By Dave Stamboulis.
The northeastern Isaan town of Surin is a sleepy provincial capital of some 40,000 people, with one main street and a decent night market. Other than being famed for its local silk production and nearby Khmer temples of Ta Muean, the town is not a major tourist destination. However, on the third weekend of each November, the city roars to life and greets thousands of visitors with the arrival of the annual Elephant Roundup.
The Asian elephant is highly revered in Thai culture, both as a working asset and as an international symbol of the kingdom. It has been depicted in art, architecture, and literature, and shown as an auspicious symbol of the king. During the rule of King Rama II, even the national flag had an image of the elephant emblazoned on it.
In Ban Tha Klang, a small village some 60 kilometers from Surin, elephants have been raised and trained for ages by their mahouts (trainers), members of the Kui tribe, originally from Cambodia. Famed for capturing, domesticating, and training wild elephants, the Kui have taught the animals to become providers, work companions, and lifelong friends. In Kui families, it is normal for elephant training skills to be passed from father to son, and the boys often grow up with baby elephants that are the offspring of animals that have been in family through generations. There is thus a very deep bond between the men and the elephants. It is from Ban Tha Klang that the majority of the hundreds of elephants that grace Surin’s roundup come.
On arrival at Surin’s train station during the festival, one can opt for an elephant ride rather than a taxi to get to one’s hotel, as the elephants get free rein and run of the town and its streets for several days! Prior to the main event, the city even hosts the world’s largest elephant buffet, where the animals are gathered next to the railway station for a banquet in their honor, and for providing Surin with its golden cash cow (er … elephant)!
Once the roundup gets going, the elephants engage in football and polo competitions. Despite their girth, they are actually quite agile, and the football match usually proves to be highly competitive and entertaining. Lighter antics include clown performances, comic relief, and stunts like an “us versus elephant” tug of war, in which thirty or forty of Surin’s strongest young men take on a single elephant in a massive rope pulling match. Needless to say, the elephant always wins!
The roundup also offers a chance to see mahouts tending their charges, washing them down, displaying how the elephants are captured and tamed, and performing traditional ceremonies like phi pakarn, a ritual done to fend off danger during roundups of wild elephants. Some object to the rather circus-like atmosphere that seems to surround the elephants during the stunts and games, but a visit to the area behind the stadium where the mahouts wash, groom, and feed themselves reveals a more personal and tender side to the relationship between animal and trainer.
As elephants were a vital part of ancient warfare, the grand finale of the festival involves elaborately crafted mock battles fought in full traditional costume, with elephants leading the respective armies into their forays. This period piece is beautifully choreographed, as it features the elephants in battle costume, along with several thousand participants dressed as warriors. They engage in everything from horse jousting to firing cannons—the proceedings feel extremely authentic. In addition to these activities, there is also a local beauty pageant, colorful parades, and rides available on the backs of the mighty beasts, not to mention photo sessions with the babies.
Needless to say, there are plenty of food vendors and stalls to be found during the festival, and Surin is well known for its excellent gai yang (grilled chicken) and som tam (papaya salad). In addition, beer gardens are set up all over the city, and the weather in Surin in November is cool and refreshing: perfect for sitting outside and telling stories of the day’s events over bottles of the appropriately named sponsor of the whole event, Chang, your one and only elephant beer!
Travel Tips: The Elephant Roundup happens the third weekend of November, taking place this year on November 16–17. The main events happen at Si Narong Stadium, from about 8:30 a.m until 11:00 a.m. There are also roundups, rides, and other performances in the afternoons.
Accommodation: Often booked far in advance, the festival is a huge draw among both Thais and foreigners. Hotel prices tend to double, and advance bookings are essential. The Thong Tarin Hotel (Tel: 044 514 281, www.thongtarinhotel.com) has rooms from THB 2,300 including breakfast and dinner.
More information: Tourism Authority of Thailand, Surin Office
Tel: 044 514 447-8, 044 518 529