In an extract from Lonely Planet's Discover Thailand guide, Laithongrien (Om) Meepan, the founder/director of Ayuthaya Elephant Palace and Royal Elephant Kraal Village, gives us his don't-miss Ayuthaya list.
Ayuthaya was the capital of Siam for over 400 years and elephants helped build the city and the country into what it is today. I became aware of the problems elephants faced after buying an elephant for my daughter’s 7th birthday. Now I work on elephant conservation in the former royal city.
Royal Elephant Kraal
The Royal Elephant Kraal is the only one left in Thailand. It was here that elephants were rounded up and trained for war. We initially bought seven elephants. Now there are over 180. We provide a safe haven for them and support the mahout culture. That is where the knowledge is.
Elephant taxi through the Historic City
We set up this program to get a few elephants off the streets as beggars and give them safe, legal, easy work. The elephants carry tourists through the historic park and its World Heritage-listed ruins. It is a very beautiful city and in the past elephants were a common mode of transport.
Creating a sustainable future for elephants is not easy and requires many solutions. Our non-profit Elephantstay program, started and operated by Michelle Reedy and Ewa Narkiewicz, supports retired elephants through tourism. Visitors stay in the elephant village and learn about mahout life and get to bond with elephants. We love to see young children in the program because elephants need their help in the future. The elephants get a very high standard of care.
The history of elephants and people living and working together spans 5000 years. We work to preserve this history by training the elephants in the old tradition (as military machines) and the mahouts as proud elite warriors. Elephants need to work and be productive to keep them stimulated in captivity. Many of our elephants went to work in the tsunami-devastated area of Khao Lak in 2004. If it was not for the tourists supporting elephants, there would not be any left in Thailand.
Things you need to know
Getting started: Check out the Elephantstay website for program details
Top Tip: Hire an elephant taxi to take you to the famous Ayuthaya ruins
Top Souvenir: Elephant art created by artistic elephants putting trunk and brush to paper