Saturday, November 16, 2013

Surin Elephant Festival

Although lots of awesome travel stories have happened previous to this one... since I am all alone now I figure this story takes priority since I have shared it with no one. Until now. I will be sure to try to catch up on the other stories soon. The story can start in a number of places, but I'll begin on the evening of Thursday, Nov. 14th, when I flew into Phuket from Singapore after a little bout with Malaria. That was no fun, but that's another story. I met up with my buddy +Chad Dahne at the airport, as he had kindly volunteered to give me a ride back to his place on his motorbike, to save me some baht on a taxi fare. When the plane landed, it was POURING rain, which delayed the flight quite a bit. Once we got ready to take off, after bundling up in ponchos and rain jackets, etc... the rain actually decided to stop. Lucky break. 
Chad geared up for the rain
So I hopped on board, and we started off on the 40 min ride back to Chad's place. On the way home, we picked up Jackie, Chad's fiance, at the mall. This meant the three of us got to squeeze on the bike for the final few kilometers home. I had ridden with three people on a motorbike at Sakaerat a couple times, but this was my first time doing it in traffic. Now I can check that off the things-to-do-while-traveling-in-Thailand list. Jackie and Chad were super awesome hosts, despite the fact that I was barely able to spend 12 hours with them, due to an early flight back to Bangkok the next morning. I worked with these wonderful characters at Seacamp in the Florida Keys way back in the summer of 2010, but I hadn't seen them since. It's always great to run into friends when you are on the other side of the world! 
Friendly faces in a foreign land
Since I had to leave so early (my flight was at 6:45 am) I said goodbye to Jackie and Chad that evening before going to bed, and then woke up at 5 to catch my taxi to the airport. Thanks to security in Asia being relatively relaxed, I was at my gate in plenty of time. I arrived in Bangkok around 8 am, and then caught a taxi through some nasty traffic and pricey toll roads to the Hualamphong Train Station, where I bought a ticket to Surin leaving at 10 am. The only option for this train was third class, so I took it. This turned out to be an experience all of it's own, and for the most part it was great. 
Inside the third class train car to Surin
The total trip took about 7 hours, and after a while... the novelty of having the train window open and the warm sunny air blowing in your face kind of wore off. No worries, you can pull down the shades and close the windows, but it's hard to get too comfortable. I managed to doze off for a little while though, until periodically being woken by vendors hopping on the train trying to sell you all sorts of random snacks and drinks. At one point, I decided to buy a bag of peanuts, which gave me something to do while starring out the window. The scenery was filled with lots and lots of marshy rice fields, speckled with white egrets and storks fleeing as the rickety train approached. 
Leaving the big city behind
Most of the other tourists got off the train at Ayutthaya, leaving me to fend for myself on making sure I knew what was going on and when to get off. Not that I wasn't already on my own, but this eliminated all hopes of anyone else that spoke English. Eventually 5 o'clock rolled around, the time when I was slated to arrive in Surin... but stops that weren't Surin came and went. I was beginning to get a little nervous, but finally at 6 pm we rolled into the Surin station, much to my relief. As soon as I got off the train, I was greeted by at least 15 elephants... meandering around, looking to give people rides to their destinations. Clearly I had come to the right place! 
Elephant taxi 
Now, I should give you guys a tiny bit of background on this festival. This was one of the first things I read about when perusing the Lonely Planet that my parents gave me when they found out I was going to Thailand. 
It's official! 
The Surin Elephant Festival takes place only once a year, on the third weekend of November... and it is famous for featuring over 300 elephants performing a variety of talents. When I heard about it, and realized that I would be in Thailand during that time... I knew I had to go! I booked my hotel way back in August, and I'm glad I did... since when I was checking in, the phone at the reception was ringing off the hook with people looking for rooms. The first evening after I arrived I took it really easy... grabbing a bite to eat in the hotel restaurant, and I had my first beer since recovering from Malaria, then headed to bed early. The next morning, I woke up nice and early to enjoy a complimentary hotel breakfast and a free shuttle to the Surin stadium, where the Elephant show would be taking place. Unfortunately, I arrived too late to see the Elephant Buffet, a famous part of the festival which features all of the elephants parading down the streets and stuffing their faces with fruits and greens. According to this sign, it was a record-breaking event. That happened on the morning before I arrived, so it's not like I overslept or something. In fact, we arrived at the stadium with ample time to spare, which gave me time to explore and get up close and personal with lots and lots of elephants. 
Grabbing a light breakfast before the show
When I say lots, I mean LOTS. In a few minutes, I had seen more elephants here than I had previously seen in my entire life. There were at least 50 or 60 elephants just roaming around the stadium grounds, eating bamboo and going wherever their mahout nudged them. There were big elephants, small elephants, and every size in between. 
Smile for the camera!
I had at least an hour and a half to explore before the show started, and in this time I learned of something I had heard of but didn't quite understand, known as "Elephant begging." This involves the mahout (elephant trainer) approaching you with a small plastic bag of melons, which he tries to get you to buy to feed to the elephant. Presumably this gives him enough funds to buy more melons, and keep the process going. Elephants eat a TON, so it's not surprising that they are constantly looking to be fed. But it's too bad when this has to result in begging, and I'm not sure how much of the money goes towards feeding the elephant... and how much is exploitation to line the pocket of the mahout. I had lots of practice turning down cute kids begging me to buy things in Cambodia, but this was a whole new level. Sometimes the younger elephants would even reach out and grab your hand with their trunk, seeming to plead for you to feed them. That was something else. I cold-heartedly resisted their pleas though, and continued on... just taking lots of pictures. 
Elephant pushing a bag of fruit in my face, hoping I will feed it to him
After taking way too many pictures (who am I kidding, there's no such thing!) I eventually headed to my seat in the stadium to get ready to watch the show begin. The pre-show gathering of elephants, moving loads of bamboo around reminded me of the intro scene in Dumbo. 
We eat all day...
Anyhow, you can check out a ton more of my elephant encounter pictures on Facebook. I settled into my seat in the stadium, which was near the top of the bleachers since I didn't buy my ticket until only a few hours before the show. I didn't mind that though, as it gave me a nice bird's eye view of everything. 
My view of the stadium, prior to it being filled with elephants
Thankfully, in addition to announcements made in Thai... there was also an English translation that was broadcasted which brought a lot more meaning to everything. To kick things off, a couple young elephants waltzed in holding a banner that read "Welcome to Surin." Their mahouts helped out quite a bit with the holding part, but it was still pretty cute. Following them was a train of seven mothers with new born calves, each of which had been the recipient of a large sum of donated money in order to help raise the new babies. This was a sort of display to say thank you to the donors, and the audience in general for contributing to continuing the traditions of raising and caring for elephants, an expensive process. They were preceded by a bunch of older mahouts, who had once worked to catch wild elephants many moons ago. 
Welcome to Surin! 
There was a bit of intro fanfare, with someone important getting up to make a speech with a bunch of other sharply dressed people standing by his side. Not sure exactly who he was, perhaps the mayor of Surin or something... if they translated that bit then I missed it. 
Blah, blah, blah... Yayy elephants!
The next part of the show was definitely my favorite, and certainly one of the most breathtaking things I have ever beheld. Filing in from the left, this was a display of the sheer number of elephants that were part of this festival. They slowly meandered in, and then they just kept coming, and coming, and coming! In the middle, there was a large "White Elephant" which means he was lighter in color, with huge tusks. Supposedly the King of Siam used to give the countries he wanted to conquer a "white elephant" as a gift. It was very expensive to maintain, and this would drain their resources... making it easier for him to take over. As a result, the term "white elephant" has come to mean something that is expensive and pretty, but useless. 
The White Elephant
By the time all of the elephants had filed in, there were well over a 100 elephants in the stadium. I tried very hard to count them all, but there were just too many! And I was a bit excited. The feeling inside me at that moment was overwhelming. This was what I had traveled all this way for, and now here it was... right in front of me. That was definitely an awesome feeling.
Elephants taking over the stadium
 In a coordinated show of respect, all of the elephants bowed to the King at one point, which was also an awesome sight to behold. Who knows, maybe they were just looking for an excuse to sit down.

Bowing to the king
After this, the elephants slowly paraded out the left side... which gave the glorified pooper-scoopers time to do their duty. haha... duty.
Professional poop picker-uppers
The next part of the show demonstrated how wild elephants used to be caught. They brought out a few elephants with mahouts on their backs, equipped with lassos and long ropes... designed for catching the feet of the elephants they wished to snare. Then the younger, "wild" elephants were led by their mahouts away from these elephants in an attempt to avoid being caught. The result was fairly amusing, and most avoided the lasso. One guy did get caught though, much to his surprise, and then he started shaking his foot around as if to say, "What the heck is this thing?! Get it off!" 
Reenacting the capturing of wild elephants
The next part of the show was quite an act, with a bunch of little kids leading a whole line of elephants from either side into the center of the ring. The middle of the ring was equipped with basketball hoops, small platforms, and wheel-of-fortune-type wheels with balloons attached to them. The kids twirled hula hoops as they marched in, and jovial music blasted from the speakers. 
Leading the elephants to the center of the stadium
The elephants then proceeded to break off and hula hoop with their trunks, shoot baskets, and throw darts at the balloons. It was all very entertaining, and quite impressive. Here's a short clip of one of the elephants throwing a few darts, while others hula hoop in the background.
Then those guys filed off stage, and the next act called for a few brave volunteers. They were told to lie down on mats, and then the elephants were going to walk over them. The first elephant more or less walked around the people, but the next one had a lot more fun with it. He went up to each person, tapped them a few times with his trunk, and then lightly patted them with his foot before stepping over them. Just shows how intelligent these animals are! 
Playful pachyderm, putting his feet on the volunteer before stepping over him
Not only are these guys smart, they are also strong. And to demonstrate just how strong they are, there was a tug-of-war with about 20 volunteers from the audience, and one determined elephant. The volunteers didn't stand a chance!
The next event was one of the most famous, Elephant soccer!! The two "teams" approached from opposite ends of the stadium, with their captains (the goalkeepers) leading the way. They shook hands, of sorts, and then "kicked" things off!
Pre-game trunk shakes
The whole thing was quite amusing, and the ball never stayed in play for too long. It was also considerably slower paced than any other soccer game, with most of the players just sort of standing around. Still, a few decent kicks were made... and there's no such thing as a "hand ball" here! Here's a video of some of the action.

Of course, it wouldn't be soccer if someone didn't get injured! At first I didn't quite realize what was going on, as one of the younger elephants was lying down on his side... I thought maybe he just got tired. But then suddenly two other young elephants came rushing over with big white sheets with red crosses on them... symbolizing that they were the medics. In true futbol form, the elephant lay on the ground longer than necessary, and when he did eventually get up... he limped off the field!
Medics come to the rescue, while the ref issues a red card
After a bit, it was determined that the game would be settled in penalty kicks. This proved to be quite a show, with some elephants scoring quite easily, and others missing the goal entirely. Once or twice the keeper even blocked a shot!
Taking a PK
After the game was over (not exactly sure if anyone really won, since no one kept score...) the elephants left the field, and the humans took over for a bit. Lots and lots of local dancers took the stage, showcasing the traditional regalia and dance of the region.
Dancers take the stage
The next part of the show was pretty cool, and something only a bunch of elephant trainers would think of. It featured a bunch of elephants traveling close together, with one guy standing up on one of the elephants in the rear. Then, as the elephants moved, he jumped from elephant to elephant... working his way all the way to the front of the herd! It was quite impressive. 
Notice the guy standing up between two elephants
Eventually he made it to the front elephant, and he then led the herd around the stadium before beginning his next set of tricks. This time, he wasn't just hopping from elephant to elephant... he was engaging in hand-to-hand combat while doing so! A few wily opponents had snuck up onto the elephants' backs, and he was fighting to defend his territory while the herd roamed around the stadium. It was quite a sight. Eventually he returned to solid ground, where he was able to beat up on the ring of cronies surrounding him properly. 
Teaching some guys a lesson
They hopped back up on the elephants for more acrobatics... this guy had a lot of flips and spins that he had clearly been practicing. After some more choreographed punching and kicking, the fighters returned to solid ground to put on a display of synchronized moves. Here's a clip of some of the fighting on top of the elephants, hopefully it's clear enough to see. 
The final part of the show was a massive reenactment of an ancient battle, complete with elaborately decorated war elephants. This was just as impressive as every other part of the festival, if not more so. Hundreds of fighters, decked out with shields and spears covered the field on foot. Meanwhile huge tuskers carrying a mahout and a fighter armed with many different lances surrounded the edge of the stadium. 
War elephants, taking their place in the field of battle
Elephants and fighters entered from both sides of the stadium, prepared for an epic clash. 
Facing the enemy
Suddenly, cannons fired and the battle had begun! The majority of the action was between the battlers on the ground, as they engaged in aggressive hand-to-hand combat. Most of the war elephants just stood there and looked pretty... since they weren't actually fighting for their lives. At one point though, two of the huge males met in the middle and squared off... with their mounted warriors clashing spears while the elephants tangled tusks. Surrounded by fighting soldiers, it was really cool to see. I can only imagine how epic those bloody battles of ancient Siam must have been. I'm sure the elephants are glad those days are over though. Apparently their mahouts would get them drunk before battle so that they were reckless and wild. Talk about a shot of courage...
Armed to the tusk, battling it out
Eventually, the battle came to an end as the soldiers and elephants returned to their ranks. There was an announcement thanking the entire audience for coming to the show and supporting this traditional way of raising elephants... an important part of the Surin culture. After a huge synchronized bow from the elephants and a massive round of applause... the show was over. 
An end of the show salute
The rest of my day was comparatively very boring... I wandered around outside the hot fair grounds for a while, among throngs of other sweaty, mostly older tourists. I wasn't too impressed with the souvenir selection unfortunately... lots of ivory stuff. Not cool. I bought some fried tofu on a stick from one of the street vendors and then slowly wandered through Surin, practicing my map navigating skills. I walked across town to search out a restaurant that I'd read about in my guidebook... only to discover it no longer exists. So I stopped at a random nearby shop for some cake and a smoothie before heading back to the hotel. Lots and lots of walking, but I didn't mind since I had no other plans that day. I was just taking everything in. I got offered rides by an elephant multiple times. This is the only place where you'll get offered a ride by an elephant more often than by a tuk-tuk.  
Just a part of traffic here
Eventually I made it back to the hotel and took a much needed nap. I ventured out that evening to a place that I had read about online called N&N restaurant, which was known for serving German beers and a broad variety of western food options. Thanks to wandering so much that afternoon, I was familiar with the territory and made it there with no problem. I settled in for a delicious beer and a pizza, and was very pleased. Quite a satisfying reward for such an awesome day! 
Pizza and a beer. Well deserved
Next stop on my travels, Khao Yai National Park. Hopefully there I will get to see some elephants in the wild. Until next time, Peace Out! 


  1. just had a great freak out watching the elephants play soccer. Coolest thing ever.

  2. Feeling pretty culturally ignorant here but I'd never even thought of elephants being used in battle, crazy amazing! It's like giant lumbering horses. Like a slow mo war. Unless they're drunk and reckless, like you said. Now I want to go youtube elephants running. Maybe they're actually crazy fast....anyway, thanks for the guided tour of the event!