While Elephants Enjoy Some Rest, Humans Suffer as COVID-19 Hits Thai Tourism

By Nyein Nyein 4 September 2020

CHIANG MAI—On a normal day before COVID-19 hit Thailand, young elephants like Suda in Chiang Mai’s Mae Taeng Elephant Park had to work from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Suda and the other elephants entertained visitors, took people for rides on their backs, or trained to be good dancers, painters or football players. When there were many visitors, some elephants even had to work until 4 p.m.

In Thailand, elephants are a fundamental part of tourism, and the elephants’ talent show is particularly popular. After the performances, the elephants and their mahouts (elephant handlers) would take visitors on elephant rides around the jungle trails for 30 minutes or an hour. They were usually busy until early March.

Then came COVID-19—and the visitors no longer showed up.

Visitors feed the elephants after the show. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

The deathly global pandemic turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the 63 elephants, including Suda, at Mae Taeng, one of the biggest elephants camps for tourists in Thailand.

No visitors mean no tiresome hours for the chained elephants, which range in age from 2 to 70 years. Fewer activities in the camp during the lockdown have provide them with more free time. All Suda and the others have to do now is sleep and eat.

“They are enjoying the time,” said one of the mahouts, Ko David, an ethnic Kayah from Myanmar who has been handling Suda for 10 years. Suda, a 15-year-old, can paint about four or five different paintings. He used to be active and have regular training sessions, said Ko David, “but now he does not want to listen to me.”

While the animals are having a good time, however, humans have been suffering.

With no visitors around, people working in the camp saw a sharp drop in their income. Mahouts now only earn 100 Thai baht (about 4,240 kyats or US$3.20) a day for taking care of elephants. In the good old, pre-COVID-19 days when there were elephant shows, each elephant-handler got about 50 baht per show as a tip and they had four shows a day. It was extra income in addition to their salary of 7,500 baht.

The park’s oldest elephant, which is more than 70 years old, is fed by the elephant caretaker at the Mae Taeng Elephant Park in August. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

Even though domestic tourism reopened in July and elephant camps resumed their operations on weekends and public holidays, business is still not back to normal at the Mae Taeng Elephant Park. Few visitors have shown up.

During The Irrawaddy’s visit to the camp on Sunday, the once-crowded elephant-riding platform was deserted. The only living things to be found were napping mahouts and their elephants, waiting for visitors.

“The elephants are happy as they don’t have to work a lot like before. We don’t have a lot of work these days either, so we have less income,” said Ko David, the 29-year-old elephant handler.

In addition to elephant handlers, restaurant helpers, sellers and souvenir shop owners have seen no regular work for six months.

Since it reopened, the elephant park’s revenues are just 2 percent of what they were in the pre-COVID days, according to Suppachai Kaewsa-ard, the manager of Mae Taeng.

Mahouts (elephant handlers) wait for guests to take rides on the elephants. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

This elephant camp used to employ some 280 people, most of them from Myanmar. Now only 100 remain at the compound.

“Sometimes we found work outside, at the plantation sites, mostly picking longan [a seasonal fruit in Thailand],” said Ma Neh Neh, who worked at the elephant dung paper-making workshop at the Mae Taeng Elephant Park. Before the pandemic she earned 6,000 baht per month, but she has had no income since March.

Like her, many other women who worked at the restaurant and shops selling souvenirs told The Irrawaddy they are hoping COVID-19 disappears soon so they can get their lives back to normal.

Next to the Mae Taeng Elephant Park is a Long Neck “cultural village,” as the locals refer to it.

Elephants at the Mae Taeng Elephant Park in Chiang Mai. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

There, Myanmar’s ethnic Kayan women wearing coins on their necks and Kayaw women with large holes in their earlobes are among the attractions as visitors tour around the elephant camp. They too have been affected by COVID-19.

“No visitors, no income and no food. We eat congee sometimes,” said  58-year-old Daw Ma Pri, a Kayan woman.

When it comes to food shortages, elephants area suffered it, too.

Normally in the past, the elephants were generously fed by visitors with bananas and sugar canes after their performances. Depending on the number of visitors they had, their food could be abundant or just enough.

Now, with less or no visitors, their only food has been corn stalks, said the mahouts, though the camp manager said they get enough.

A deserted Long Neck ‘culture village’ near the Mae Taeng Elephant Park. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

In a quiet bazaar in Long Neck village–where ethnic Kayah, Kayan and Kayaw women make their living by selling handicrafts and handwoven scarves and traditional woven clothes–Daw Ma Pri and a few others still keep their shops open, waiting for visitors that seldom show up.

Ma Mu Parli, a 27-year-old Kayan woman, is another seller in the bazaar who struggles to send money to her eldest child, who is staying with their grandparents in Demoso Township in Myanmar’s Kayah State.

She told The Irrawaddy the past five months have been the hardest. She said some of her neighbors thought of going back to Myanmar, but the border crossing is closed due to COVID-19. Worse, they cannot afford the transport costs of about 6,000-7,000 baht per person.

Kayan woman Ma Pri at her shop. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

Some like Ma Mu Parli said they keep staying in the elephant camp because they don’t see any job opportunities back in Myanmar.

At the same time, with fewer visitors in the camp, their life here is uncertain as well, for their income totally depends on the tourism sector. Of course, the deadly coronavirus is also threatening.

“I want more visitors to come, but in the meantime, we are afraid of [COVID-19] disease,” said Ma Mu Parli.

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