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The Elephant Whisperers

Thailand’s last surviving elephant spirit men provide an ancient pep talk

Author Hillary Richard Illustration Peter Oumanski


HUA HIN, THAILAND – On a blisteringly hot day, four frail, elderly men from the forests of northern Thailand approach a makeshift altar. Their arrival causes the assembled crowd to fall silent. Even the elephants, standing stiff and attentive nearby, seem impressed.

There’s no shortage of VIPs here today. The King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament is a big event in Thailand, and attendees this year include beauty queens, sports stars and business leaders. But it’s the Khru Ba Yai, the last of Thailand’s elephant spirit men, who command the most attention.

“We come here today to ask the spirits to look upon us with luck and success,” intones spirit man Meu Sala-ngam, 87. Then, ceremonial brush in hand, he approaches each elephant, looks into its eyes and starts whispering.

Historically, the Khru Ba Yai entered the forests to pacify these potential beasts of burden so farmers could capture them. The gift of the Khru Ba Yai is said to be passed down through the generations, but there’s not much call for elephant charming these days—their sons and grandsons do “normal things”—so these four may be the end of the line.

Today, on a rare outing, the spirit men are working with “street elephants,” the riffraff of the pachyderm world, a fact that makes the spectacle all the more remarkable. “Down!” Sala-ngam commands in his ancient dialect, and the elephants kneel dutifully before him. He dips the brush in water and sweeps each elephant’s trunk, while another man places a garland around its neck.

Shortly, the game begins, transforming the arena into a fury of sound, color and movement. The elephants, trumpeting and galloping across the field, seem to be having a blast.

– – – – – – – –

Ich Bin Dein Vater

Darth Vader plies his villainous trade in the German capital

BERLIN – It’s a chilly afternoon at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. But, in his hand-stitched patent pleather outfit, the Darth Vader lookalike seems impervious to the weather.  “It took me two months to make,” he says of his costume, his accent suggesting he may have grown up in Spain rather than as a slave on Tatooine.

The black-clad figure declines to reveal his real name, his age or how much money he makes from the tourists who pause to get their picture taken with him. He will say, though, that being bitten by children is an occupational hazard.

Vader isn’t the only person touting photo ops in the shadow of the gate. Mickey Mouse is here, as well as a Checkpoint Charlie guard. When asked why he opted to become the Dark Lord rather than, say, Jar Jar Binks, Vader explains that he considers this to be a more fulfilling role.

“There’s a little darkness in all of us,” he says. “It’s kind of fun to explore that.”—MARCIA ADAIR

4 Responses to “The Elephant Whisperers”

  1. ru Says:
    January 8th, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    Hillary, in your article The Elephant Whisperers please note the elephants are never having a blast. Most are taken from their herd after their parents are killed. They are beaten into submission and shipped into Thailand from India. This is a horrible life! So glad you were entertained by this form of animal torture and slavery.

  2. TJ Says:
    March 17th, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Ru, it is illegal to import elephants into Thailand from any country. You are incorrect.

  3. Dan Says:
    March 24th, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    That is false, Ru. These elephants are part of a charity event, with money going to benefit them directly. They are Thai elephants. It is illegal to import elephants into Thailand.

  4. Jon Says:
    March 25th, 2014 at 11:28 am

    Ru, you’re wrong on several points. It is illegal to import elephants into Thailand from any country. These elephants were not taken from the wild, and in fact the event is a charity with proceeds benefitting the cause of elephants in Thailand. It’s commendable that you care about these beautiful creatures and their welfare, but you should look into the facts before you chide someone sarcastically like this.

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