- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 15, 2011

AYUTTHAYA, Thailand — A huge workforce in Thailand was back on the job Tuesday: the elephants famous for carrying tourists through the country’s ancient capital.

Authorities reopened a major elephant park in Ayutthaya, hoping to show tourists the country is beginning to return to normal following historic floods that have left 562 people dead nationwide.

Still, the prime minister said some parts of Bangkok could remain flooded into the New Year holiday period even though water is receding.

The pachyderms from the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace stood and sat with their mahouts - or handlers - through a prayer ceremony asking for blessings as the park opened for the first time since it was swamped in September.

The park is famous for offering tourists elephant rides through the ancient temple ruins that dot the city, a UNESCO World Heritage site 50 miles north of Bangkok.

Experts fear that at least half of the more than 200 waterlogged monasteries, fortresses and other monuments in the one-time royal capital have been damaged by Thailand’s worst floods in more than half a century.

Parts of the city were covered in up to 6 feet of water for more than a month.

On Tuesday, the major temples were dry, but dead fish and piles of debris and garbage littered the grounds, highlighting the massive cleanup effort that lies ahead.

Shops in the city were reopening, but the streets were largely empty of tourists.

Thailand’s tourism industry as a whole has been mostly unaffected by the flooding, with visitors simply avoiding the inundated central region and heading to the many mountain and beach areas unaffected by the floods.

Authorities hope the reopening of the elephant park will start drawing visitors back.

“Right now, the tourists are starting to understand and hear the news that tourism in Ayutthaya is resuming,” said Wittaya Piewpong, Ayutthaya’s governor. “We are now welcoming all tourists, especially here at the elephant palace.”

The camp, which had 98 elephants, closed when the city began to flood, and a small group was stranded on an area of dry land, where they lived on donated fruit and vegetables. Most of the other elephants swam to safety.

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