Words and photos by Dave Stamboulis
The town of Surin is a sleepy provincial capital of some 40,000 folks with one main street and a decent night market, and not a major tourist destination. However, on the third weekend of every November, the city roars to life with the arrival of the annual Elephant Roundup.
In Ban Tha Klang, a small village some 60 kilometres from Surin, elephants have been raised and trained for ages by their mahouts, members of the Kui tribe, originally coming from Cambodia. Famed for capturing, domesticating, and training wild elephants, the Kui have taught the animals to become providers, work companions and lifelong friends. Elephants were traditionally used in battle, and the Elephant Roundup, which has been held since 1960, features the mighty beasts showing off some of their talents and prowess, not to mention often humorous sides.
The main events take place on Saturday and Sunday mornings at the Elephant Stadium, where the big changs start off by doing acrobatic stunts, playing basketball, and painting t-shirts, amongst other novelties. As the morning heats up, the elephants engage in football and polo competitions, with a lot of betting and general hooting and hollering going on from the much appreciating spectators who line both sides of the field. Lighter antics include clown performances, 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 tug of war (needless to say, the elephants always win!).
Following the fun stuff, the roundup then offers a chance to see mahouts tending their charges, washing them down, feeding them, and performing traditional ceremonies like phi pakarn, a ritual done to fend off danger during roundups of wild elephants. As elephants were a vital part of ancient warfare, the grand finale of the festival involves elaborately crafted mock battles in full traditional costume, with elephants leading the respective armies into their forays.
Just as appealing as the festival itself are the accompanying celebrations. Residents of Isaan are famed for their hospitality and one will invariably be invited for shots of whiskey, baskets of sticky rice, and maybe even offered a few fried bugs, which are a big hit and local specialty in the central market.
The main event will take place at Si Narong Stadium from about 8:30am until 11. Tickets for the festival are priced at B300, B500 and B1,000, and can be reserved in advance, a good option if wanting the better grandstand seats (Surin Provincial Office, 04-451-2039 or 04-452-1360 for reservations and other information).
Surin is reached by either train or bus from Bangkok (about 7-8 hours) and around B350-B700 baht by bus (depending on the company and type of bus), and maybe an hour longer and a bit cheaper by train. Getting around Surin is easy, as most of the town can be navigated on foot, although there will likely be an elephant and mahout on every corner eagerly waiting to give you a lift.
Often booked way in advance, the festival is a huge draw amongst Thais and foreigners. The Thong Tarin Hotel (60 Th. Surirat | 04-451-4281 | www.thongtarinhotel.com), has rooms from B2,300.
November 17-18: the Surin Elephant Roundup