a token of fortune. Locals will actually pay a mahout to let them pass under the body of their elephant and enjoy the luck duly bestowed upon them.
The Thai or Asian elephant is renowned for its high intelligence and it has been proven that it actually thinks deliberately about its actions, rather than simply mimic instructions.
The term “White Elephant” is commonly used as an English expression, meaning something that is not wanted. It is believed that this expression had roots back in old Siam but this is disputed quite hotly in many circles.
What is true, is that in Siam it was the custom of the king to bestow his pleasure on somebody by giving them a white elephant together with land to keep the animal on to feed and graze. The same gift of a white elephant could be given to mark displeasure, as this was not given with the accompaniment of land. The gift was not allowed to be refused and had to be fed at the receiver’s own cost.
It is not surprising the Thai people revere the elephant, with their suspicions and beliefs, even the shape of the country holds awe. If you look closely, Thailand is shaped like an elephant’s head and trunk. The head rests in the north, the ears flap in Issan and the trunk bugles in the deep south towards Hat Yai.
Take the opportunity on national elephant day to travel up to the north of Thailand and celebrate along with the elephants their special day. For those that have not experienced this magnificent creature in near to its natural habitat, then it is something that will enrich your life forever.
A word of caution, there are many smaller pseudo elephant camps that do not treat the elephants humanely. You can always tell these sort of places from the proper elephant camps, by the condition of the animals and their surroundings. Do not support these places with your patronage, it will only prolong the beasts ill treatment.
Chang Thai is a wonderful idea, it is a typically Thai occasion, and something the western world world never dream of celebrating. But here in the Land of Smiles the Thai nation take time to reflect upon the Thai Elephant Warrior, the Royal Pet, the Workmate, the Transporter, the Entertainer and moreover the Friend , worthy of the highest regard.