A few weeks ago, I finally went and saw FantaSea, Thailand’s largest and most spectacular cultural theme park and the most popular attraction on the island of Phuket. I’ve managed to avoid going for years – big stage shows aren’t really my thing, and as an animal lover and anti-circus advocate, I was uncomfortable with the notion of watching performing elephants.
It is indeed an amazing, over-the-top and mind-blowing show, very much aimed at the mass market (the auditorium holds 3,000 people, packed to capacity every night). It’s colourful, dizzying and loud, with firework explosions that had me leaping out of my seat with profanities. (Why is it, for such a gentle race of people, do the Thai’s love loud noises so much?! Really!!) The park where the performance is located is spectacular in itself, a Thai Disneyland with neon lights, shops and shows. And yes, there is a large cast of elephants, showcasing their dexterity, intelligence and ability to please crowds.
The elephants are indeed the stars of the show – and in keeping with that, these animals are well cared for, well fed and pampered. However, true to my initial reservations, I admit to squirming in my seat when the elephants performed in a ‘chorus line’, standing on their hind legs and ‘dancing’ to rapturous applause.
This, of course, is a natural talent, one they are capable of doing in the wild. But to see it in a regimented, staged arena was, for me, a little confronting. Similarly, I’m also not particularly comfortable with watching elephants play soccer, paint or play polo (despite my well-known love of this sport) – all skills they perform graciously and happily for their human audiences.
In an ideal world, I’d prefer to watch elephants – and indeed all animals – just be themselves, doing what comes naturally for their own benefit, not that of humans. But this is not an ideal world – these elephants are domesticated animals, not wild, and therefore need to find their place in human society. And nowhere is that situation more complex than in Thailand.
The elephant has played an important role in Thailand for centuries, a crucial partner in war, industry and daily life. Many of Thailand’s 4,000-odd domestic elephants have a one-on-one relationship with their mahout owners as lifelong companions and treasured members of the family. But elephants are cumbersome creatures, requiring space to roam and mountains of food, each one hoovering over 200 kilos of food a day. Elephant ownership is expensive – and the reality is, an elephant has no choice but to contribute to its own upkeep.
Traditionally, the elephant was a beast of burden, largely employed in the logging industry; but since that practice ended in 1989, finding a suitable and ethical role for these beloved creatures has been both difficult and controversial. When logging ceased, many unemployed mahouts resorted to begging in the streets, taking their animals into the smog and traffic of big cities to eke a living. This, of course, is a less than ideal environment for any animal, let alone an enormous, sensitive elephant who is physically designed to forage in a jungle, not camp alongside freeways.
With begging now officially outlawed, the challenge is for a mahout to find a role for his elephant that is as lucrative as begging, but more beneficial to himself and his animal. Which is where tourism comes in.
Tourism – whether it be trekking or performing in shows like FantaSea – now provides the bulk of the work for Thailand’s domestic elephants, and is arguably the best, kindest and most beneficial form of work for these animals. As long as the animal is treated with respect, a job in tourism is low-impact on the animal, generally with reasonable working hours and minimal energy required. The elephants in FantaSea work for approximately an hour a day – surely better than tramping the streets for 18 hours day and night. And usually a working elephant is rewarded with a solid feed at the end of the day, rather than a begged banana and food scraps.
However, as more and more tourists (particularly Westerners) demand more ethical treatment of elephants, so the emphasis is shifting from standard jungle treks and animal shows to less invasive, more natural and lower-impact forms of tourism, ones that are kinder and less exploitative to the animal. Interactive “mahout”-style experiences, where guests can learn first-hand about a mahout’s lifestyle and relationship with the elephant, are becoming particularly popular; riding bareback behind an elephant’s head, rather than perched in a rickety wooden saddle, is not only more comfortable and fun, but also a great way of communicating directly with the animal.
There are several excellent elephant camps leading the charge of happy, holistic elephant tourism ventures. The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, located in the grounds of the Golden Triangle Anantara near Chiang Saen, has provided a new life and livelihood not only for 30-odd rescued street elephants, but also for their mahouts and families who have relocated to this tranquil oasis. Lampang’s Elephant Conservation Centre has an excellent mahout-training school; you can also learn the skills of the mahout during three-day homestays at the Royal Elephant Krall and Village in Ayutthaya. I also recently heard about another intimate program at Patara Farm, just out of Chiang Mai, where you can be an elephant owner for a day – an experience which comes highly recommended and which I can’t wait to check out.
One of my favourite places to watch elephants simply being elephants is at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, home to elephants rescued from a life of abuse and mistreatment. The day and week-long volunteer programs here include feeding and bathing the elephants, but no riding – these poor animals, whose individual stories will reduce any animal lover to tears, can now just be, no longer burdened by work and cruelty.
And what could be more entertaining than just sitting watching elephants play in water and mud, trunk wrestling and just hanging out, free and unfettered? For me, this is the most rewarding and enjoyable experience of all, just watching them be elephants – the most adorable, amusing and intelligent animals on the planet.
That’s a ticket worth its weight in gold, surely the greatest show on earth.
You be the judge which is more entertaining!
Fantasea - www.phuket-fantasea.com
Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation – www.helpingelephants.org
Elephantstay – www.elephantstay.com
Patara Farm – www.pataraelephantfarm.com
Elephant Nature Park – www.elephantnaturefoundation.org