Of Temples and Elephants

For the last three months, I have been living in Thailand tracking king cobras as part of an internship at the Sakaerat Environmental Research Station. It’s been an incredible experience and I’ve enjoyed this difficult but rewarding work, but sometimes it’s nice to have a break from trekking through the jungle. Earlier this month I got to take an 11 day vacation from my work to travel throughout Southeast Asia. As an anthropology enthusiast and history buff, I took the opportunity to visit some of the most archaeologically significant sites in the area. I explored the great city of Angkor in Cambodia, biked around the vast expanse of temples in Old Bagan, Myanmar, and celebrated the spectacular Yi Peng/Loy Krathong Lantern Festivals in Chiang Mai, Thailand. To wrap it all up, I traveled to the hills of northern Thailand to spend the day with rescued elephants.

The stone ruins of the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom

At the beginning of the 9th Century CE, one of the world’s greatest civilizations took form in the jungles of modern day Cambodia. The Hindu king, Jayavarman II proclaimed himself the divine ruler of the world, and proceeded to establish the great Khmer Empire which would come to dominate much of mainland Southeast Asia. Throughout most of the reign of the Khmers, the empire was centered at Angkor, a medieval metropolis that grew to become the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples in the larger Angkor complex, was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th Century CE as a testament to the Hindu god, Vishnu. The stone towers symbolize the mythical Mount Meru, which is the dwelling place of the gods in Hindu mythology. Over the centuries Khmer emperors changed the state religion between Hinduism and Buddhism multiple times, with architectural hints of both religions that can be see in the ruins to this day.


Admiring the stone walls of Angkor Wat

While hiking around the amazing ruins of Angkor, I marveled at the splendor of these incredible stone monuments. Intricate carvings and bas relief on the walls depicted the vibrant life in this once-thriving society, and I could imagine what it must have been like to live here. At the Bayon Temple within the walls of Angkor Thom, large stone faces boldly peered out in every direction, and the sheer size and scale of the temple’s weathered stone acropolis was almost disorienting. Every angle seemed to yield a new and interesting perspective as we navigated through the long halls, crumbling terraces, and towering walkways. Some of the temples had been swallowed by the surrounding jungle, with strangler fig trees grappling with the stone ruins, and stubborn green vines squeezing the life out of the statues. Angkor is one of the most significant archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, but it is not alone in its grandeur.


Sunrise over Old Bagan

In the country of Myanmar (Burma) lies a sleepy medieval town on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River. An endless expanse of temples, pagodas, and shrines are illuminated by the rising sun as hot air balloons ascend above the lush, green landscape. One thousand years ago this town, known as Bagan, was the seat of the second large empire in medieval Southeast Asia. Founded in the 9th Century CE, the Kingdom of Pagan (Bagan) was a culturally rich and politically dominant society that ruled much of modern-day Myanmar.

Shwezigon Pagoda, one of thousands of pagodas in Bagan

Unlike the Khmers, Bagan maintained its state religion as Buddhism for nearly the entire length of its reign. Thousands of Buddhist temples were constructed over the course of the empire’s four hundred years, with some housing holy relics from the Buddha donated by other allied nations. Today practicing Buddhists still regularly visit these sites to pray.


Biking through the old gates

Old Bagan is a wanderer’s paradise. The huge area of the city along with the vast number of temples makes it impossible to visit every single one. One must pick and choose which buildings to stop at for a closer look and the rest are enjoyed in passing. I rented an electric bike to roam around the city, stopping at as many temples as I could, though I only managed to explore eight or nine in two days. The freedom to cruise through this old city, passing by glorious sacred structures, and stopping whenever a particular architectural feature caught my eye was an exhilarating experience. Ox-pulled carts, horse-drawn chariots, and speeding tuk-tuks on the road give an additional sense of stepping back in time. I can’t think of any other places I’ve been that felt so ethereal and magical.


After taking an old passenger train to Mandalay that seemed to come straight out of the 1940’s, I flew back to Thailand, stopping at the northern backpacker hub of Chiang Mai. I visited the old city and attended a dazzling parade in celebration of Loy Krathong and Yi Peng. Loy Krathong is a country-wide holiday to celebrate the full moon in the twelfth month of the Thai lunar calendar.

Floating lanterns to celebrate Loy Krathong

For this festivity, people light candles in small baskets which they float on the river. Coinciding with Loy Krathong is the Yi Peng Festival, which originated during the Lanna Kingdom, and is celebrated throughout northern Thailand. For this festival, large floating lanterns are lit and released to float upwards into the night sky, bringing those below good luck for the coming New Year. Both of these festivals have been celebrated for hundreds of years so it felt quite special to become immersed in the excitement of these two vibrant traditions.

Petting a gentle giant

Before returning to Sakaerat, I spent a day at a sanctuary run by Elephant Nature Park, a highly regarded organization devoted to rescuing elephants and reducing human-elephant conflict. Here I got the chance to get up close and personal with these amazing animals, and see first-hand how intelligent they truly are. We fed them an assortment of fruits including pumpkins, bananas, and sugar cane before walking with them through the forest to give them some physical exercise. At the end of the day we joined them in the river where we all took turns splashing buckets of water on their backs to clean their mud-soaked hides. Of course immediately after these stubborn beasts left the river, they proceeded to take a dust bath, picking up loose dirt with their trunks near the water’s edge and flinging it over their bodies, effectively undoing all our work bathing them. Of course here at the sanctuary the elephants are allowed to do largely whatever they want, as there are no chains or harmful training practices used here.


Bas Relief of elephants in Khmer Society at Angkor

In Thailand and across much of Southeast Asia, elephants were historically used as beasts of burden in transportation, war, and public building projects. During the time of the Pagan, Khmer, and Lanna Kingdoms elephants would have been used in battle between rival powers, and the great kings and princes would have ridden these behemoths through the streets of Angkor, Pagan, and Chiang Mai, adorned with the most extravagant ornamentations. During the construction of the grand temples, elephants were often enlisted to heave heavy stones into place. Within the forests timber elephants transported felled logs through the jungle, and at the height of colonial power in Southeast Asia mahouts, or elephant caretakers, would train elephants to haul the much-valued teak logs on a near-industrial scale. This high demand for timber led to the capture and exploitation of thousands of wild elephants, as well as the subsequent massive amounts of deforestation that further drove elephant populations into decline.

Elephants after a bath

It was not until the latter half of the 20th Century that governments in Southeast Asia (some of which newly independent from colonial rule) began trying to curb the loss of forest by limiting or even banning commercial logging. The Thai government began enacting laws to greatly reduce commercial logging with a full ban put in place in 1989, rendering the timber elephants virtually obsolete but now driving a new industry for elephant tourism fueled by the mahouts who had been left without jobs. Hundreds of elephant camps began exploiting elephants for entertainment, forcing them to perform in shows and give rides to tourists. Today it is difficult to know which elephant sanctuaries in Thailand treat their animals humanely, as there is little regulation of the trade.

I was very cautious and a little apprehensive about visiting any elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. I spoke to several trustworthy friends and did my own research to find an organization that I believed to operate within my own ethical guidelines. Elephant Nature Park was established by a Thai elephant welfare advocate named Sangdeaun Lek Chailert in the early 2000’s. Her pioneering work in establishing elephant sanctuaries with strict saddle-off and no chain policies where the animals are not ridden or chained to a post got her international attention from organizations like National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution. Additionally, Elephant Nature Park has begun initiatives to help wild elephants by purchasing land at the edges of forest where elephants and villagers sometimes come into conflict when the animals damage and eat farmers’ crops. The Park pays these local villagers to grow food for the elephants in buffer zones, thereby reducing human-wildlife conflict and also providing jobs to local people. In the next few years hopefully more sanctuaries begin operating with these more ethical protocols, establishing safe havens for abused elephants and finding creative ways to help conserve wild populations while still helping out local communities. Please visit saveelephant.org for more information about this organization.


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