Surin, the Land of Elephants: How People Live with The Giant Animals
Visit mahout communities in Surin province at Ban Ta Klang in Tha Tum district and Ban Khun Chai Thong in Chumphon Buri district. Experience a genuine connection between mahouts and elephants as well as joining a myriad of entertaining activities.
Surin is located in the south of the North-Eastern or Isaan region of Thailand and is often known as the “Land of Elephants”. There are several ethnic groups living in Surin province, namely Khmer, Thai, Kuy, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Even though these ethnic groups have different cultures, they can all live together peacefully. Each ethnic group has carefully conserved their own unique cultures and traditions and passed on these legacies including precious histories, historical sites, and Prasart Hin or stone temples to their descendants to witness as the national heritage. The Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Public Organization) or DASTA has assigned its south Isaan local office (DASTA office 2) to support and establish a sustainable tourism program in this south Isaan area, especially a travel route program. For Surin province, the travel route is called “Ancient and Present-Day Elephant Route”. Visitors can stop by an “Elephant Museum” in Tha Tum district to see the loveliness of present-day elephants. Other than that, they can also experience free-range elephants at “Ban Khun Chai Thong” in Chumphon Buri district.
An Unbreakable Bond between Humans and Elephants at "Ban Ta Klang"
The Elephant Museum or Ban Ta Klang Elephant village is a community of Kuy ethnic group that has had a profound connection with elephants since the early days. Currently, Ban Ta Klang is a vast elephant village and a cultural center of Kuy ethnic group. Kuy people are a group of minorities who inherently have skills in an elephant training and controlling.
In the past, the elephants were considered as military animals and Kuy people were the ones who trained the elephants and ensured they were ready to be used in warfare. Once the wars were over, Kuy people have continued to train the elephants for entertaining performances; as a result, they have been inherited with this expertise from generations to generations. Besides, these skills and expertise are what attracts the tourists to come to the village and generate incomes to the locals.
The visitors like us could feel the unbreakable bond between the mahouts and the elephants. We could see that all the elephants here eat and sleep well and are taken care of as if they were family members. At Ban Ta Klang community, the elephants are parts of their traditions and local ways of life. In addition, the Elephant Museum offers a number of activities for the visitors to have fun with the elephants; for example, taking the elephants to take a shower, elephant talent shows e.g. dancing, drawing, balloon dart game, and playing football.
When an elephant passes away, the local villagers will arrange a funeral for it. This is another example of how deeply connected people and elephants are at Ban Ta Klang community. Just 1 kilometer away from the elephant village, you will find an "elephant graveyard". Apart from being the burial ground for the dead animals, this place is also a place where elephant skeletons are kept. It is the only museum in Thailand and the world that has the complete information about elephants and the history of elephant species.
An Affectionate Relationship between Humans and Elephants at "Ban Khun Chai Thong"
Ban Khun Chai Thong community is a village that tends the highest number of elephants in Surin province. Khmer and Kuy ancestors of the local people here had emigrated from an area close to Thailand-Cambodia borders by using the elephants to carry all the necessities and belongings. Finally, they had arrived in this area surrounded by water and was full of natural resources. They had built temporary dwellings and began to grow rice; hence, they used the elephants for the labor work to carry rice from paddy fields to their homes. Later, more people had migrated to this area so the village had been established with a name "Ban Khun Chai Thong Village".
In the past several years, a lot of mahouts from this village had taken the elephants to other provinces and earned some money by letting passersby feed the elephants. These kinds of actions and the ways the elephants had been treated have raised many questions to the society. Therefore, the administration of Surin province has come up with a program called "Take the Elephants Home and Bring Mahouts Back to Their Family". The objective of this program is to change the mahouts’ way of life from straying and wandering around from place to place to return to their families. This program also encourages the locals to create a community-based tourism within their own community by opening a homestay to welcome the visitors. The visitors who come to Ban Khun Chai Thong community can partake in several activities with the elephants such as an elephant feeding, taking a stroll with the elephants without sitting on the elephant’s back, and taking the elephants to take a shower at a river. Apart from these activities, the visitors can also learn about important local traditions, namely the candle festival during the Buddhist Lent, house blessing ceremonies, Songkran festival, ceremonies to build a pagoda with rice hulls, San Don Ta festival (Khmer-style ancestor worship), making merit with grilled sticky rice, ceremonies to worship an elephant rope, etc.
As there are an increasing number of visitors coming to Ban Khun Chai Thong community, it has created more incomes to the mahouts and local people as well as bringing the elephants back to their home. Every elephant here can roam freely even when they are with the visitors because they have been professionally trained and domesticated to be familiar with the environment and people.
The unbreakable bonds between the elephants and people at Ban Ta Klang and Ban Khun Chai Thong communities are definitely being conserved and continued. These communities have proudly developed themselves to be ecotourism attractions and built a good reputation for Surin province to continue to be the "Land of Elephants" forevermore.