Inside Track

Surin Elephant Festival in Thailand
Elaine Hutchinson

Stunning. Unbelievable. Incredible. Not to be missed.

No matter whether you are 'elephant daft' or just looking for some authentic Thailand, the Surin Elephant Roundup festival is truly not be missed if you happen to be in the area in November.

I've been there twice on the Elephant Steps trip and can guarantee that the Surin festival is as good as the guide books tell you it is.

Tell Tale Tip It is also possible to take in this festival on other itineraries including Elephant Smiles, Eco Adventure or Walk on the Wild Side.

Yes, the Surin Elephant festival is a bit touristy, a bit commercial, and yes, you are encouraged to buy fruit for the elephants at extortionate prices, but it is also a place where you can marvel at the unique bond between mahout and elephant and what they can achieve together. What made it all the more exciting for me was that you could see immediately that it was first and foremost a festival for the Thai people by the Thai people.

"Almost 300 elephants: the sight of so many in one stadium makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The pomp and ceremony, music and staging creates a package that sends tingles down your spine."

The festival is a congregating place for many of the mahouts in Thailand and some travel great distances with their elephants to take part of this two-week celebration of their culture and heritage. Many are direct descendants of the Kui tribe and are renowned for their skill in working with and training their elephants.

We had been told that there would be a lot of elephants and mahouts, but nothing could have prepared me for seeing all those wonderful animals all in one place at one time. "Wow!" is the only word to describe the feeling at the first sight of them all.

The atmosphere was charged and electric. The walk towards the purpose-built stadium is filled with street traders, elephants and welcoming Thai smiles. We were soon introduced to some Surin street food specialities and before long we were loaded up with all sorts of new exciting purchases to sample.

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"Nothing could have prepared me for seeing all those wonderful animals all in one place. "Wow!" is the only word to describe the feeling."

We explored beyond the stadium to the 'behind scenes' holding area and we were instantly transported back to old Siam with opulent silks, jewel colours, sights and smells. The only modern-day reminders were vets checking the elephants' welfare and lorries laden with hay and fruit. It was comforting to know that there are so many people acutely concerned with the welfare of the elephants involved in the event.

Backstage we also met Lek, the founder of the Elephant Park in Chiang Mai (which we would visit later, on Elephant Steps) and she gave us a wonderful insight into her personal vision for the future of the elephants in Thailand.

The show itself featured almost 300 elephants; the sight of so many in one stadium makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That, accompanied by the pomp and ceremony, music and staging creates a package that sends tingles down your spine.

Nothing can prepare you for what you are witnessing and you have to admire the skills of mahout and elephant alike. The dancers and extras were recruited from the local schools and our guides told us that they had been part of the show as dancers in previous years.

The culmination of the elephant show is a re-enactment of ancient battle scenes with the majestic elephants taking pride of place, complete with smoke and fireworks and all that before 11am!

You can take in the Surin Elephant Roundup on our special group departure Elephant Steps, or some of our private tours, including Elephant Smiles.



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