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updated 11/15/2011 10:31:30 AM ET 2011-11-15T15:31:30

A huge work force in Thailand was back on the job Tuesday: the elephants famous for carrying tourists through the country's ancient capital.

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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 more than 550 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 Witthaya 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.

The floods have affected more than a third of the country's provinces and killed 562 people nationwide since they began swamping the central heartland in late July. The water has been inching across parts of Bangkok for several weeks, and officials have often struggled with how to protect the city of 9 million people.

The threat to central Bangkok that had been officials' greatest worry appears to have largely passed and waters in neighborhoods in the city's north have started to recede. In Bangkok's west, the water continues to spread as it makes its slow journey to the Gulf of Thailand to the south.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said she hoped the east side of the city will be dry by the New Year holiday period, though she had her doubts about when the water would fully recede in the west.

"I'd like to see people feel happy during the New Year," Yingluck said. "But, there is one area I am not confident about: the west side. It is very difficult to drain water in that area."

On Monday, Thailand's 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej left his room at Bangkok's Siriraj hospital, where has lived for the past two years, to watch the water level on the Chao Phraya river, which flows alongside the facility. It was the king's first public appearance since he suffered a health problem that caused him to temporarily lose consciousness earlier this month.

The situation is improving in many areas north of the capital, and the main highway from Bangkok to Ayutthaya has reopened to traffic. Though some parts of the roadway have minor flooding, vehicles are able to pass.

Still, while previously swamped cities across the central region drain, large parts of the countryside remain under water, and it is not clear how long it will take for the waters to fully recede.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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