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.