THE ELEPHANT MONK
The ivory carvers in Phayuha Khiri and Surin are the most famous in Thailand and the targets of most investigations there into the illegal ivory trade. Phayuha Khiri is so dedicated to ivory that in the town center, where one might expect to see a fountain, there’s a circle of four great white tusks. It takes me only minutes on the main street to realize I’ve seen this place before: Tayuman, Manila’s religious-supplies district; only here, instead of crucifixes and images of the holy family, are life-size images of famous monks, small images of the Buddha wrapped in plastic, and bracelets and other religious items bagged by the dozens. Vendor after vendor on both sides of this long street is a Buddhist wholesale outlet. The only people I see shopping during my visits to Phayuha Khiri are small knots of orange-robed monks.
I track down the village’s head ivory dealer—Mr. Thi, who’s wearing an amulet on an ivory necklace and an ivory belt buckle—tour his shops and carving operation, and also visit his McMansion-size home. Mr. Thi tells me that Phayuha Khiri’s carving industry was founded by a monk who liked to carve ivory amulets. Standing in his shop, I look over his shoulder and see a painting of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, and beside him a Happy Buddha. Monks, I discover, give out amulets in return for donations. The better the donation, the better the amulet. Amulets blessed by certain monks are even more valuable.
The Elephant Monk, Kruba Dharmamuni, who used to be the Scorpion Monk and still displays a life-size statue of himself as a scorpion in his temple, wants to take me ivory shopping in Surin. Once upon a time Surin was home to the king of Siam’s royal elephant catchers, but today government-subsidized elephant keepers, mahouts, live a shadow of their old lives, dependent on their animals’ ability to kick a soccer ball or hold a paintbrush and create a “self-portrait” on an easel for tourists. Vendors selling ivory rings, bangles, and amulets line the entrance to Surin’s tourist park.