There is a gulf that exists between you and I. I’ll never understand you, and you’ll never understand me. This gulf is at its widest here, between myself and the lady in front of me; her wide-brimmed felt hat limp as a dead fish to the point where it must cut off her peripherals. Her connection to the world is a makeshift antenna comprised of an aluminium selfie stick adorned with an iPhone, she probes around the seating area with it and senses an empty seat behind me. She is one variation on the rising Chinese middle-class I constantly hear about from my corner of the world in Sydney.
Perhaps it’s foolish of me to judge anyone sitting alongside me, here in a small showground in Chiang Mai, we all look stupid. Broken speakers announce in off-kilter English to take our seats, we oblige. A train of elephants file into the ring before us, the crowd buzzes, and abruptly this hum of excitement is gashed open as ‘Gangnam Style’ is squeezed through the speakers. The Elephant Show is about to begin.
All I’d read prepared me to meet somewhat of an equal in Indian Elephants, the type most commonly found in Thailand. They’re revered for their intelligence, their ability to remember experiences and friends. They’re supposedly very playful creatures, spurting water in the air to mimic rain just like we used to as children with the backyard hose in summer. Their eyes are supposedly inquisitive and empathetic, but here in this stadium they are wildly blank; their milky golden colour washed of any comprehension. Pupils dilate as the instructor, brandishing a bullhook that resembles an oversized medieval dental tool, drags the beast before us. He strikes it with the hook and quietly it sits, staring at the fourth wall of the animal kingdom.
Now lined up to present themselves, the lead trainer diverts our gaze from left to right, introducing us to the elephants. Like the madame of a brothel, he struts as the crowd inspects the wares, and then issues the command to dance.
Each elephant begins their own routine, seemingly designed to fit the quirks of each individual beast. The shortest sticks its ass out, the tallest stands on two legs, the fattest thrusts the air with its hips and the thinnest wriggles its body and trunk. The crude, clunky choreography makes a mechatronic display of the blank-eyed dancers as if we’d all just put two dollars into a ride at the town fair. The keepers are quiet, with their heads down, staring at their rubber thongs, sweat-stained shirts pasted to meagre frames.
The elephant built Thailand, as it did much of Southeast Asia, ‘Chang Thai’ is what elephants are called in Thailand, they carried materials for construction and were used to wage war. The Chang Thai is ubiquitous in Thailand, plastered in every free space not yet taken by an image of the king or advertisements. Chang Thai is supposedly revered as the kernel of Thai prosperity. Chang Thai on flags, Chang Thai on beer, but Chang Thai looks different here; their royalty diminished as they are prodded with cold metal in order to keep up with the rhythm.
From stage right a hellish contraption is wheeled into the fray: a tricycle of crude steel, with large pedals designed to strap in the hoofs of its rider. The most confident one is called forth, and slowly and methodically straps itself in. I wonder, as the bike runs laps around the show at surprising speed if the rider is aware that not many elephants learn to ride a bike. One wonders if there is any use teaching such a superfluous, complicated skill to a creature more than intelligent enough to master it under such cruel circumstances. The crowd goes wild, I’m struck on the head by the selfie stick in the heat of it, the handlers don’t reciprocate the excitement.
Dismount. Silence thickens the air. Volunteers are called upon, but no one yields. For the next part of the show, a handler will take their place. He lays belly down on a towel placed at the largest elephants feet. This trick is called ‘elephant massage,’ and as gingerly as possible, the creature begins to press on the trainer’s back. Like a house slave, shaving his master’s throat, all watch on in angst to see if our elephant will give a traditional Thai massage, and place his entire weight on the client.
But he doesn’t. He retreats back into servitude to the applause of a wild audience. The handlers saddle up, bullhook in hand, and parade around. The audience gives money to the elephants who pass it up to their riders with their trunk. I make eye contact with a handler, he looks as hungry as his steed does. Guilt money is money nonetheless, and he takes it with a stern nod to thank me. His dark skin pokes through the holes in his clothes as he turns to the next patron, eagerly awaiting the chance to give him some money.
I turn around, the lady behind me has put her phone away for this special occasion. She is jubilant. My Auntie comes up to me, ecstatic. “Elephant!” she cries, with the little grasp of English she commands. She gestures to her heart in a show of love for the Chang Thai.