Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Where Tuskers Stomp

Surin town is invaded by horsemen from the past

Nice sign but does the translator actually work?

Mahouts and their charges waiting to go 'on stage'

Yet more of the three hundred elephants

It costs twenty baht to buy her some sugar cane

Is there a future for him in elephants?

We’ve just been to the elephant fair in Surin, the big annual event for which the town is best known. It’s always hot and crowded so we went along just to see the elephants on the sidelines rather than to sit through the whole two hour show, which we’ve done several times before.

The nice thing about the elephant fair is that it’s not set up for foreign tourists but is very much a Thai event. For the farang it’s pretty difficult to get any information and the loudspeaker commentary for the show itself, essential if you want to know what’s going on, is only in Thai. The signs do offer a ‘translator service’ and next time we watch the show itself I must give this a go and see if it works.

Despite the friendly and chaotic atmosphere of a small town agricultural show, make no mistake this is a very big event which is well choreographed and truly spectacular. Featuring historical cameos including a war, an elephant football match and a tug of war where the biggest tusker just beats an army of men, it offers something for everyone. Hundreds of elephants come into town and mingling in the crowds you’ll see horsemen and tribal people in sarongs who hardly raise a glance amongst the stalls and noodle stands.

On the Friday there’s an elephant ‘breakfast’ in the town when you can get up close and personal with any number of these huge beasts as they’re fed in the street. This year 60 tonnes of food was prepared for the three hundred elephants there.

These huge animals can be dangerous though and from time to time at various tourist venues around the country an elephant goes berserk and an onlooker is ‘stomped to death’, as local usage has it. The Bangkok Post briefly reported (22 November 2008) that this Friday at the opening ceremony an elephant ‘became agitated and hurt four Thai tourists, three of them seriously’. I hope it wasn’t worse than that as in Thailand tourism comes first and negative publicity isn’t very welcome. On the same note, the warning some years ago by a safety specialist about the possibility of a tsunami was carefully suppressed with tragic consequences.

On Sunday we enjoyed the bustling atmosphere at the show ground and were able to mix freely with the elephants, though as we went in a guard warned us to be very wary of the elephants.

And there were elephants big and small everywhere. For twenty baht you can feed sugar to them but despite the huge cost of maintaining an elephant that and giving rides seems to be all they can earn. Like a bar girl slurping over-priced ‘lady drinks’, the main commercial role of an elephant seems to be selling sugar cane.

Yet there are still substantial numbers of elephants here and we sometimes see one at night near the market in our home town of Sangkha. If in the traffic backed up ahead you see a red tail light swinging from side to side, then that’s exactly what it is… a tail light on an elephant.

Cat’s Mama is Suai and it’s the Suai people who migrated northwards from Cambodia that have special skills in managing elephants. The mahouts are still Suai speakers but one wonders what the future will bring for the younger generation. The only future must be tourism but an annual fair is hardly enough. There’s an elephant village north of the town but it’s not well promoted and we know nothing about it and have never been there.

Tourism throughout Isaan is sadly under-developed, only about three percent of foreign visitors ever coming here. In this and every other way the region has always being ignored by politicians until former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra seized his chance and built a political base among the rural poor through populist policies such as health care and credit.

Whoever is in charge though, Surin desperately needs substantial central government spending on a major all-year elephant centre near to the town and its hotels. This could be on a circuit of attractions to bring visitors to the ‘real Thailand’… to see elephants, rice cultivation, the Khmer temples, the ancient site at Ban Chiang and the Mekong and its riverside towns.

Isaan urgently needs a strong policy of regional development which could thus begin with tourism and with elephants. There’s a major agricultural revolution going on here in the countryside, a widening social and political gulf between the rural poor and the pampered city folk and a big problem both in town and country caused by urban migration. And this is a crisis that’s going to get worse before it gets better.

An effective policy of regional development needs political stability and long term vision though and sadly this seems to be a forlorn hope in Thailand at the present time.

Andrew Hicks, November 2008. The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog.


Hoo Don said...

I am one of the 3% of tourists who visit Isaan country, Udon Thani being my main holiday destination.The 65 km drive from the city to my girlfriend's village appears exactly the same as 5 years ago. We seem to steer around the same pot holes and pass through unchanged town's and vilages which are in desperate need of social and industrial investment. The North East does without doubt need money spent on development but I fear Thailand's spending policy will for years to come give satang not baht.

MALCOLM said...

If the unrest and violence keeps up in Bangkok and people are allowed by the police and military to fight openly in the streets and affecting everyones life both near and far, there want be any tourist coming to Thailand , I had six friends just yesterday cancel their trips to see the wife and I and spend thanksgiving with us because they are afraid to fly into Bangkok.And no amount of talking could convince them otherwise . I will miss their visit and they will miss Thailand " The Land of Smiles and Gentle People "

Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew keep up the good work its always good to read your blog, i have been a guest to Sangkha a couple of times this year was coming back tomorrow but can not get flight at the moment due to the recent troubles.
I have met the elephant in the market also, it was there on both my visits.Can anybody tell me how to post a Jpeg file,Thanks in advance.
Best Regards Alan

Thai Girl said...

Yes, the failure to include Isaan as a real part of Thailand's modernisation and prosperity is very sad. Keeping a ready supply of cheap labour seems to have been the key policy.

I'm sure too there's a link between this and the awful disturbances in Bangkok, as if Thailand needs this when the world economy is also in turmoil. Thaksin promised the poor a better future but how sad that their champion proved to be the greatest kleptocrat.

The invasion of the main Bangkok airport is now a huge escalation of Thailand's woes... demonstrators occupying government house warrants a few column inches but violence at the check in desk will send shock waves round the world.

My daughter and son-in-law ae due to visit in December and I bet they're getting worried. Who'd book trip to Thailand now?


Anonymous said...

Message from daughter and son-in-law: Still look forward to coming across to see you in December ... we can't wait to visit Thailand again.