Thailand never falls short of its amazing, one of a kind festivals that can never be found in any other place in the world. From its famous Yi Peng festival to the Boon Bang Fai, I have attended all of them and they always wonderfully exceed expectations. Today I will be discussing about the famous Surin Elephant Festival that takes place in…Surin.
First off, a little background on this fascinating festival to help clear out doubts. When I was first introduced to the idea of this festival; I was a bit skeptical and scared to say the least. I didn’t like the idea of being surrounded by a hundred elephants all at once. It is dangerous to say the least. But my curiosity got the best of me as I was around the area at that time and I would probably hate myself in the future for not seizing this opportunity as it lay in front of me.
How It All Started
The Surin elephant festival dates back to an age older than time. You could say almost 50-60 years ago. I did not really get time to extensively research about the exact year and purpose of the festival. However, I did come to know that the land of Surin was initially overrun with elephants of all sorts. So when the land was conquered by humans after a certain war that I couldn’t really place its name; the humans began to train the elephants and tame them.
This led to a way bigger concept of using the animals in war as well as using them to attract other elephants and hence create a bigger army. But after the days of war and bloodshed came to an end, Surin still had a huge population of elephants. And thus began the trend and culture of the Surin festival
The elephant festival begins with a grand parade that runs through the city gates all the way through to the heart of the city. The parade consists of more than a hundred elephants flanked with their children as well. In addition to the numerous elephants are mahouts that ride them. The mahouts are all clad in the brightest colors representing their tribes and origins flawlessly. Behind and ahead of the elephants are marching school bands as well as countless men and women meant to represent the cultural diversity of Thailand alone. Each and every member, whether human or animal, of this parade is dressed in the shiniest, glitziest and most colorful outfits ever.
Down to the last elephant, the mahouts color their dull grey skins with stripes of gold and silver to make them glimmer in the sunlight. The parade happens on the first day of the festival and after the parade has taken its time to pass through the city gates and enter deep into the city somewhere, there occurs the next step.
After the city parade, undoubtedly the elephants must be hungry! They are led on their merry way to a section in the city where tables and tables made of cheap wood are lined up against one another. The tables are decked with all sorts of fruits and vegetables. Sometimes it amounts to a couple of ten thousand tons.
The feast is for the elephants as they feed themselves silly on all the natural produce. However, I was allowed to approach the beasts as they munched happily away and try to feed them. As much as I was scared of these towering giants of flesh and bone, I couldn’t help but want to come near them and feed them some food.
After the initial, important parts of the festival are done then start the shows which can stay up till 10 days. The shows include the elephants doing various tricks and entertaining their crowds. These shows are held every day at the Surin stadium. There are no words to do this stadium justice as it just is mind blowing in itself. I felt like I was entering the pitch where FIFA games are held and broadcast on TV when I set food in this stadium.
The festival is pretty flexible and I could attend whichever days I want to. However, as it was my first time attending one of these festivals I did not even come up with the thought of leaving midway. As the festival springs up in the city, food stalls as well as small game stalls open up everywhere so you can never find yourself bored during the festival.
The opportunity to ride the animals is always available as long as you pay the mahout or his helper a couple of baht to get him to agree. But I do not prefer to take advantage of the animals since they are already in captivity and also have tens of different moves and exercises to execute in front of a crowd. It is a once in a lifetime kind of experience and no one would pass it up that easily but I had to. I couldn’t stand watching the beasts being taken advantage of, but that is a story for another time.
The main purpose of these elephants to be set out on the streets to parade and make such a big deal is to honor the past and history of Thailand. The wars the county has fought and won are outlined in one of the many performances and shows that the elephants are trained to do. On the first day of the festival I attended, there was a whole show where the elephants carried mahouts dressed in battle outfits inspired from the Thai–Khmer–Laos battles. It was truly educating and beautiful how the festival pays tribute to their history every year.
Every corner I turned I met a street vendor smiling toothily at me and offering their tasty snacks with outstretched hands. Although none of the street vendors or any of the mahouts speak English it can be hard communicating with anyone. But it was still an experience that one absolutely has to experience at some point.