The elephant is the national symbol of Thailand, and as such it is virtually unavoidable. I have no idea what the UK’s national symbol is, although post-Brexit I would like to propose something along the lines of an ostrich. But Thailand seems to take its symbolism seriously, so you find elephants everywhere. Elephant lamps, statues, elephants on lighters, fridge magnets and almost every piece of clothing I saw, including the ubiquitous “elephant trousers”. These are colourful, billowy, patterned trousers sold in their thousands in the area around Khao San Road, and they’re the official uniform of backpackers of all genders.
My suspicion is that, like those other crimes against fashion, Crocs, elephant trousers have flourished because they fill a comfortable niche. The loose, crotch-down-to-the-knees design makes them good for hot weather. The elephant-spattered patterns disguise travel stains and the cheap price and ubiquity means that it’s not a big deal if they vanish into the arbitrary abyss of hostel laundries.
But they just look horrible. Nothing short of a safari shirt and a pith helmet could mark a person out more as a tourist. I dislike them so much it has made it hard for me to take anyone seriously if they’re clad thus, which is ridiculous, because I’ve met and liked a dozen people on this trip who have turned out to possess a pair. My aversion to these trousers has now coloured my view of anything else decorated with elephants. I ended up going to great lengths to find an elephant-free sarong in the Night Market in Chiang Mai.
Hemingway said writers need a shock-proof shit detector. For better or worse, I was born with a hypersensitive cliché detector instead. I have such an overblown aversion to clichés that my detector tends to give me a lot of false positives.
It’s not a good thing to have. For example, it put me off travelling to Southeast Asia for years. Rightly or wrongly, it puts me off Apple products, bicycles, tattoos, Moleskine notebooks, anything ‘artisan’, Jeremy Corbyn and music festivals. It’s made me a very late, reluctant adopter of some things I actually later enjoy.
What is a cliché to me? Something which has become overburdened with stale meaning. Something that has become a box to tick, a personality accessory. Something so encrusted with common connotations it becomes impossible to know your own authentic response to it. Although, on the plus side, my dislike of cliché makes me immune to received opinions, I still know it’s unhelpful to have my behaviour dictated by avoiding rather than embracing certain things.
Even though I’ve been proved wrong on a number of occasions I still tend to make snap judgements about elephant-trouser-wearers. There’s a certain kind of traveller in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, who make me shudder just to look at them. They talk about ‘doing’ a place, a horrid construction which has unintended yet appropriate connotations of violation. They wear elephants on their trousers then go for rides on elephants’ backs, without educating themselves about what these poor creatures are subjected to for the sake of tourism. The hostels they patronise overflow with the sort of adolescent hedonism of freshers’ week at university. They seem to be travelling only in order to get drunk and ‘do’ one another.
Luckily these sorts of people tend to cluster together, and can easily be avoided. The one advantage to elephant trousers is that you can see these people coming (and I’m sure the local con artists feel the same way). But my mistake lies in thinking all elephant-trouser-wearers are like that. All the arses I’ve met here have worn them, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who wears those trousers is an arse.
Nevertheless it has put me off decorative elephants completely. I spent ages that night back in Chiang Mai, roaming around the huge, kaleidoscopic night market looking for elephant-free sarongs.
The night market is a fantastic place, though it’s virtually impossible to come away empty-handed. I bought far more than I intended, though as someone later pointed out I hardly spent any money in the process.
On my way out I was scolding myself for my lack of restraint when I spotted yet another interesting shop. It was like a museum, heaving with handmade, fair trade things made by different hill tribes. Each item had a hefty description of the makers’ tribe and the symbolism of the patterns and objects they produced. It was fascinating. I could have spent an absolute fortune in there. In the end I succumbed to the temptation of a gold and bubblegum pink Ganesha amulet. On my last big trip I bought a tiny brass Ganesha and made it home safely, so I was hoping to renew my contract with this wonderfully lurid piece, which is about half the size of a pack of cards:
It wasn’t until I got back to my room that I realised I had, after all, bought myself an elephant.