Revered mahout leads celebration of Thai Elephant Day

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Of the 28 elephants that wander the Pattaya Elephant Village, only one greets tourists and poses with pictures. And that great mammal is mastered by the area’s most-revered mahout.

Ya Sukhree of Surin and his 16-year-old cow Birdy took center stage at the camp’s Thai Elephant Day ceremonies March 13. Ten years ago, the 54-year-old Ya traveled the kingdom with five elephants, offering shows and rides. But, today, he and Birdy are alone and dependent on each other for survival.

Ya Sukhree of Surin and his 16-year-old cow Birdy greet visitors at the Pattaya Elephant Village.Ya Sukhree of Surin and his 16-year-old cow Birdy greet visitors at the Pattaya Elephant Village.

After his team of mahouts broke up, Ya took up residence at Pattaya Elephant Village, eking out a modest living introducing tourists to Thailand’s most-beloved creature. He feeds and bathes Birdy and acts as host at the camp, where the other 27 elephants in residence serve merely to take visitors on treks.

Ya said he has always lived with elephants and believes his family has had a bond with their kind since ancient times. Every morning, he leads the elephant to worship the Prakam idol, which is said to be sacred to both mahouts and their charges due to its fabled ability to facilitate communication between man and beast.

Celebrated in Thai history for their roles in ancient wars and modern tradition, elephants gained their own holiday in 1998 when Thai Elephants Conservation Coordination Committee pushed a motion through the Cabinet for each March 13 to be remembered as Thai Elephant Day.