Her ancestors once marched majestically through the jungle, and were ridden into battle by kings; some were even accorded royal titles. Tonight, Lamduan, a Thai elephant, is tromping in the far lane of an eight-lane highway, against oncoming traffic.
The three-ton pachyderm lumbers through the streets, now onto the sidewalk, now across four lanes onto a median strip, past the Fortune Town shopping center, past the Utopia massage parlor, across a bridge over a canal. A bus switches lanes to avoid a collision. A car honks. Taxis whiz by.
She is guided off the highway by her trainer, or mahout, who rides high on her back, and turns down an alley toward her next meal stop: an open-air restaurant and karaoke bar beside the neon-lit Honolulu Love Boat Club.
"Wanna buy some sugar cane to feed the elephant?" asks her owner, a young man who walks ahead of Lamduan like a carnival barker, hoping diners will part with 30 baht -- about 70 cents -- for three stalks of sugar cane that the elephant would snuff up eagerly with her trunk and roll delicately into her mouth.
Although elephants have been venturing to the big city during the dry season for decades, in the last 15 years or so they have roamed the streets of Bangkok virtually year-round. Some urbanites find the elephants adorable. Others find their presence in the city deplorable, a sad case of animal abuse. On any given night in Bangkok, as many as 70 elephants wander the city and its outskirts, a phenomenon that experts say is bred of environmental mismanagement and sheer greed.
Depending on the crowd, an elephant can bring in from $30 to about $70 a night. Baby elephants are particularly prized, their cuteness drawing even more customers wanting to feed them. Typically, a mahout and one or two other people will work with one elephant. Though they split the proceeds, what they take home monthly can approach or exceed the average monthly salary of $300 that a worker with a bachelor's degree earns.
But because of complaints by activists and some tourists, police have begun to crack down on elephants in the city. They have tried it before, but the elephants and mahouts always returned. They say that this time they really will enforce the laws: There's one banning animals from obstructing traffic, another banning them from dirtying the road. Animals are not legally permitted on highways, and it is illegal to remove them from their home region without a health certificate.
On Friday, police seized five elephants. A week earlier, for the first time, police arrested two mahouts; their animals were confiscated and sent to an elephant care center in the north. Soon mahouts will face up to four years in jail and a fine of 100,000 baht, about $2,300, for bringing elephants into the city.
"Elephants do not belong on the streets of Bangkok," said Lt. Col. Thanawat Wattanakul, the police official who made the arrests. Besides creating a traffic hazard, he noted, mahouts lack third-party insurance for the elephants in case they damage something: "If the elephant steps on a car, who's going to pay for that?"
The elephants venture into shopping and dining districts and sleep in urban scrub forests on undeveloped lots. They have been hit by vehicles, fallen into city swamps and often trapped in sewage drains, and one recently went berserk, attacking cars until police felled him with 200 bullets.
Activists lament the conditions these tropical jungle natives face in an urban jungle of 7 million people. Trees in the city are not tall enough to shade the animals, so they suffer sunburn. The grass is suffused with mercury from vehicle exhaust, so 80 percent of the city elephants have stomach or intestinal problems, said Roger Lohanan, secretary general of the Thai Animal Guardian Association.
Lamduan's owner, Sutha Salangarm, said the elephants would not be in the city were it not for avaricious businessmen, backed by a shortsighted government in his home province of Surin in the southeast, who replaced the forests that elephants used to feed on with inedible eucalyptus trees. And, he said, he has no work when the rice-growing season is over. So, for the last two years, he has borrowed money to rent a truck to bring Lamduan to Bangkok.
"People don't know how hard it is to keep an elephant alive," he said.
Kampa, the mahout, gets up at 4 a.m. to feed his charge, then bathes her in the afternoon. He spends most of his waking hours with her. At 29, Kampa is single -- "I don't have time for a girl," he said.
Activists say mahouts use privation as an excuse. "There is a difference between making money to survive and making money to be rich," Lohanan said. "What they want is to be rich."
There are alternatives to the street life, said Richard Lair of the National Elephant Institute in Lampang province. He teaches elephants to paint, for instance. And he has created an elephant orchestra whose members chirp and trumpet and play drums, gongs and the xylophone.
Activists, however, say that until the authorities put a halt to elephant renting, animals such as Lamduan will continue to roam the streets. And Salangarm said that until the government alleviates poverty in the rural provinces, he will continue to come to the city to earn money to feed his wife and two children.
As the evening wears on, Salangarm's sack of sugar cane lightens. But there is more in the basket high on Lamduan's back. So the group, in search of customers, turns up another road, past the hospital, over another bridge, and into the Bangkok night.