Bangkok is a large international capital city with certain charms and quaintness that appeals to all types of visitors. We have been there several times and still do not believe that we know the city. After 5 trips to the Grand Palace, I am only now beginning to understand it. It never seems like you can take a long tailed boat tour of the Thonburi canals too many times. Each tour surprises you with different sights, sounds, smells and experiences.
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai offer smaller provincial cities with rich histories and architecture. Many days can be pleasantly spent exploring and photographing these culturally rich locations.
Another attraction that Thailand has to offer is elephants. Elephants are important parts of Thai culture, religion, and history. The elephant was part of the Siam (predecessor to Thailand) national flag for many years. The White Elephant remains a symbol of divine Royal power. In historic times the number of white elephants held by a SE Asian King determined his power in the eyes of his neighbors. Today the King of Thailand has 10. Although he is the only King in the region, the powerful symbolism of the white elephant has not been lost by all of his neighbors. The military regime in Burma did a national search a few years ago to obtain white elephants and maintains 4 in captivity.
There are around 2,600 domesticated elephants in Thailand today. During the good and bad old days, the King would have up to 20,000 war elephants at his command. The King needed all that he could get for the history of Siam/Thailand as well as SE Asia is a long history of wars. The elephants are found throughout the country. I have seen elephants walking along the roads here in Isaan, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Maehongson, and Phuket. I have heard of elephants blocking traffic in the streets of Bangkok.
Rather than wandering aimlessly around the countryside looking for the elephants, or waiting endlessly for an elephant to pass you bye and it could be a long ordeal in both cases since there are only 2,600 in the entire country, you can go to the elephants.
Elephants perform in simulated battles at cultural shows. There are botanical gardens and farms that have resident elephants that perform. The elephant shows typically include the animals bowling, dancing, playing basketball, playing soccer, and creating paintings. The shows often include the elephants interacting with selected members of the audience. The interaction usually is in the form of an elephant or two picking up the person and giving them a ride or perhaps giving the person a massage while they are laying on the ground. It might only be my imagination but it seems like the only people that get selected are young blond buxom women who are on the verge of falling out of their blouses. I guess that even the mahouts (handlers)who perform the same show every 2 hours three to four times a day seven days a week need some entertainment of their own.
There is an internationally famous elephant round up in Surin each year. The most accessible locations to interact with elephants are at elephant camps.
Elephants were used in the harvesting of teak and other exotic woods in Thailand's dense forests for many years. Due to economic and political pressures (less places for Communists to hide), the forests were decimated. With the introduction of conservation measures, many of the working elephants and their handlers became unemployed. Some elephants remain working and can be occasionally be seen walking to and from their work sites hauling their heavy logging chains on their backs. Just like unemployed semi-skilled people, the elephants along with their handlers migrated to the cities to try to make a living. Think in terms of the person at the freeway exit with a cardboard sign, or the people who wash your windshield while you are stopped in traffic and then expect payment. This was not an acceptable situation for anyone. In response to the problem, camps in the countryside were set up to maintain the elephants and their handlers through revenues generated by tourism. Elephants can work for up to 40 years so the solution is for the long run.
Today the camps provide the opportunity for elephants and their mahouts to earn a living. Mahouts handle a single elephant for life - either the elephant's or the man's life. Since the life expectancy of an elephant is approximately that of a man (especially of the man does not have a motorbike) often a mahout's son will finish the work that his father had started.
There are three ways that a mahout controls his elephant. The first way is by verbal commands. Elephants are intelligent and respond well to human verbal communication.
Another method the mahout uses to control his animal is to use his feet and legs to apply pressure to various parts of the elephant's body.
The last method available to the mahout is his prod. The prod is a short wood stick with a steel hook on the end. The mahout taps parts of the elephant to communicate what and how the next task is to be done.
At the camps you have the opportunity to pose with an elephant (even if you are afraid) and to go on an elephant trek. Elephant treks are also available at the farms and gardens but at the camps you trek through more realistic terrain. At some camps you even get to cross a river while atop an elephant.