Surin Province, in Northeast Thailand, is probably most famous for the annual Surin Elephant Roundup that takes place in November. This year it is over the weekend of 19-20 November 2011. What I didn’t know before is that Surin is also home to the Elephant Study Center so that you can learn about the elephants year round. This elephant center can be found at Ta Klang Village in Tha Toom District, about 58 kilometers north of Surin.They even have homestays programmes for foreign tourists.
The Ta Klang villagers are descendants of the Kui ethnic group who have a gift of capturing, training and keeping elephants. Unlike in Northern Thailand where elephants are kept for labour, the Kui keep the elephants as one of the family. Even sharing the same house. In 2006, a project was launched in Surin to encourage mahouts roaming around Thailand to bring their elephants back home to Surin where they would be given assistance at the Study Center. It is claimed that already they are the biggest elephant village in the world.
According to the Kui’s tradition, the Pakam Spirit House is where dead ancestors of the Kui people are believed to reside, together with the revered Pakam spirit. Built facing north, the spirit house is used to keep the sacred “Pakam rope” made from buffalo leather, and other elephant controlling tools. Before they can do any kind of activity involving the elephants, they must first pay homage to the house to inform the spirits of their intention and to ask for a blessing.
Near the Pakam Spirit House there is the Elephant Museum which has an exhibition about the Kui people, as well as village life and details on how they are able to capture and train the elephants. There are also preserved elephant skeletons, which you can see here, and elephant controlling tools. The bilingual exhibition is fascinating and goes into a lot of detail about the life and culture of the elephants in this community. There are also many old pictures on display of elephant roundups.
I guess no elephant village would be complete without the inevitable show. They are certainly crowd pleasers for the school kids arriving in coaches and for people who haven’t seen an elephant show before. However, although it seems cute at times, I don’t think it should be seen as entertainment to force elephants to do unnatural things. Sharing their artistic skills (or memory skills) in doing a painting like this is probably clever. But I think it is sad to see them dance to disco music, play football or stand on their hind legs. But, I’ll let you make your own decision.
At the elephant center, there is also an opportunity to take an elephant ride which I am sure is the main reason for many people to come here. This costs 200 baht. From experience, these rides are great the first or second time. But really, anything longer than 15 minutes is very uncomfortable! For people who have a deeper love of elephants, there is an opportunity to live in a homestay at the elephant village. You won’t be trained to be a mahout but will be able to help out with the elephants. The all inclusive cost is 12,000 baht for 6 days and 7 nights. More information at the Surin Project website.
The entrance fee for the Elephant Study Center is 100 baht each for foreign tourists and 50/20 baht for Thai tourists. The elephant ride is 200 baht for foreigners and 100 baht for Thais. The ride lasts about 20 minutes. There are two elephant shows daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Below there is a map showing the location of the elephant village. It should be noted, that during the period of the annual elephant roundup, you probably won’t find many elephants at this village.
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