CHIANG RAI, 18 July 2017: I thought it was a pretty simple decision to make. I wouldn’t ride elephants. But that all changed when my grandson visited last month.
“Grandpa,” he said just minutes after he exited Chiang Rai’s airport terminal building after a six-hour flight from Singapore, “I want to ride an elephant”.
Grand fathers are not supposed to pontificate on what’s politically correct. They make things happen, perhaps beyond the peripheral vision of mum and dad. Anyway, he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. That’s when I realised that there are always exceptions to the best of rules.
The following day we headed for Chiang Rai’s elephant village in the pouring rain and I incorrectly thought heaven had presented a perfect exit route. But rain or shine, it became clear the ride was on, no matter the excuses.
He completed his first elephant ride with a beaming smile. I watched the mahout take off the chair made of steel and then peel off six layers of matting used to protect the elephant’s back. I tried lifting the chair and managed to raise it 10 centimetres. It was dam heavy.
As we drove back to Chiang Rai town, I wondered why no one has designed a super light carbon fibre chair. We have carbon fibre golf clubs, cycles and carbon fibre is used in aircraft frames. Surely there are safe and light chairs that can be comfortable if weight is an issue for an elephant’s back?
Ending elephant rides might be the ultimate goal, but for the village in Chiang Rai how would they earn a living and also pay for the upkeep of the 30 elephants in their care? I haven’t the faintest idea. My grandson knew. He cadged THB100 from me to buy a bunch of bananas, his farewell gift to elephant for a wish come true.
So is the jury out on elephant rides? Is there a solution that ensures elephants are protected rather than exploited? It will become an even more pressing issue as the Chinese travel market continues to deliver incredible growth to the Mekong Region.