The Surin Elephant Roundup has its origins in Thailand’s royal hunts in the Ayutthaya period. Today, the festival is a nod to the region’s status as the “land of elephants”.
Text and Photos Brent Lewin
Although it may feel as though it is tailor-made for tourists, the Surin Elephant Roundup is a cultural window into man’s longstanding association with elephants in the northeastern province of Thailand, with its roots in the Ayutthaya era (14th–18th century), when elephant hunts were showcased as a public event. Back then, people would gather to witness the hunters returning from the jungle, using their traditional methods to corral wild elephants toward an enclosure known as a kraal.
Over time, the spectacle became more of a staged re-enactment of the hunt, and by the 20th century, trained elephants were incorporated into the exhibition, which was primarily put on for the entertainment of royal guests. Among the most famous visitors was Russian prince Nicholas II, who attended in 1891.
The roundups lost their royal patronage in 1938, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that it was revived as an annual festival in Surin. This region is home to many of Thailand’s Kui people, an ethnic minority whose identity is closely intertwined with elephant hunting. During the Ayutthaya period, the Kui caught an average of 25 elephants annually during the monsoon season, in the forests along the Cambodian border.
The Kui traditionally made their living capturing and training wild elephants from the jungle for onward use in war, heavy labour and transportation. But with logging banned in 1989, the role of elephants shifted to meet tourist interest. Today, the festival is still a nod to the region’s elephant heritage, with re-enactments of preparations for and participation in a hunt, but it also incorporates trained elephants who perform tricks, compete in a tug of war, and play football to a stadium of cheering Thai students and foreign tourists.
Before the festival officially kicks off, preparations are made in Ban Tha Klang, a small village 60 kilometres from Surin that is home to hundreds of Kui families. Men are chosen to perform in the roundup and set off with a convoy of mahouts, who herd their elephants to Surin to set up camp, train, and offer tourists elephant rides and the chance to get up close and personal with the animals.
On the Friday morning during the third week of November, the festival officially kicks off with nearly 300 elephants carrying dignitaries and mahouts from the railway station through the streets of Surin to the elephant tusk roundabout on Prasat Road, where a banquet of food awaits the mighty creatures, who are known for their voracious appetites. Approximately 50 tonnes of neatly-arranged pineapple, sugar cane, cucumber and watermelon sits on a 400-metre-long table set up on the road.
As elephants descend on the food, visitors wander among the chaos in the street, with a loudspeaker blaring in the background to remind people that they must not join in the feast. It’s no surprise that in 2003, the buffet set a Guinness World Record for the world’s “largest elephant buffet”.
Saturday morning starts at Si Narong stadium, dubbed “elephant stadium”, where all the elephants gather and take part in a parade, followed by displays of traditional Kui elephant hunting techniques and rituals. After paying respect to the roundup’s hunting roots, the elephants display their fancy foot- (and trunk-) work during a match of elephant football.
The pace is slow and the score low, but it’s astounding to see how nimble and coordinated the elephants are with their big round feet. Every so often, an elephant decides to break the rules, grips the ball in its trunk and makes a run for it, and the audience erupts into laughter. The elephants also show off their skills at painting on canvas, and do logging reenactments, racing, and twirl hula hoops.
At one point, volunteers from the audience lie in a row as an elephant steps over their bodies, with the elephants occasionally – playfully –patting a volunteer’s bottom. Later in the day, an elephant takes on real-life soldiers from the Royal Thai Army in a heated tug-of-war contest.
Even with as many as 100 men, they’re still no match for the strength of a single elephant. The grand finale is a re-enactment of an ancient battle between colourfully decorated Thai and Burmese armies and their elephants. The programme repeats itself the following day on Sunday.
In the past decade, elephant tourism has been scrutinised by the media, with advocacy groups shining a light on some of the negative aspects of the industry. Although conditions and training methods appear to be improving, controversy still surrounds elephants being used for rides, walking in cities, as well as performing circus tricks.
But the other harsh reality is that returning to the jungle is simply not an option for trained pachyderms, and so tourism offers a viable option of survival for Thailand’s already domesticated elephants – and a livelihood for their mahouts.
Unfortunately, training these elephants to perform for tourists remains at the core of the roundup. While you’re unlikely to witness any outright cruelty towards the elephants at the festival, do keep an eye out for any abuse – or even animal goods trading – and notify organisers if you see anything unethical.
Surin is also home to the Elephant Study Center in nearby Ban Tha Klang, where visitors can a acquire of wealth of information about elephants, and mingle with the Kui.
The atmosphere surrounding the roundup itself is relaxed, and visitors have the chance to wander around the town and try out their Thai language skills. One of Surin’s charms is that it lies off the beaten track, and even though it may feel like it’s bursting at the seams during roundup time, it retains its laidback vibe; it also boasts some of the best northeastern (Isaan) food in the country.
There are also night markets with live music, cultural dances and beauty contests, all of which are a great way to soak up local Isaan culture.
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For more stories and photographs from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 128, 2017