Elephants are revered in Thailand. These majestic beasts hold great significance in royal ceremonies and were once the war animals for Kings in ancient battles. The bond between elephants and Thai people is unique — many treat them as family members rather than a pet or an animal used for labour. Of course, due to tourism elephants have been abused behind closed doors in order to turn a profit, but there are many who still honour this sacred bond. In the north-eastern part of Thailand, you'll find the village of the ethnic Kui, here the bond between man and elephants is strongest. For centuries, this community has lived in harmony with elephants at their side. The two living in tandem, rarely separated, reliant upon each other.
This once lush green forest of Surin was destroyed in favour of cash crops, leaving the Kui and their elephants to suffer from extreme droughts, food shortages and a lack of medicinal plants that they relied upon. Left with no option, the two were forced into tourist towns, begging for sustenance or working in elephant camps with unsuitable living conditions.
But brighter days prevail and the local government has since funded the Elephant World project in an attempt to bring the Kui and their elephants back to their hometown and restore it to its former glory. The project was finally completed in 2020 and includes the Kui village, a farm, an elephant hospital, a museum, and initiatives to reform the neighbouring forest for a sustainable future. A totally self-sustaining system that caters to its people, but more importantly the needs of the elephants.
The Elephant Museum is part of Elephant World, a project to ensure suitable living conditions for the elephants. The museum showcases the voice of the villagers and more than 200 elephants living here — it tell tales of their long-established familial bonds, their crusade against the cruelty of animal exploitation, and their hopes for the future. A barren and treeless landscape, curved walls of varying heights rise from the earth, welcoming visitors of grand proportions. The walls ascend and curve softly, guiding elephants inside where lavish courtyards await them.
Courts of different shapes and sizes are pocketed throughout the walls, with exhibition galleries beside them for human visitors to take a peek at the elephants without disturbing them. This architectural design is critical, allowing the animals to come and go as they please, not held captive like they are in zoos. Small pools offer respite from the heat, while some are filled with the same reddish earth found outside for elephants to play in. This labyrinth of walls is their haven where they will thrive once more.
Over 480,0000 handmade, fired clay bricks were crafted using a technique that has been passed down through generations. After decades of struggling away from home, the museum empowers the Kui, the elephants, and the people of Surin. This programme helps to restore their dignity and allows them to take pride in their heritage once more. Creating jobs for the local community, it also places an essential value on an often-overlooked local materials.
Between the Elephant World and the forest, sits the Brick Observation Tower. 28 metres high, 14 metres long and 8 metres wide in an oval formation, this arrangement of columns and beams sprouts from the ground. A steel mesh staircase sits at the centre of it, leading visitors upwards and allowing unobstructed sky views. Whilst it is an impressive piece of architecture, its purpose lends itself to the reforestation efforts of the programme.
The local Apitong tree has a seed shaped like a propeller, allowing it to spin and sail through the air swiftly. Wherever it drops, a new Apitong tree will grow. By dispersing these seeds from the very top of the tower and with a bit of help from strong local winds, the seeds can travel as far as 20-metres and help cultivate a new forest to be enjoyed by a new generation.
While many observation towers often push visitors to go to the top as fast as possible, the unique design of this one creates cause for pause. It encourages visitors to take their time, feel the wind and absorb the landscape. From the top, this is where you can best reflect on the relationship between humans and elephants. With views of human and elephant houses, both human and elephant graveyards, all surrounded by the traversed trails of the Kui and their elephants each day. Eventually, the forest will return to the lands, and this man-made building will be allowed to succumb to nature, its purpose fulfilled, an approach that lends itself to the wabi-sabi way of life, the idea of impermanence and the beauty that it holds. Knowing that this building not only has a purpose, but will one day cease to exist having achieved its single motivation, makes it all the more of a splendour.
This project touches on so much of the natural world order in an elegant way. Thai architect Boonserm Premthada, deservedly won the Wallpaper Design Award for Best Sanctuary for his ability to marry culture and tradition with modern solutions, showing great respect to the people of this tribe, their home, the elephants, their relationship and this historic land.
Project Name: Elephant Museum
Architecture Firm: Bangkok Project Studio
Photo credits: Spaceshift Studio
Save the elephants, and then you save the forest - and then you save yourself. - Mark Shand, British travel writer and conservationist.