Category Archives: Surin

Ta Klang Elephant Village in Surin

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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Is there any better way to start the New Year than having a peaceful bicycle ride through Surin’s countryside roads?

Not for me, at least.
On the afternoon of January 1st, I found myself surrounded by the dried rice fields and their total silence.
The only visible living beings were few cows, some bullocks and some beautiful white feathered birds.
The sky was as blue as it can be only decorated by some white clouds that sometimes were hiding the shining sun.
I was slowly riding my bike, looking around me when an old and beautiful song started playing in my mind, it was like I could listen to Mr. Armstrong’s voice singing: “…what a wonderful world”.

Yes is still a wonderful world to live in, no matter that a minority of human beings are trying their evil best to destroy it, this remains such a wonderful world.

And as I was approaching my village I heard some noises, some music still coming out from a New Year’s Party loudspeaker and some children laughing and shouting.
I looked at my right and I saw few kids diving, jumping and swimming in a small pond having lot of fun… and once again I told to myself “… what a wonderful world”.

All this just reminded me that life is basically a simple and wonderful thing, even with all its struggles, pain and grief, and I felt lucky to be still part of it… and while thinking about this another questions popped up my mind…”Who actually needs Siam Paragorn, a Platinium Fashion Mall and always much more extreme consumerism?”
Not me, at least.

For this old Khun Phu a really nice and quiet way to start another year.

Ban Naudom, January 1st, 2549


Paradigm Shift

And then she said, “food land and hospital for the villagers”

I was in Surin, Thailand, helping out as a facilitator for an English and Environment camp organised by Dekrakpha, a NGO(Non-Governmental Organisation) whose cause is forest conservation. Rin, who uttered the above line that blew me away, works as an activist trying to solve the problems of overflooding caused by dams.

My group comprised a good mix of individuals. Some of my team mates were English and Communication students at Ubon University and signed up for this camp because they wanted to practice their English. Others might not be able to speak English fluently. However, since they were working in various NGOs, they had a profound understanding of the environmental issues in their country, which we hoped to tap upon.

We were in the midst of an activity which required our participants to imagine them as members of a village intent on settling down in a forested area. They would then need to brainstorm how they would want to develop this plot of land. We distributed sheets of paper to our groups so that they could crystallise their discussion points and reflect their ideas on their sheet.

engrossed in discussion

Now, being an urban kid, I had a slightly different view of forests. I learnt about the value of forests during my geography lessons but I kinda arrogantly dismissed it as paying lip service. I thought it a harsh foregone conclusion that forests must give way to industrialization if people wish to lead a better life. Who would be silly enough to reject the appeals of material comforts?

Evidently, this was not a view shared by my Thai friends as they didn’t even seem to consider the option of demolishing the entire forest to make way for their needs. There was an unspoken unanimous agreement that they would only demolish the land area they would need to build their homes and farm land. In fact, Pi Jeab, who incidentally owns a Master degree in Agriculture, explicitly suggested that the community keep the north-west portion of the forest intact because it would protect the village from the seasonal monsoon winds, which blow from that particular direction.

Perhaps, it isn’t too hard to withstand the lure of urbanization because as Rin astutely pointed out, the forest is a treasure chest of food and medicine. Nonetheless, I was impressed with how they didn’t disdainfully disregard the forest as a primitive, unsophisticated source. Instead of blindly pandering towards modern remedies, I sensed their grounded attitude as they understood the value of medicinal herbs and appreciated how its importance doesn’t just diminish with the emergence of new technologies. That was something that touched me.

crystallization of various talents!

Observing them excitedly mark out their prospective homes on the “map”, I also noticed their reverence for the forest. They drew a spirit house on the edge of the forest and explained to me how the guardian spirits inside would protect the forest and the village inhabitants. Again, this was an unanimous decision as no one questioned the need for this spirit house. It was simply something that had to be constructed.

This was yet another refreshing perspective because my Thai friends exhibited a desire of paying tribute and showing gratitude towards their provider. This was humility and maturity at its best. Most people would have unrestrainedly exploited whatever they desired and taken their blessings for granted. Some might even justify their greed by thinking that the forest owes them.

I didn’t know what I would expect from this activity. But I certainly didn’t expect my Thai friends to display such a fierce conviction to preserve the forest and its advantages to mankind. Without this activity, I would never have felt the co-dependent relationship they share with nature, their love for land and their commitment to managing their forest resources responsibly. These were valuable insights an urban dweller like me would never have fathomed on my own.

I felt privileged to partake, albeit briefly, in their world and hoped that someday, I might develop this deep, abiding love for land too.