by Hank Leukart
March 27, 2006
Hunting the elusive and exotic Thai rope elephant
Hunting elephants in Thailand, even souvenir elephants, isn’t easy.
A jungle trek guide readies an elephant for a tourist
ANGKOK, Thailand — Elephants are revered in Thailand. Thais have historically used elephants on farms, in the jungle, and as weapons in wars, and until 1917, the Thai national flag included a white elephant as part of its design. While Thais still use elephants for tourist treks and in some cases as workhorses in rural areas, the number of elephants in Thailand has dropped from 100,000 in 1900 to fewer than 3,000 today.
During my second day in Thailand, while walking the streets of Bangkok, I caught glimpse of a rope elephant (not pictured). It’s just what it sounds like; I saw an old woman sitting on a small stool with a table on a street corner, carving artistic elephants out of rope as thick as a cucumber. She was like the Thai-equivalent of a child’s birthday’s balloon-animal clown.
I almost never do any shopping when I travel. In the spirit of Without Baggage, I hate carrying anything with me. Usually, the prospect of buying something and then having to lug it with me for the rest of the trip almost always outweighs the excitement I have about any trinket or handicraft. Admittedly, I later broke this rule at the Chiang Mai night market and shipped a box of Thai handicrafts home (thanks, DHL).
But this rope elephant was unlike any handicraft I had ever seen before. I wanted it.
But it was the second day of my trip. I just couldn’t bear the thought of carrying a rope elephant around with me in my backpack for sixteen days. I also knew I would probably see hundreds of crafts just like at it at markets throughout my trip, and by Thai standards, she wanted a lot of money for the elephant. So, I passed on her offer.
As my trip continued, I started hunting for rope elephants. Everywhere, I saw wood-carved elephants, stuffed elephants, and paintings of elephants, but no rope elephants. I visited other markets in Bangkok. No rope elephants. I looked through markets in Chiang Mai, including the famously enormous Chiang Mai night market. No rope elephants. Chiang Rai: no rope elephants. The Golden Triangle: no rope elephants. Laos: no rope elephants.
By the end of my trip, I still had seen only one rope elephant. So, in a last ditch effort, upon returning to Bangkok for my final flight back home, I launched a whirlwind tour of the city to search for the rope elephant. I couldn’t even remember where I saw it. I tried looking in all the places I thought an elusive rope elephant might live. I ran through the streets around the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, the Amulet Market, and Khao San road, trying to retrace my steps. Apparently, the Rope Elephant Woman had given me a rare, one-time offer. The rope elephant is such a rare species that finding one in the wild apparently requires an expert. I was never even able to take a photograph.
Dear Rope Elephant Woman: if you’re reading this, I’ll happily pay double your asking price for the rope elephant. In fact, I’ll take three.