The Elephants of Old Siam: Vintage Photos

The Elephant Flag of the Kingdom of Siam
The official national flag of Siam

Intro

While doing research on the history of Thai fabrics and apparel, I kept coming across old photos of elephants from Thailand. (Siam was the name of Thailand until 1949.)

I found so many that I started collecting them. I wanted to share them as they’re rarely seen anymore. Kind of sad to look at now.

There’s only about a thousand wild elephants left in Thailand (and about 3,500 in capativity). Back in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, when most of these photos were taken, there were approximately 100,000 in captivity (work elephants) and probably several times that number in the wild.

The demise of the elephant is directly related to deforestation and habitat destruction. Thailand many decades ago became a modern country with a booming economy. The elephant has paid the price for this

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Before Kings, soldiers, war and vice
Before Buddha, silk, gold and rice
In the River Ping when golden turtles swam
The elephant ruled the Kingdom of Siam….

I wrote a children’s poem (kinda) entitled “The Elephants of Old Siam“.

The Elephants of Siam

Vintage photo of elephants at Ayuttaya

circa 1870. Elephants at the Chao Praya River in Ayuttaya. The two large males with long tusks in the foreground are no doubt used to haul and pull barges and unload their goods. The men riding on the elephant’s neck are mahouts (handlers) and wear identical headware. The men riding on the elephant’s back are the “ground handlers”.

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Vintage photo of Elephants working in Thailand

1927 Lampang Province. Elephants at work in the teak trade. Teak is an increadibly dense, heavy wood. That these elephants can manuvuer this log is a testament to the strength of their trunks.

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Vintage photo of an elephant procession in Chiang Mai, Thailand

1899 Chiang Mai. An impressive elephant procession. What the occasion is I’m not sure, but it may well have been a visit by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).

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1963 Poster of the Surin Elephant round-up

1963. Poster for the Surin Elephant Round-Up. These round-ups can be traced back almost 800 years. In Old Siam, wild elephants were captured, tamed and put to work or war. By the late 19th century the round-ups were no more than staged entertainment. Surin today still has its round-up festival. But the days of wild elephants has sadly past. Only a very few wild elephants remain in modern Thailand.

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1955. The First Surin, Thailand elephant round-up.

1955. The first Surin elephant round-up.

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5t

circa 1900 Bangkok. Old postcard of working elephants pulling a cart.

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6l

1899 Location unknown (Probably Bangkok). Got tusks-wow! Elephant being groomed for a festival or parade.

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8k

1899 Ayutthaya. Before Bangkok was the capitol of Siam, Ayutthaya held that title from approximately 1350-1767. You can see some of the ruins of the old city in the background. This photo shows what is probably an early survey mission. Every one is wearing a uniform, including the mahouts (looks like they’re wearing pith helmets!)

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9l

circa late 19th Century. Location Unknown. These are traditional elephant carriages used for long distance travel. In mid photo you can make out the hazy building shapes which appear to be old Angkor/Khmer style ruins which would indicate this photo was taken in Esan (northeastern Thailand). The ruins look strangely similar to Phimai.

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Vintage photo of a war elephant in Bangkok Thailand circa 1890.

circa late 19th Century. Location Bangkok. A Siamese war elephant. There was no more disgusting use of this noble creature than to use them for war.

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Vintage photo of mahouts and their elephants in 1898 from Loei Province, Thailand

1898 Loei Province. Loei Province borders Laos and is one of the most isolated areas of Thailand even today. The men atop the elephants are in uniform and so are probably soldiers of Siam on patrol. Laos until 1893 was part of the Siamese Kingdom when the French took it for a colony.

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Old Photo of Thailand Elephant in 1908.

1908. Location probably Lampang Province. This poor girl not only has to haul the heavy teak logs, but also a couple of “farang” dandies are riding on her.

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Map of Siam 1686

French map of Siam and Indochina made in 1686. The cartographer chose to decorate the map with two elephants which shows their importance, both culturally and economically. Back when this map was made, wild elephants were common.

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1895 Lampang Province. Elephant Trekking in Thailand

1895 Lampang Province. Elephant trekking probably headed north to Chiang Mai. Back then to get from Bangkok to Chiang Mai you went up the Chao Praya River as far as Uttaradit and from there on it was on the back of an elephant.

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1920. Thailand elephants working logging teak

1920 Location Unknown. Elephants working teak logs. If you own a piece of solid teak furniture, you know how heavy the wood is. I recently moved an antique, solid teak day bed and four people had a hard time just lifting it. One of those logs could easily make four or five Thai day beds.

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Elephant on Chiang Mai Thae Pae Rd. 1904

1904 Chiang Mai. This is Tae Pae Road in Chiang Mai near Tae Pae Gate.

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Laotian Elephant Postage Stamps

Laotian postage stamps. Date unknown. Remember that today’s Laos was part of Siam until the French colonized (stole) it in the 19th Century. During the 19th Century much of this region was governed by The Kingdom of a Million Elephants.

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circa 1894. Yunnan merchant caravan in Chiang Rai.

circa 1894. Yunnan merchant caravan in Chiang Rai. This is a very rare photo. As late as the 19th Century, Yunnan (southern China) merchants were still following the ancient overland Silk Routes by elephant caravan into northern Thailand.

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1890 Ayutthaya, Thailand. Elephant caravan at the ruins of the old city.

1890 Ayutthaya. Elephant caravan at the ruins of the old city.

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1894 Gravure Photo of elephant and Golden Mount in Bangkok

1894 Bangkok. This is a gravure photo of Golden Mount in Bangkok. The elephant and its mahout are ready for a passenger. Today, Golden Mount attracts slightly more visitors.

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Thailand elephant late 19th Century

circa 1890. Location unknown (Probably Esan). If you look to the upper right on the photo, you’ll see an unmistakable Khmer temple ruin in Angkor style. Which one it’s impossible to be sure. Throughout much of Esan (northeast Thailand) there are dozens of Angkor ruins that radiate from Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Many European adventurers at this time would journey to Siam and visit these old, unrestored ruins.

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1892 Lampang, Thailand Teak logging

1892 Lampang teak logging.

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1890 Lampang, Thailand. Elephant caravan.

1890 Lampang. Elephant caravan.

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Elephants in Ayuttaya, Thailand in 1900

1900 Ayutthaya. The annual elephant round-up.

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Siam Cement Co. ad with an elephant

An old Siam Cement Co. ad circa 1920.

“Strong as an Ox” makes an elephant laugh
Ten oxen equals an elephant by half
no tiger would pounce, nor crocodile bite
Their realm they ruled with humble might.

from The Elephants of Old Siam: A Children’s Poem…kinda.
by J. Gallagher
(You can read the full, epic poem here.)

A Final Word

I’ve traveled many lonely back roads through mountains and forests in Thailand, but I’ve never yet seen a wild elephant.

I’ve been to the elephant shows and conservancies in Chiang Mai and Lampang. I recommend neither and felt quite sad, if not downright disgusted, when I left.

I doubt I’ll ever see a wild elephant. But I still keep hoping.

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