The Asian economic crisis of 1997 crippled real estate development in Bangkok, but it also provided unexpected opportunities for some of Thailand’s poorest people—and their elephants. After the financial meltdown, caused partly by exponential and unsustainable growth in the construction industry, numerous developers went bankrupt and were forced to abandon their projects. Ten years on, all that’s left of the burst bubble are eerie pockets of the abandoned foundations of skyscrapers and suburban homes. Meanwhile, the day-to-day lives of Thais seeking to make ends meet continued, and many of the most destitute soon found new homes in the abandoned spaces of other people’s thwarted dreams.
The Bangkok suburb of Bang Bua Thong, surrounded by marshland and hidden among tangled masses of overgrown grass and tropical vegetation, is the home of several hundred squatters who occupy the concrete foundations of two-storey townhouse- style living quarters. In the furthest reaches of the complex, unknown even to many of its inhabitants, live five families with their ten domesticated elephants. As if materializing from a classical tale of days gone by, the elephants live side by side with their handlers, or mahouts. The elephants wake long before the people and gather in the open courtyard, grazing together on grass and bamboo. When they get too hot, they retire to nearby vacant rooms to cool off in the shade. Many of the elephants use the abandoned structures as a jungle gym—they clamber in and out of the many rooms, and some even climb the stairs to the second floor.
The families that live here are Khmer-speaking Gouay people from Buriram province, a poor region inhabited primarily by rice farmers. Boon Kuh, an elderly mahout, says that growing rice in his hometown is difficult: “There are many expenses—trucks, highway tolls, fertilizer—but in the end the profit is zero. For me, I only farm for the sake of the soil so it won’t go bad.” Elephants eat a lot, and the farms in Buriram cannot provide for them. The first time Boon Kuh came to Bangkok, he noticed there was plenty of water and grass for his elephant Cola. After much debate and discussion with family and neighbours, the five families decided to relocate to Bang Bua Thong with their pet elephants and try their luck in the capital.
Every day the mahouts load their elephants into trucks and drive them into the city, where for nine hours or more they walk through traffic, on sidewalks and in residential neighbourhoods, inviting people to pay to feed the elephants bananas and sticks of bamboo. Boon Kuh says his family can earn 10,000 baht ($330) a month after expenses. Many Thais feel a strong historical bond with elephants and are happy to contribute money to the mahouts. Before modern vehicles came into wide use, elephants were the taxis of the rich and the armoured tanks of war. They are revered as symbols of strength in Thai religion and by the monarchy. In more recent times elephants worked in forests, but when the government banned commercial logging in 1989 to help prevent floods and landslides, many elephants were abruptly laid off. The government estimates that 3,800 domesticated elephants live in Thailand today. Many work in tourism; others, like Cola, are brought to Bangkok to eke out a living on the streets. Officially it is illegal for elephants to enter the capital, but as Boon Kuh explains, the police have jai dee, “good hearts”: they turn a blind eye, and sometimes they even bring the elephants food.
In April, Boon Kuh travels back to his home in Buriram to farm rice until November. Most of his family stay behind with the elephant. “I miss Cola when I go home,” he says. “For us, we do not view our elephants as money-making machines. They are part of our family, they have personalities just like we do. We know the elephants bring people joy, but we have to feed ourselves. We do what we do to survive.”