Surin Elephant Round up
The Surin Elephant Round-up is a cultural festival held every year in Surin Province, Isan, Thailand. Usually the event is organized during the third week of November on the weekend. The festival has its origins in the royal hunts which were conducted in Surin Province during medieval times. The indigenous residents of Surin, the Kuy, have been traditional practitioners of corralling elephants and training them as working animals. When the Ayutthaya Kingdom came into power these hunts were converted into a public extravaganza and wild elephants were replaced with tame ones. The festival, in its contemporary form, was first organized in the 1960s when civil war in Cambodia and the steady decline in economic value of elephants forced the elephant handlers (mahouts) to seek occupations in the entertainment and tourism industry.
The modern two-day event includes a variety of shows displaying the physical prowess and skill of the animals, such as soccer games and tugs of war with the Royal Thai Army. Elephants painting pictures, playing polo, and whirling hula hoops on their trunks are also incorporated into the show. Numerous floats are put on display. The venue for the event, Si Narong Stadium, has been dubbed the “world’s largest domestic elephant village” by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
The Kuy hunters who are singled out to perform in the round-up perform a morning ritual called the “Pak Kum Luang” almost an entire week before the festival. This ritual includes praying at the Pakam shrine, which is sacred to the lasso, as their elders had done in ancient times and then offering pigs heads, chickens, wine, jos sticks and herbs. When the required sign is obtained, the elders blow the hunters horn which signals that the 60 km long trek to the festival can commence. The journey is usually undertaken using trucks. The elephants and their mahouts arrive with at least five days to spare and spend this time roaming the streets while offering rides and practicing for their performance. The wives of the mahouts travel alongside them.
On Friday morning, a marching procession of approximately 300 elephants starts moving through Surin city from the railway station toward the elephant roundabout on Prasat Road in the southernmost neighborhood of the city .The elephants carry dignitaries who dismount their steeds on arrival. Some elephants carry mahouts in authentic replicas of battle outfits from the Thai–Khmer–Laos battles. Intermingled with the elephant procession are students of local schools and their teachers in traditional dress, dancing and playing music. Once all the elephants have arrived, the banquet begins. The tables for the banquet measure 400 meters in length and are customarily decorated with traditional silk cloth. The food is presented before the elephants; leftovers are taken home by the local people. On November 14, 2003, the buffet set a Guinness World Record for “largest elephant buffet” when 269 Asian elephants came together to devour over 50 tonnes (110,000 lb) of fruit and vegetables.
On Saturday the entire company of elephants and their mahouts congregate at the Elephant Stadium just after daybreak. The ceremony at the stadium begins with a speech from the chairperson of the ceremony, after which baby elephants are paraded through the stadium. Then the processional march of bull elephants takes place. Next, the Kuy hunters pray to the lasso and showcase their skills at capturing elephants. They display how elephants were captured by hunters working alone, and how sometimes elephant riders were used to capture other elephants. Tame elephants which could be utilized to corral wild ones have been bred by the Kuy people since ancient times and are called Khonkies or Koomkies. After the elephant capture technique displays, there are displays of acrobatics, matches of soccer and polo, and displays of tasks performed by domesticated elephants, such as logging. Another event which displays the raw strength of Surin’s elephants is the elephant vs. army tug of war contest. The contest starts with 50 army personnel against the biggest bull elephant. As the bull beats the soldiers, 15 more are added until there are 100 soldiers matched against a single bull, and even then the bull usually wins.
The finale of the show is re-enactment of a historical battle between Siamese and Burmese forces. The forces are dressed in traditional colours with red for Siam and blue for Burma. They take up positions according to traditional battle tactics, with a front row of foot soldiers, central portion of elephants protecting the “king” elephant in the middle and a rear guard. The battle ends with Siamese victory. Along with the elephant show the stadium hosts a mini-half marathon called “Mueang Chang”. The Red Cross Society also holds a cultural performance with the elephant show. The elephant show is repeated on Sunday morning.
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