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Elephants arean important part of Thai culture and the Thai way of life. They are a traditional symbol of royal power, an essential feature of Buddhist art and architecture, an a spiritual mentor for people of all walks of life. In the early part of this century, elephants roamed freely and in multitude throughout Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Prior to the 18th century they were the main machine of Southeast Asian war, a Thai king of the late 17th century having had 20,000 war elephants trained for battle. Elephants in Thailand have always been a symbol of both power and peace. They have always performed the most exacting physical tasks. And they have always been well loved.
The number of elephants in Thailand today is limited to about 2,600. Most of these are at various elephant camps around the country where they learn to work in the forests and mountains and to entertain the hundreds of thousands of people who go to see them each year, and where they live, play and reproduce in a setting that is as close to the wild as possible.
The White Elephanthas always been an important symbol of royal power in Thailand. It originated in ancient India, where the multi headed elephant of the Vedic god was white and where, in one of the Buddhist Jataka Tales, Vessantara (Buddha) gave a white state elephant to a drought-stricken people because it was believed to have the power to bring rain. In Southeast Asian kingdoms, the white elephant has traditionally represented divine royal power. The number of white elephants held by a king largely determined his power in the eyes of regional adversaries, and the white elephant was the featured emblem of the national flag of Siam until the name of the country was changed to Thailand.
The role of elephants in warfare was always of paramount importance in Siam and the older kingdoms of Southeast Asia. They were the main form of transport to and from the battlefield, and they constituted the main force of an army. Serving the same purpose as a horse cavalry in the west, the number of manned elephants for warfare often determined the ultimate winner of the war. This feature of War Elephants was most renowned in the 300-year-war between Burma and Thailand which resulted in Burma's sacking of Ayutthaya in 1767. Today, elephant war tactics are recreated at a number of Thailand's elephant training centers. Called the "Kraal Paniad", staged battles on elephant-back are an astounding display of elephants' innate talent and ability to learn.
Loggingis the vocation of the majority of Thailand's elephants today. This is the trade they're taught at the country's various elephant camps and it's a trade they like. It's a useful economic contribution in the many forested areas of the country where elephants have proven to be much more efficient than tractors and cables. Elephants are trained for 20 years before they're ready to work as full, independent and experienced loggers. At the age of 20 they begin their 35-year career of work, and at 55 or 60 they retire. During the working day, they have their regular work hours, their lunch hour, and their rest periods. The ease with which an elephant can pick up a log and move it almost anywhere demonstrates how powerful this creature is. You can view this and the many other talents of the elephant at any of Thailand's elephant training centers.
During the Ayutthaya Period, from the 16th Century on, European missions visited the Kingdom. First the Portuguese, then the Dutch, the English, the French. They were welcomed, but it was made clear to them that Siam was not interested in being colonialized. An important, and well-known, King from this period is King Narai, about whom there is a separate page on this site. It is the page about Lopburi and King Narai. He was a man who saw the importance of being befriended with Western Nations, although he knew to keep his independence. And not only he. Until the present day Thailand has never been colonialized or been under any foreign influence of importance. By the way, the word "Thai" means "free"!
Before Bangkok was the Capital of Thailand, formerly called Siam, Ayutthaya was the Capital of the Kingdom. This was in the period between -say- the 14th Century and 1782.
The Kingdom of Ayutthaya was very prosperous. It was a Kingdom of 34 reigns, covering about 400 years. The period ended when General Taksin built a new Capital in Thonburi, after Ayutthaya has been destroyed by the Burmese in 1768. Taksin became King, but he was removed by General Chao Phraya Chakri, the later King Rama I in 1782. This King Rama I was the founder of the Chakri dynasty, of which the present King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a descendent. Therefore you might also say that the Ayutthaya period ended with the founding of the Chakri dynasty.