By Katie Jobst and Victoria Valencia
Our adventure in Thailand has brought us many encounters. Specifically, we have had diverse interactions with many animals that we would not be able to see in Utah. Some were in a natural setting; others were in captivity, or even roaming free along city streets. Each experience brought forth a range of emotions. Connecting with animals enriched the cultural experience of the trip.
One of my favorite aspects of this trip was that we interacted with animals. I have always loved elephants and I was looking forward to visiting them and taking a ride around on top of one. When we arrived to the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace the rides were ready to begin. Once I got off my elephant ride, I noticed that one of the workers was feeding squash, bananas, and leaves to the adult and young elephants. The elephants happily took the food right from his hand and brought it to their mouths. I watched for a bit and decided I couldn’t hold back anymore. I went to the trainer and asked if I could help. He said yes and eagerly pointed to the huge bucket of food. I fed the elephants, their trunks reached for me, and their ears flapped as they chewed the food I gave them. It seemed that the elephants were totally dependent on humans. Next I went over to the younger elephants, which were about the size of a small car. They both ran towards me as I picked up a bunch of bananas. They were ingenious in eating the bananas, even at their young age! As I handed them out, the elephants would remove the stalk-y top part of the banana and save the best fruity-part to eat. I loved interacting with the majestic creatures, but I felt a pang of sadness. The eye of an elephant is full of emotion. Holding eye contact with several, I was moved by their sheer beauty, but I felt they should be out in the wild. I am not sure if I can safely say that these animals were treated completely ethically. The trainers frequently used bull hooks to prod and poke at the elephants. After reflecting on the visit, I did not feel good about the encounter as when it first occurred. I hope that there are more reservations that promote the naturalistic habits of elephants.
Another experience I had was at the turtle island that we visited on our snorkeling excursion. The turtle island serves as a reserve, nursery, and rehabilitation center for sea turtles. At one point, the turtles were nearing endangerment, thus the Queen of Thailand took action to protect them. We walked around the island visiting turtle tanks containing different aged turtles. At one, the turtles were about 2-4 years, and the size of a small suitcase. There was a man feeding them and he asked me if I wanted to feed them! I was quite surprised, as there were many signs discouraging touching the turtles. I squealed and said yes! With a vegetable in my hand, I looked into the tank. Two turtles came at me, full speed, beak-like mouths open anticipating the treat in my hand. This startled me, I thought turtles were slow! Not during feeding time, I suppose. I quickly dropped the veggie and the turtles dived after it and gobbled it up. I got another vegetable and this time I very carefully fed the eager turtles, not letting my fingers near their mouths out of fear of injury. The turtles were beautiful. After they were done eating, they gracefully glided away to the other side of the tank.
I loved meeting these beautiful animals. I felt so gracious and blessed that I was able to share a moment of their time and take part in their lifestyle. I have a lot of respect for the power of animals and I hope others continue to fight for them and protect their lives and habitats.
On this trip I found the different settings for animal life very interesting. In Lop Buri we were met by wild street monkeys that roamed around seemingly everywhere. They were especially prevalent at a temple we visited, having free reign over the ruins, running amuck fighting with each other, stealing bags of food, attacking tourists, etc. They were wild animals in every sense of the phrase- wild animals that just happened to live right in the middle of the city- something we would never see in the U.S. Not only that but the city takes pride in its monkeys and they are used as a symbol throughout the city. Though the monkeys were a symbol of the city for many of us in our group, it was a stressful situation of dodging monkeys attempting to climb on you, steal your bag or pull your hair (of course all the while attempting to photograph the entire experience).
In Ayutthaya, we had the pleasure of riding elephants around the ruins. For a history nerd like me it was especially fun to see the ruins on such an old form of Thai transportation. But when we arrived the first thing I noticed was the string of elephants in chains with the trainers hitting them with sharp sticks in order to control them. While I am sure for a beast as large as an elephant it felt more like a little pinch than anything else, it was still disheartening to see them treating the animals in that way. However, the place advertised their association with an elephant reserve and even showed pictures of the elephants painting cheerful bags and bookmarks, etc (which they of course put up for sale). At then end of the day despite the fact that their sole purpose is for profit, while I had my concerns I still went on my elephant ride and all I can hope for is that they treat the animals with the courtesy and respect they deserve.
Off of Ko Samet, some of us aw animals in their native habitat when we took a day trip to snorkel and see a turtle reserve. The purpose of the turtle reserve, which is located on the Queen’s private island, was to protect some of the native Thai wildlife. Though the reserve allowed tourism, the main purpose of the reserve was to help breed and eventually reintroduce turtles back into the natural environment so that the turtle population would flourish and grow. After the reserve we went snorkeling and were able to see all different kinds of fish in their native environment.
Though the monkeys may have been scary and my experience with riding elephants ma have left me a little conflicted, it was great to experience animals in different settings throughout Thailand.