The Surin Elephant Round-up has been an annual occurrence since 1960, but because it’s located in Northeastern Thailand, in a small province where not much else happens, it isn’t widely visited by foreigners. Surin is said to be where the elephants first originated, so the festival is a celebration to honor them in their native homeland.
According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the Round-up includes “elephant talent competitions, demonstration of the various techniques used to capture and train elephants, a presentation of ancient elephant warfare techniques, and a tug-of-war between men and elephants.”
Naturally, I wanted to see this.
Surin is only 50 miles from my house in Suwannaphum, so I boarded a 9AM bus on the third Sunday in November and hoped to catch the beginning of a show that a Surin resident (and the owner of Suwannaphum’s only decent bar) told me started at 11.
I walked through a maze of people, market stalls and more elephants, searching for an entrance to the arena. When I finally found it, all I saw were elephants looking for riders, food stands closing up, empty grand stands and mounds of trash. The show was only on Saturday this year, despite what numerous sources (local and online) told me.
No fire hoops? No trunk wars? I was disappointed, but at least the opportunities to ride a four-legged beast were plenty.
I had always been curious how people actually mount an elephant, so I found the biggest one I could and decided to find out. He was huge, wrinkly and old. When a woman touched his front foot, he gently lifted his large leg into a zig-zag ladder and waited for me to step up.
He’d clearly done this before.
I, on the other hand, was a rookie. Hoisting my 5’3” frame to what I would guess to be a 10’ tall elephant’s back was not exactly easy. The guide sitting on the animal’s head pulled my right arm while I grabbed the chair with my left. On the ground, the woman shoved my butt as high as she could, but when her arms were fully extended I was still far from where I needed to be. Suddenly, my rusty horseman skills kicked in and I swung my left leg over, using a nearby elephant to shove off. Finally, I was on and away we went through the crowded streets of Surin.
Walking alongside cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, bicycles and pedestrians, the beastly animal moved slowly through. The guide steered with his knees, digging his right one into the elephants head to turn right, and the left to go left. My view from above showed me why Surin is not a tourist attraction – there was nothing special about it – but it was fun to see the streets flooded with Thailand’s good luck charm.
When it came time to dismount, the guide steered the lofty animal toward a loading dock where I easily jumped off. I was really thankful I didn’t have to make a fool of myself getting back down as well, for that would have been a show good enough to replace the one I missed.