Travelling gives us a chance to meet people who are brilliant in various professions and teaches us how to develop our abilities for creative thought. Knowledge is not just found in books; experiences, passion and an open mind are also essential for success in life.
Recently, my friends and I went to Ban Ta Klang village in the northeastern town of Surin. There we met Watanyu Muenrat, a former teacher born into a mahout family who later gained online content creation skills.
A new chapter in his life began in 2015 when his father brought their elephant, Plai Bua Ban, back home after several years of service at a Pattaya tourist attraction. In Kui tradition, mahout techniques are passed down from generation to generation, and Watanyu realised there was no way to avoid his fate. So he sought to think of a way to carry on this cultural legacy in his own style.
Watanyu treated Bua Ban like a child and uploaded videos of the elephant's family peeling bananas or engaging in mating on YouTube. The feedback was positive, and he gained passive income from advertising. This inspired him to figure out how to utilise social media to earn money without leaving home and relying on the tourism industry.
At the same time, this serves as a platform to foster an animal-loving community and enhance understanding of Thai culture's perspective on house elephants. Watanyu created the Elephant Thailand YouTube channel, which has 1.05 million subscribers today, and taught neighbours how to start their own YouTube channels.
"Older villagers first opposed my approach because mahouts had faced criticism when viral videos on social media showed one jabbing an elephant with a billhook. I tried to explain to them how we might benefit from social media to enhance the quality of our lives. But then the Covid-19 outbreak caused the shutdown of every business. They were forced to return to their hometown and struggled to survive," Watanyu said.
"As everyone else started using online platforms to stay in contact with the outside world while working from home, mahouts started to understand the potential of social networks. The world's largest community of elephant YouTubers has emerged here after my neighbours learned how to create their own channels. Now, we can stand on our own two feet and no longer need to prowl the streets of big cities or work for hire in other places."
Watanyu's YouTube channel focuses on how to portray the nature of elephants, the way of local life and Isan culture. Bua Ban might be seen participating in a novice ordination procession or a house-welcoming ritual. Every elephant has a unique personality, much like humans, and YouTubers have learned to create their own selling points.
"Some families have pushed their children to enrol in a faculty of communication arts since they know how lucrative one video clip may be for them for the rest of their lives. We never consider ourselves at odds with one another because we concentrate on the elephant's advantages. Our families can make money, and our animals' bellies are full. The same set of people that follow us will also follow channels that are linked to us. They are willing to provide food for elephants, and this wealth allocation is based on their capacities," Watanyu added.
"I'll do a live stream four times a week in exchange for fruit contributions, and I'll post three videos each day. For YouTube, videos should be eight minutes long; for TikTok, they should be one minute; and for Facebook, three minutes is the perfect length."
Watanyu demonstrates his distinctive techniques for training elephants at the same time. He allows the elephant relative freedom to roam and has set up a few evening activities, so they can work out and relax together.
"In the past, safety came first. Therefore in an effort to slow elephants down, we shackled them. Some people believe that if an elephant is kind, it should be liberated. But in reality, the owner is unable to let them wander freely outside the home. It is similar to raising American pit bull terriers. We don't have enough money to create a sizable piece of land where they could graze freely," he said.
In accordance with local customs, he also fashions a collection of distinctive amulets, including rings, bracelets and necklaces out of horsehair and ivory to shield people from peril and evil magic.
Although people have their own definitions of success and pleasure, his story serves as an excellent illustration of the kind of person who is passionate about what they do.
Pattarawadee Saengmanee is a feature writer for Life section of the Bangkok Post.