City Life: Bangkok: Biggest beggars in the world

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The Independent Online
THE ELEPHANTS are out tonight. Padding their way silently through the darkness, their bulky but gentle forms sway as their drivers - mahouts - guide them to the 24-hour supermarket.

More and more of Thailand's dwindling elephant population is to be found wandering the concrete jungle of the Thai capital. It is a harsh environment for an elephant: Bangkok is one of the most congested, polluted cities in the world and its drivers are among the world's worst. Elephants risk being hit by cars whose drivers fail to spot them ambling along unlit streets. There are alsojumbled electric cables left on pavements and crumbling potholes on which to stumble.

The Bangkok authorities have banned elephants, but it hasn't stopped their poor and often jobless drivers from bringing them to town.

Last month one died after tumbling into a sewer. It was pulled free by a crane but soon died. Only days later excavators had to dig out another elephant stuck in a mud wallow. That one lived.

Tonight there are three outside Foodland, trunks straining towards the bright plate-glass entrance and the crowd of tourists, late-night shoppers and prostitutes. "Feed elephant. Only 20 baht (30 pence)," the mahouts shout.

The drivers of the three-wheeled taxis - tuk-tuks - barely cast a glance as the biggest beast, calledKumkaew, responds to a call of nature at the entrance door of a hotel. The mahout quickly rolls it into a plastic bag and throws it in a nearby bin.

Most Thai shoppers ignore the mahouts' pleas to spare a bit of loose change for an elephant. The tourists gawk, take their pictures and cough up the 20 baht to feed the elephants a slice of watermelon, bananas or sugarcane.

Kumkaew, 49, is just one of about 50 to 80 jumbos plodding their way around the capital this week. There are about 3,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand, and more and more of them are becoming itinerant beggars or tourist attractions.

He arrived last week with two other beasts on a truck after an eight- hour journey from Surin province, in the east. The mahouts clubbed together for the 3,500 baht (pounds 53) charge, loaded up their beasts and headed for the city. They will return home in a few weeks when the rainy season sets in.

Kumkaew's mahout Chart Kownaplang is a rice farmer. "She'll starve if I don't come to Bangkok," he says. "Here at least I can earn a little money to feed her. In Surin I can't earn anything."

Foodland is only the last stop on a tour of Bangkok's international quarter, which includes the red-light area - Soi Nana - and the capital's busiest roads. When she has finished her six-hour stint, three-ton Kumkaew has visited most of the beer bars, brothels, discos, and eateries in the area. Foodland is always a good place and where Chart makes most of his cash.

Chart, a quietly-spoken man of 35 whose grandparents found Kumkaew in the forest 30 years ago, defends his business. "Tourists love the elephant and sometimes they give more than 500 baht, even 1,000 baht (pounds 15) to feed her," he says. "Thai people also give me 49 baht to walk under her stomach. Forty-nine is a good number and people think it will bring luck."

Astride Kumkaew, Chart admits it is not an ideal life for an elephant. He says at least she is no longer hungry and ill tempered, and has not been in any traffic accidents.

"I have to pay off the police," admits Chart. "But I can usually make 1,400 baht (pounds 21) a day. But it costs me 1,000 baht a day to feed her."

By 1am, Kumkaew and Chart return to the empty plot of land near the motorway intersection where she will spend the night with the other elephants that wander the streets.

Kumkaew will be back in Surin at the annual elephant festival in November. It is a popular day trip for tourists who visit Thailand during the high season. "Kumkaew will be kicking a football, stepping over people and dancing," says Chart.