The new Siamese capital city was first set up in Thonburi, and later moved to Bangkok. The Royal Palace in Ayutthaya had been destroyed beyond repair, so there was no desire to repair the elephant kraal on the city island. However, elephants continued as an important symbol for the new Siamese capital, and so Kings continued to take interest in the Phaniat kraal during the Chaki Dynasty.
Some initial repairs on Phaniat were made by King Yodfa (1782-1809). However, King Nang Klao (1824-1851) started to bring the old elephant kraal back to life. He placed Prince Thepapolpak in charge of restorative work at Paniat and also had him supervise elephant round ups. The building on the site presently used as the Phaniat Palace may have originally belonged to Prince Thepapolpak.
Siam went into a period of isolation after the fall of Ayutthaya. However, King Nang Klao’s allowed a French priest to venture inland to check up on a group of Vietnamese Christians in Ayutthaya. Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix thoroughly documented the city at that time, including the situation of elephants. He wrote in detail about annual roundups, the process for taming wild elephants, and the near worship of the white variety. Pallegoix also noted that it was prohibited to kill elephants, but a small group of diehards still hunted them for their tusks anyway (Pallegoix p77-79).
During the reign of King Mongkut (1851-1868), Siam warmed up to foreign diplomacy with the signing of the Bowring Treaty in 1855. The burgeoning rice trade that followed created a population boom of Chinese merchants and laborers in the Hua Ror market. The treaty also opened up the Ayutthaya to a small trickle of foreign visitors.
King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910) took great interest in the Phaniat elephant kraal and restored it twice. During his reign, Phaniat Palace was used as a residence by Prince Maha Mala Krom Praya Bamrab Porapak – the leader of restorative work at Phaniat. This man also donated money for the repair of royal temple, Wat Boromawong, which King Chulalongkorn named.
The quickening of a small tourism industry began during King Chulalongkorn’s reign. The Front Palace, its observation tower, and the Phaniat elephant kraal featured most strongly among these guests. Carl Bock and a small group of diplomats traveled to Ayutthaya between1881-882, and he was very impressed by the sight of the Phaniat elephant kraal. Also in the 1880s, Florence Caddy, one of the first female tourists in Ayutthaya, had lunch and drank wine in the shade of the elephant stables. In 1882, Elephant roundups were staged for the benefit of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who was then a Crown Prince, and an encore roundup performance was given one decade later for the benefit of the Grandduke of Russia. Belgian Charles Buls came to Ayutthaya in 1900 via a new train line and raved about the elephant kraal. Marthe Bassenne, one of the first travel writers to visit Ayutthaya, penned a few words in 1909 about the city’s elephants for a magazine called Le Tour Du Monde.
Despite the relative surge in foreign visitors, the traditional roundup of wild elephants was coming to its end. King Chulalongkorn staged the last official roundup at Phaniat on May 25, 1903 (Amatyakul p60). However, a few exhibitions were still held in later years. National Geographic reported on one of these events in its December 1906 issue. The article presented photographs of an elephant herd numbering at least 250. Nevertheless, by this time, the lost of natural habitat and the declining importance of this animal had started to take its toll on wild elephants. The wild elephants were described as “gaunt, weather-worn elephants, with visible ribs and patches of fungus growth” in stark contrast to the well fed and groomed domesticated ones (Scidmore p685).
The role of elephants in Siamese culture was changing. Elephants were ineffective for modern warfare, and paled in comparison to equipment such as airplanes and tanks. Modernization of the country also took its toll. The development of a major canal system in Rangsit encroached on land once enjoyed by wild elephants, and trains collided with this animal on the newly constructed Bangkok-Ayutthaya route.
Elephants remained important as work animals, especially for the country’s logging industry. Unfortunately, profits from timber sales led to over-harvesting, and the forests that once existed around the Paniat Peninsula were cut down. This destroyed the natural habitat of wild elephants. As a result, attempts mere made to protect thee country’s national heritage by preserving the elephant kraal at Phaniat. The elephant kraal and its gargantuan wooden posts were registered as a national art monument on March 18, 1941(Suthon Sukphisit).
As part of his nationalist movement, Field Marshall Phibunsongkhram renovated Phaniat once again in 1957 and restored the wooden posts that had rotted. At the same time, Field Marshall Phibunsongkhram redeveloped major sections of the National Park, where the city’s most important temples and palaces were located. In the decades that followed, squatter communities poured into this area and became entrenched.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej staged an elephant catching ceremony on January 15, 1962, to honor a visit by the King of Denmark. Her Majesty Queen Sirikit accompanied the event.
During the 1980s, restrictions were placed on the logging industry, so the importance of elephants as work animals declined. Modern construction equipment gradually replaced them as well. For elephants this presented a dilemma. How could they adapt to modern demands when their value as beast-of-burdens was dwindling? Domestic elephants could not survive if they returned to their natural habitats, which had been cut down to make room for human development. Likewise, the mahouts that trained elephants lacked skills to derive income from other means.
The Ayutthaya Historic City Conservation and Development Project was first conceived in 1987, but it took until 1993 to get Cabinet approval. In the meantime, improvements were made at the elephant kraal. On October 15, 1988, the Fine Arts Department financed a program to replace the wooden posts at the elephant kraal and to make other restorations at Phaniat. Brahmin priests performed complicated rituals to appease the spirits of the old posts (Suthon Sukphisit).
In 1991, Ayutthaya’s Historical City became listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The local tourism industry began to thrive. However, efforts were still being made to clear slum dwellers out historic zones. Estimates suggest that as many as 200 families were living on illegally occupied land even as late as 1996 (Yingyord Klangsombut). At the same time, industrial parks were established outside the city as a means to create jobs and generate revenue.
In the same year, Lythonglian Meepan established an elephant camp, Ayutthaya Elephant Palace (Wang Chang), within the new world heritage national park. Mahouts and their elephants promoted the country’s national heritage by dressing in traditional styles while giving rides to tourists around the temples. This new elephant camp, built in close proximity to the site of the original palace kraal, gave a few street elephants safe and legal work. In additional, Meepan further developed the elephant village at Phaniat with the aim to restore elephants to their rightful role as a well-respected animal in Thai society. From this base in Phaniat, he has launched many innovative programs to improve the quality of life of elephants and to promote a sustainable future for them to thrive.
Lythonglian Meepan, also known as Pi Om, has created new programs for breeding elephants. As a result, he has experienced one of the most successful rates for breeding captive elephants in the world. In addition, Meepan has launched programs to rehabilitate injured or deadly elephants. One recent innovation is to use elephant dung for fertilizing crops that the elephants can later use; and to recycle this byproduct to make strong and fibrous paper. Phaniat elephants are presently learning to paint original artwork on this very paper – and many have discovered creative ways to express themselves through art.
Elephants from Phaniat also play an important role locally by acting in Ayutthaya’s Sound and Light show every year. This event brings thousands of tourists into the city and introduces many people to various chapters in Thai history. The important role that Phaniat has played in Thai history has not been forgotten. In coordination with the Fine Arts Department, a 16 million baht restoration program was launched in 2008 to repair and rebuild the wooden posts that ancient kings once used to trap wild elephants at Phaniat kraal.
Another recent innovation was the establishment of Elephantstay – a program designed with the goal of supporting old or retired elephants. Visitors are given the opportunity to participate in hands-on elephant care while learning about the lifestyle of mahouts. This program generates revenue for retired elephants and helps provide them with some extra caretaking. One long-term goal of Meepan is to buy up land in the Thung Luang area, known as “Thung Thale Ya”, which was formally used by elephants during Ayutthaya period. He would like to return elephants to original sites where they once prospered.
As a result of these efforts at Phaniat, the historical importance of elephants has been brought into the limelight once again. There is hope that these precious animals will survive in modern times; despite their changing roles as beast of burden, their rapidly declining rate of birth, and their ever-dwindling natural habitat. There is now a renewed hope that elephants can retain their importance is a sustainable future.
Click here for pdf file: Phaniat Elephant Kraal
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