Travel journal

57. In the land of elephants.

Surin Elephant Round-up

Surin - land of Thai elephants.

Ever since I accidentally learned about the elephant festival a few weeks ago, I knew I had to see it. It is always held every year on the third weekend of November.

We set off at dawn on Friday. As always, the only way to get out of the town towards the main city of the region is a morning van. It usually passes through the town a quarter of an hour after the seventh, but it is better to be a little earlier because it does not have a fixed time frame.

The principle of travel is simple, you get on the crate, the vehicle moves at a speed of 20 km / h honking and stopping at the request of the traveler. The 35-kilometre journey takes more than an hour. However, we will only overcome a 12 kilometer stretch to the main road and there we will try to catch a bus to the provincial capital.

Before eight o’clock we arrive at the main intersection. Here we get off. Friday is the time to return from cities to the smaller towns of Isaan, so we are counting on more bus traffic and more frequent connections.

Time passes, it gets hoter and hoter, and the bus can not be seen. Finally, after more than an hour, he appears on the horizon, we wave our hands to make the bus stop. It turns out that it has no vacancies and we would have to stand for two hours during the trip – we give up. We’re still at the starting point. The journey is not progressing.

After another twenty minutes, we give up further waiting and get in the local van that will take us to Chum Phae.

There is no more slippage, the vehicle accelerates and after a dozen minutes we are at the station in Chum Phae. More than two hours and we traveled 35 kilometers – poorly. All because we decided to get off at Na Nong Tum instead of going right away here.

Breakfast time so we eat products prepared by Sukanya’s mom. We eat like during student trips on the station, quickly, among many passengers waiting like us for their buses.

Time is running out again and we still don’t have transportation to the provincial capital. Where else to travel to Surin?

The correct bus finally arrived. In addition to passengers, local snack vendors also board the bus. If you forgot to take food on a trip – for little money you will probably buy something for yourself.

A few words about bus travel – technically they are in different condition. The long distance (running through several provinces) are modern, local (within the provinces) where there is frequent rust and other minor flaws. Regardless of the type of vehicle, there are always two people on the journey – the driver and the assistant / conductor. There may be minor faults in the vehicle, but the air conditioning must always function regardless of the quality of the rolling stock. In these, let’s call them “local” buses, of course, numerous lights, curtains with frills – Thais love kitsch – buses are supposed to shine and look beautiful.

We have over 80 kilometers of travel ahead of us, I don’t know why, but traditionally I sleep during this tour.

When noon passed we were in Khon Kaen. It’s a big city (as not the largest) in Isaan with an airport and well-developed infrastructure. Sukanya tells me that a dozen years ago, when she commuted to school, it was a small town, and now it has developed into a large center. The bus station, as in many other cities of Thailand, is located on the outskirts of the city.

Khon Kaen Station Location.

Thailand’s bus stations consist of two terminals – the local part and the long-distance part next to or on the opposite side of the road. Such planning of stations in cities, of course, has its pros and cons. The main plus is the ease of access – without traffic jams, minus, of course, the distance from the city center and railway stations (in case of connecting during the trip) and the need to use a taxi or tuk-tuks

At the station we meet with Sukanya’s son. He lives here despite his young age, goes to school here and has just started a two-week holiday two days ago – children in Thailand will return to school on the first of December.

Together, we can move on, at the beginning we move from a long-distance bus station a local one.

Being at the appropriate bus station, we can easily find a bus to Surin. While waiting for the bus, I look at the goods that buses carry in Thailand.

The bus works like a post office.

In the meantime, our bus drove up – we are going.

We took maybe 10-20 km and suddenly we go off the road, the driver’s message “get off” ?!? What is going on?

It turned out that we drove to a petrol station and we need to refuel the bus. During this time, passengers may not be in the vehicle. So we sit under the shelter in front of the fuel dispensers and watch how the bus is filled with LPG.

We refuel the bus.

After refueling the bus without hindrance, we moved on. We have a nearly five-hour journey ahead of us. The landscape began to change as we distanced ourselves from Khon Kaen. The mountains have replaced numerous farmland.

It is already after the harvest of rice fields. The rice harvested is now dried. In many villages we have seen these pictures around houses and temples.

More water areas, ponds and wild backwaters have also begun to appear in the landscape. It is a great place to find food for locals (from insects to frogs to fish).

Between Surin provinces and Buri Ram we cross the largest river of the region – Mun River.

Mun River
Map of the Mun River Basin.

The river gained fame during the Vietnam War thanks to the American troops stationed at Ubon Ratchathani. It was called the “Moon River” thanks to a popular song of the 60’s.

We continue our journey and pass other towns and villages.

On the roads, stalls with wicker cages with roosters began to appear more and more often. They are specially bred for fighting. The sight of frequent baskets was impressive.

Roosters in wicker baskets – in the background a typical local shop.

We traveled during the period when in Thailand there is a school break (the last two weeks of November) so the traffic in travel was quite large. I was interested in the fact that a lot of monks traveled by bus. The most interesting thing was that after getting to the destination, the monks dressed up after leaving the bus.

It was dark, as one of the last we commuted to the destination of our trip. I was surprised that despite the largest festival with elephants, both the trip to Surin and the hotels in the city were not besieged. Without a problem, a few days before the event you could find any standard of accommodation that interested us. I don’t think it’s due to a pandemic – I get the impression that there is a different culture in Asia.

Our hotel was located on the main entrance road two kilometers from the center and the bus station (Surin has such organized transport that the bus station is located in the center next to the train station). It is worth asking the driver if he would not stay next to the hotel. Our driver easily stopped at the hotel itself.

Before leaving the bus, I noticed a photograph on the shelf above the driver’s head.

Picture above the head of the bus driver.

The hotel was located 200 meters from the main road.

After check-in, we went to a nearby restaurant for a meal and a shopping shop (7-eleven is 400 metres away). It’s time to rest because tomorrow morning attractions await us.

The morning sun woke us up early. It was seven o’clock. We freshened up quickly and around eight we were on our way to the city stadium. It is 2 kilometers away and is situated next to the local airport.

Despite the traffic jams, the ordered taxi appeared quickly. After a while, we’ve already squeezed through the crowd of people heading to the stadium. Everything runs quite smoothly even with so many people walking the entire width of the road.

We buy tickets to the grandstand without a roof and after a while the steward tells us our sector. We buy an umbrella that will protect us from the sun. So equipped we expect the beginning of the parade. The show is about to begin.

The festival begins on Friday with a parade. Nearly 300 elephants pass in a solemn parade in front of the train station towards the southern part of the city. Upon reaching your destination, there is a festive breakfast organized for elephants. Proper celebrations begin on Saturday in the stadium, hence our presence.

Before I talk about the events of today, I will briefly talk about the history of the region, which is linked to today’s event.

Coat of arms of Surin province

The history of surin province dates back to prehistoric times. This land was in the rule of both Cambodia and Laos and now Thailand. The population of Surin is mainly Khmer, accounting for 50% of the population. Next to them live an influx of people from central Thailand and a nomadic Kuy tribe.

The population of Kuy is estimated to be around 300,000 in Thailand, more than 60,000 in Laos and more than 15,000 in Cambodia. In the past, Kuy has been engaged in agriculture, weaving, animal husbandry and fishing for their own needs. As the drought began, residents moved across villages to more favorable areas. These people believed in the spirits not only of ancestors but also in the spirits of nature. It is important for the community to believe in the spirit of the lizard (Takuat), which the Kuy people see as a symbol of fertility. Kuy celebrate ceremonies pleading with the spirit of Takuat asking for fertility for themselves and for the fertility of nature.

While women (valued in Kuy society) cared about community cohesion and spiritual issues, men went on the hunting. For centuries, men from the Kuy tribe have been known and valued throughout Thailand in the capture, training and breeding of elephants. This is a very important activity in the culture of this tribe and a reason for pride and prestige. It is from this area that a large part of the elephants was sold to other areas of Thailand.

The elephant hunt itself was ritual. During this process, the hunters wore special outfits believing that they had protective power. They prayed to the deities before hunting for the right strength and durable equipment (durable enough lasso) and the prosperity of the hunt.

Captured and tamed elephants served as animals for transport, participated in wars, helped with deforestation and transporting timber.

Today, Kuy’s identity, culture and language are disappearing. With the advent of railways and transport routes, the self-sufficient and somewhat isolated region has opened up to trade, and culture and traditions have been displaced by the cultures of the countries in which they live.

Over the years, the tradition of hunting has disappeared. Since the 14th century it has taken the form of a festival that increasingly resembled a spectacle. It was held under royal patronage. This event survived until the end of the 1930s.

The contemporary festival was reactivated in 1960. Initially, the unknown festival gradually gained popularity. The ban on logging in Thailand in the early 1990s also contributed to this. Many owners, together with elephants, started working in the tourism industry due to the ban on earning money on food for animals and livelihoods for the owner, and automatically increased interest in these animals among tourists raising the prestige of the event. Of course, the unregulated government treatment of elephants promotes bullying and violence against elephants – causing stress and often suffering for the animals. You must remember this and talk about it.

This is one side, on the other hand, this animal is given great respect in Thailand by many owners and surrounded by care, which also needs to be remembered. For many residents of Kuy and other areas of Thailand, the elephant is their friend and is treated on an equal footing with the household.

Another issue is the damage caused by wild elephants, which aggressively enter farmers’ pens in search of food, destroying orchards and crops.

As you can see, the problem of elephants is complex. In terms of the treatment of elephants, there is certainly a lot to do and correct – you need to find the golden mean.

Returning to this day – the festival begins with a speech by the local authorities. At that time, the elephants were preparing for the show.

The show begins with a parade. Dignitaries on elephants enter the stadium.

At the same time, dancers appear in local costumes and in costumes from the past. The show is interspersed with historical stories referring to the history of Thailand and the relationship of man with elephants.

Dances and marches of all elephants appear every now and then.

The elephant’s keeper is Mahout. This profession is inherited from generation to generation. Young boys immediately start working in the family profession, taking care of an elephant. The elephant has only one protector and lives with him all his life. Thanks to this, the guardian and the animal know each other perfectly.

The keeper controls the elephant by touching its ears.

At this point, I must mention how an elephant is taught obedience by a mahout.

Kornak uses a metal sharp hook called Ankus to handle and tame the elephant.

Mahout and his ankus.

I will mention the controversy surrounding the humanitarian issue , because there is a very fine line between taming the animal and its training or abuse. I myself had very mixed feelings of seeing in my hand mahout ankus.

However, I am trying to understand the meaning of using this tool and I firmly believe that it was used to a minimum as a last resort. In the case of tame elephants, ankus is often used to control the animal. The animal, seeing them, is subdued to the will of the caregiver.

Meanwhile, it’s time to show the skills of elephants. Unfortunately, it was a bit like a circus and a training. Elephants raised their front paws, sat down, kneeled.

An elephant hunting ritual was also presented.

Elephants in gallop, this show was spectacular.

It also showed what life was like in Siam.

In addition to everyday life, threads related to the history of Siam and numerous armed conflicts were interwoven. Elephants were used in battles.

Then it was time for another parade and artistic performances. The children were certainly happy to see the elephants perform various tricks. Unfortunately, it reminded me of a circus.

The next point was the re-performance of the artistic performance.

It’s time for sports.

The sports competition consisted of the Mahouts race on elephants. The animal was to collect food from four bases and give the handler a bottle of drink at the last base. The winner was Mahout who drank the drink first.

There was also a relay – elephants handed over the baton to each other.

Every year there is a tug-of-war. Once with an elephant competed military, today the audience participates. The elephant proved unrivalled.

It’s time for a football match.

There was a foul midway through the match. The injured elephant left the field.

The match ended with a score of 1-1. Therefore, penalty kicks were decisive for the victory.

I expected the yellow team to win, maybe because they are Thai colours. They turned out to be better in the penalty shootout.

As the event was coming to an end, an unplanned intruder entered the stadium. Everyone has their own five minutes. With the staff surprised and the crowd amused, the dog ran gleefully through the stadium.

After the situation was under control, a battle was recreated between the Siamese and Myanmar forces. The show was dazzling.

The battle was won by the armies of Siam, and the reconstruction of the battle shows how important a role the elephants played in the battle. Interesting history lesson – but I was worried about stressed elephants in noise and smoke.

After three hours, the artistic performance was over. Finally, the keepers and their pets approached the audience. People paid them to thank them for the show.

The whole event lasted three hours, we endured despite the monstrous heat.

Summarizing – is it worth it? I think that this show is worth seeing after all.

The downside is that animals are most likely stressed (I do not believe that loud music, explosions and smoke have no effect on elephants), maybe they are amused by tricks, but this means so much that they once had to suffer during training. The upside is certainly the cultural aspect, people in their history have tamed this great animal and have been living with them for years. The elephant is an important animal of this culture, it serves to help and helps to support many families. Opinion as usual everyone will make himself, in my opinion nothing is black and white.

Despite the large number of people, we left the stadium quickly and efficiently. We stopped the tuk-tuk and returned to the hotel.

For today enough impressions. Tomorrow we head to the sea to relax on the beach. The feast of the elephant in Surin has gone down in history, the next only in a year.

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