Throughout the 76 provinces in The Kingdom of Thailand festivals and ceremonies happen all over each year. I don’t envy any person or committee who might be tasked with the daunting assignment of trying to choose ‘one’ as the best. The Northeastern province of Surin might not be breaking any world tourism records like it Southern brethren Phuket; however once a year tourists flock here for its time to shine. It is November’s annual Elephant Round-up which brings Thai’s and foreign visitors out in en masse. Hands down the Round-up is the most popular festival in the province; rivaling just about any other in the region.
Surin, often known as the ‘province of elephants,’ has long had an association with all things elephant. The people of Surin have become extremely well recognized for their skill in rounding up, taming and training wild elephants. In ancient times the elephant was a beast of war and played a fundamental role in the protection of Thailand. Having their military status moved to ‘inactive-duty;’ today the elephant is more commonly used as a tourist attraction while still seeing rather limited work in forests and agriculture.
The exact origins of the festival may have been lost in time; however some rumors suggest it originated from a couple of mahouts, elephant drivers, bragging about who had the better elephant. They settled their spat with a competition. Their small competition grew and grew and is now a large festival. In 1962 the festival was recognized as a National event and has been held every year since.
The festival takes place over two days, and is kicked off with an Elephant Buffet. Hundreds of elephants and their mahouts take part in a parade and lumber to the southern entrance of the city, converging at the Phraya Surin Phakdi Si Narong Chang Wang Monument. It is here where the elephants literally feast on tons of food. In 2003 a Guinness World Record was broken in Surin when 269 Asian elephants ate over 50 tons of food (110,000 lbs). There are offerings of bananas, pineapples and mangos for the elephants to chow-down on. The stands of food for the elephants line the streets, and by the time the frenzy is complete it looks like a tornado touched down. It’s a very rare opportunity to see hundreds of elephants gathered in one central place. What gives this an even more surreal feeling is the ability to be right in the thick of it, with towering elephants walking all around you. You are able to get so close as to have your own photo-op, touch/pet, feed and ride the gentle giants. The elephant buffet brings the term ‘concrete jungle’ bursting to life. It is an awesome spectacle!
During the festival around 250 of these giant beasts perform a range of tasks. The mahouts showcase displays of grace, strength and intelligence. Fans watch as they play a game of soccer, throw darts, make paintings and engage in a tug-of-war contest against teams of fifty men and women. The festival is brought to a fever pitch with the sounds of battle cries and war music resounding around the dusty arena. The highlight of the show begins as smoke billows from a castle wall at the North end while warriors and elephants ordained in war regalia gather to the South. A war elephant parade evolves into a mock battle that takes visitors back to ancient times of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. The battle demonstrates how the elephant was used to instill fear in the enemy and protect the land.
The elephant is the symbol of Thailand and until 1916 the White Elephant was the central image on the country’s flag. For centuries the people of Thailand have revered the elephant for its power, protection and economic viability. If you’re planning a trip to the land of smiles, I definitely recommend adding the Surin Elephant Round-up in November to your to-do list. You will not regret it!