Surin Elephant Round-up

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Surin Elephant Round-up
Surin round up.jpg
Elephant Parade at the Elephant Round-up
Observed by Kuy people
Celebrations Parade, Tug of war, Elephant buffet, Soccer, Mock battles
Date Third week of November each year
Duration 2 days
Frequency Annual

The Surin Elephant Round-up takes place annually, usually on the third weekend of November in Surin province, Isan, Thailand. The festival's origins can be traced back to the elephant hunts which were common in the area during antiquity; the people of Surin were traditionally adept at capturing elephants and training them as working animals. These hunts were turned into a spectacle during the reign of the Ayutthaya Kingdom and wild elephants were replaced with tame ones. The festival in its present form was first held in the 1960s when civil war in Cambodia and the elephant's decreasing economic importance forced the elephant handlers (mahouts) to turn to entertainment to make a living.[1][2][3]

The modern two day event consists of a series of shows displaying the strength and skill of the animals, such as football games and tugs of war with the Royal Thai Army. Elephants painting pictures, playing polo and whirling hoola hoops on their trunks are also included in the show.[4] 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.[5]

Ancient tradition[edit]

Since ancient times, there have been thousands of wild elephants in the forests around Thailand in general, and around Surin province in particular. These elephants were rounded up, corralled and captured in hunts which were highly ritualistic and involved many mythological aspects. These hunts also served an economic purpose, as the captured elephants were domesticated and used as beasts of burden or sometimes as war animals. These ritual hunts were observed by historians as ancient as Strabo, Arrian and Megasthenes.[2] The hunters, who mainly belonged to the Kuy people, performed several rituals before, during and after the hunt. These included divination from bones, wearing special clothes thought to have protective powers, praying to the lassos for the strength to hold the elephants and praying to ancestors as well as forest and earth spirits to grant success to the hunt.[6]

Birth of a spectacle[edit]

14th to 18th century[edit]

During the reign of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, the elephants hunts were turned into a public spectacle and lost much of their ritualistic element. The round-ups became a royally sponsored event and dignitaries, both foreign and local, were invited to enjoy the spectacle. One notable foreign dignitaries to observe the event at the invitation of the King was François-Timoléon de Choisy, who wrote in his diary that the King had arranged a special round-up for his foreign guests even though the real events date had yet to come.[7]

From the 19th century till 1960s[edit]

By the beginning of the 20th century, the elephant round-up had become more of a staged spectacle, rather than a real hunt, and often domesticated or even trained elephants were used in the event. The round-ups were enacted primarily for the entertainment of royal guests. For example, King Chulalongkorn, also called Rama V, had a round-up specially staged for Nicholas II of Russia in 1891 during the later's world tour as a crown prince.[8]Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore visited the country in 1903 and was invited to spectate a round-up as member of the National Geographic Society. She wrote about her experience, titling the story "The Greatest Hunt in the World". In the story, she wrote that the King and his entourage came to stay at the summer palace for the hunt, dignitaries came by cruiser or by train, and locals mostly arrived by boat. She said that hunters worked for many hours and used various tactics to herd hundreds of elephants towards the kraal, an enclosure with solid walls six feet thick with an inner stockade of teak logs twelve feet high, banded together with iron. According to her account, more than 250 elephants were rounded up that year. Some were unintentionally hurt as they stomped and trumpeted during the round-up, but these received immediate care.[9]

Over time, the round-ups grew more and more staged. The elephants used in the round-ups were often tame, and made to play the role of wild animals. This move from actual to staged preceded the arrival of tourism and therefore tourists never witnessed a real hunt. By 1938, the round-up had become so much of a staged event that ladies in the audience were asked to choose which elephant was to be captured next.[7] The round-ups were abandoned in 1938, although a special "last" round-up was officially sponsored by the royal family in 1962. It was staged in honour of King Frederick IX of Denmark and his wife Ingrid, who visited Thailand in early 1962.[10]

Re-emergence as a popular festival[edit]

Some time after the event lost royal patronage it re-emerged as a popular festival with less ritual and more flair. According to some sources the first such round-up was held in 1955,[11] while others put the date of the first event in the 1960s.[7] Either way, the first modern event was held on a modest scale in the Tha Tum subdistrict of Surin Province.[11][7]

The festival was then moved to Sarin proper.[12] Nowadays, elephants and their trainers travel 60 miles to Surin to take part in the festival. The ritualistic aspects of the festival have all but disappeared and it has become a pure tourist festival.

Events of the modern festival[edit]

The area dedicated to praying before the lasso and getting blessed with it before the hunt begins. According to myth the lasso is the spirit of the hunt.


About a week before the festival, the Kuy hunters who have been chosen to take part in the round-up perform a morning ritual called the "Pak Kum Luang". This ritual includes praying at the Pakam shrine dedicated 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 journey to the festival can commence. The journey is usually undertaken using trucks. The elephants and their mahouts arrive with at least 5 days to spare and spend this time roaming the streets while offering rides and practicing for their performance. The wives of the mahouts travel with them.[7]

The festival[edit]

Elephant breakfast (usually held on the Friday morning).

On Friday morning, a procession of approximately 300 elephants starts marching through Surin city from the railway station area toward the Elephant roundabout at the south end of the city on the Prasat road.[13] The elephants carry dignitaries who dismount their steeds on arrival. Some elephants carry mahouts in authentic battle outfits from the Thai–KhmerLaos battles. Intermingled with the elephant procession are local school children and teachers in traditional dress, dancing and playing music.[14] Once all the elephants have arrived, the banquet begins. The tables for the banquet are more than 400 meters long and are customarily decorated with traditional silk cloth.[15] The food is presented to the elephants; leftovers are taken home by the local people. On November 14, 2003, the buffet set a Guinness World Record for the "Largest elephant buffet" when 269 Asian elephants gathered to consume over 50 tonnes (110,000 lb) of fruit and vegetables.[16]

World Record for the largest serving of food to pachyderms
Elephant Parade
Soldiers prepare for tug of war

On Saturday, in the early hours of the morning, all elephants and their mahouts congregate at the Elephant Stadium. The ceremony at the stadium begins with a speech from the chairman of the ceremony, after which baby elephants are paraded through the stadium, followed by a parade of bull elephants. Next, the Kuy hunters pray to the lasso and showcase their skills at capturing elephants. They display how elephants used to be captured by hunters working alone, and how sometimes elephant riders were used to capture other elephants. Tame elephants used to capture wild elephants have been bred by the Kuy people since ancient times and are called Khonkies or Koomkies.[11][17] 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.[18][19]

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.[11] 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.[13][20]


  1. ^ "Festival feast". Global Times. 10 November 2013. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Watt, Sir George (1908). The Commercial Products of India: Being an Abridgement of "The Dictionary of the Economic Products of India. J. Murray. p. 696. 
  3. ^ "Surin Elephant Round-up: an unforgettable sight in Thailand". Lonely Planet. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  4. ^ Murdoch, Gillian (24 December 2007). "Fun is serious business as Asian elephants struggle to survive". Reuters. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  5. ^ "Amazing Surin Elephant round-up 2014". Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  6. ^ Srichandrakumara; Giles, Francis (1930). "Adversaria of Elephant Hunting, (together with an account of all the rites, observances and acts of worship to be performed in connection therewith, as well as notes on vocabularies of spirit language, fake or taboo language and elephant command words)" (PDF). Journal of the Siam Society 1921-1930 (23). Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Cohen, Erik (2008). Explorations in Thai Tourism: Collected Case Studies. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited. p. 147–149. ISBN 978-0-08-046736-8. 
  8. ^ Warren, William (1999). Thailand, the Golden Kingdom. Portland, OR, U.S.A: Periplus Editions. p. 79. ISBN 9625934650. 
  9. ^ Scidmore, Eliza (1906). "The Greatest Hunt in the World". National Georgraphic (The National Geographic Society). Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  10. ^ Patterson, Mary Alice (1968). The Ancient Elephant Kraal at Ayutthaya. p. 22. 
  11. ^ a b c d Schliesinger, Joachim (11 January 2015). Elephants in Thailand Vol 1: Mahouts and Their Cultures Today. Booksmango. p. 48. ISBN 9781633232334. 
  12. ^ Gerson, Ruth (1996). Traditional Festivals in Thailand. Oxford University Press. p. 53. 
  13. ^ a b Ngamsangchaikit, Wanwisa (9 October 2013). "Surin readies for elephant festival". TTR Weekly. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  14. ^ "Thai Elephant Festival (6 Days)". travels with teri. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  15. ^ "World’s biggest elephant buffet on 14 Nov in Surin". thainews. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  16. ^ "Largest elephant buffet". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  17. ^ Shoberl, Frederic (1834). Natural History of Quadrupeds, Volume 1. John Harris. p. 213. 
  18. ^ mike. "The Annual Surin Thailand Elephant Festival". thailandstories. Retrieved 17 April 2015. 
  19. ^ "Surin Elephant round-up". pilotguides. Retrieved 17 April 2015. 
  20. ^ TTRweekly Staff (10 October 2014). "Surin hosts mega elephant show". TTR Weekly. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 

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