We arrived in Bangkok after the Surin Elephant Round-Up (and the most painful overnight train ride of this trip) just in time to witness our latest example of absurd human behavior: the Loi Krathong festival in Thailand. It’s a celebration that was originally dedicated to the goddess of water and was considered a way for people to atone for their wrongdoings, including polluting the environment. Therein the absurdity: Thais celebrate the festival by releasing thousands of candlelit floats into rivers. Many of the floats are built on bread – which means they eventually dissolve. But a large number use styrofoam. The result? When we took a boat ride the day after the festival, hundreds of mangled krathongs languished near the river’s edge, their unbiodegradable bases bobbing in the current. At least people’s consciences were clean.
Just in case a flotilla of styrofoam atonements is not enough, their release is often complemented by a different Thai tradition: the launch into the air of thousands upon thousands of flame-propelled paper lanterns. We first saw these during the elephant festival, and if you don’t think too much about what they actually are, they’re quite beautiful – the sky is filled with what looks like illuminated jellyfish floating gracefully into the night.
But here’s what they actually are: paper lanterns fitted with a flammable wax base. You light the base on fire, and eventually the flame produces enough hot air to carry the lantern into the air.
Peter and I both loved watching their gentle lift-offs. But not every launch is successful, and once you watch a few of these flame-filled paper lanterns topple sideways and begin to fall to the ground, the wax still spurting flame, you start wondering about the fire resistence of most Thai dwellings. We saw a few fire trucks hanging around the launch site but, given that the lanterns were being released into a breeze, that didn’t seem particularly useful. I would be interested in seeing incident reports from local fire stations on major Thai holidays. What I do know for sure, though, is that once the lanterns go up, they do indeed have to come down (once the wax runs out, the lanterns float back to earth) and over the next few days we saw dozens of smoke-blackened paper lanterns caught in bushes, or lying in grass on the side of the road. But hey. At least they’re pretty.
This post was originally published on National Geographic Traveler’s Intelligent Travel blog.
For most of the year, there are not many reasons to visit Surin, Thailand. More than seven hours northeast of Bangkok by train, it’s the capital of a province whose self-professed claims to fame are sweet radishes and fragrant rice.
But Surin has something else going for it, something so massive and awe-inspiring that each year, in the third weekend of November, thousands of visitors descend upon the city:
The Elephant Round-Up.
The people of Surin — and, in particular, the nearby village of Ban Ta Klang – have long been known for their prowess in training elephants, which Thais have historically used for everything from labor and transportation to battle. According to tradition, the trainers, known as mahouts, care for the same elephant throughout its long lifetime (elephants can live more than 80 years), consider it a member of the family, and pass it onto their sons when they can no longer care for it themselves. But Thailand’s elephants and mahouts are suffering from an identity crisis: now that technology and a ban on logging have rendered their previous purposes obsolete, the elephants and mahouts are dependent on tourism to survive. Many elephants, heartbreakingly, end up on the streets of Bangkok, their owners hawking bags of sugar cane for tourists to feed to them.
Each November, however, the Elephant Round-Up gives Surin’s elephants and their mahouts a reason to come home. Held every year since 1960, it’s a celebration of the history and talents of the animals and their trainers – and is a festival so unusual that as soon as I heard of it, I knew I had to attend. This year, 336 elephants were registered for the Round Up, including 14 babies, two of whom were identical twins. How could I resist?
The Round Up’s main event, held on the festival’s last two days, is essentially a talent show that features everything from painting demonstrations to battle reenactments to a man v. elephant tug of war. I’ll admit, it was impressive to watch an elephant playing darts, and I was happy to see that most mahouts seemed genuinely committed to their animals. But certain issues – like the fact that doing tricks on two legs can put elephants at risk of injury, for example, or that many of Surin’s younger mahouts have a reputation for drinking problems — made it difficult to enjoy the circus-like atmosphere. So I was grateful that there was a different event, held the day before the big show, that was so outrageous, so joyfully absurd, that I had no moral qualms about having fun: the elephant buffet.
If you’d asked me in a different context to guess what was meant by the term “elephant buffet,” I might have thought it was a meal hosted by some wacko trying to market elephant steaks as a novelty meat (pachyderm patty: the new buffalo burger). I definitely would not have imagined that the city of Surin would close down an entire street, line it with folding tables, pile those tables with thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables, and invite more than 300 elephants to an all-you-can-eat breakfast. But that’s exactly what it is.
When my husband and I arrived at the buffet several hours before its start, the tables were already weighed down by treats: a base of sugar cane topped with dozens each of small watermelons, jicama, cucumbers, bananas, pineapples and the occasional papaya, all carefully covered in green plastic mesh. Stretching table after table, the buffet was easily more than eight city blocks long.
It seemed impossible that so much food could be consumed by any creature. But then again, while they’re smaller than their African counterparts, Asian elephants can weigh over five tons — and even in captivity with a high-calorie diet, they often consume more than 150 pounds of food a day. (In the wild, it can be two or three times that much.)
By nine a.m., we’d been joined by hundreds of other people – some foreign, but mostly Thai. Boy scouts, school groups, families, they crowded behind the tables, cradling cucumbers and watermelons in their hands as they peered eagerly down the street. One woman began carefully snapping the spiky tops off of pineapples so that the elephants wouldn’t prick their tongues. (I later noticed that the elephants were able to do this on their own, stuffing entire pineapples into their mouths and gracefully spitting out the tops while simultaneously reaching for more food.)
I was trying to be patient, but anyone who saw the look in my eyes – not to mention my grip on my bananas – would know the truth. I wanted to feed elephants. Now. So I was frustrated that the first elephants to arrive, lumbering down the far end of the street with their mahouts perched on their necks, seemed to take their time. As my table leaned forward in collective anticipation, the elephants moved slowly, hand picking (trunk picking?) offerings as they walked toward us. I’d expected to see the elephant version of a pie-eating contest. This was more like a cocktail party.
But I needn’t have worried. As more elephants poured into the street, they began slowly leapfrogging past each other, working their way toward my table. When one finally reached where I was standing, bananas in hand, I realized I didn’t know exactly how to offer food to an elephant. Do you let it smell the fruit first? Place it directly in its mouth? Present it on a cocktail napkin? I decided to start by waggling my treats in front of its surprisingly small eye – how do you like these bananas? – and then moving the food within trunk distance. Sure enough, I saw its eye hone in on my offering; I stepped back as its enormous trunk swung toward me. The elephant took a few inquisitive sniffs before gently plucking the bananas from my hand and placing the entire bunch in its mouth. Without thinking, I reached out and patted its wrinkled skin.
While I found them intriguing, I’d never considered myself an elephant-lover. But now, surrounded by dozens of them plodding down the street, I began to feel the level of affection toward them that I usually reserve for golden retriever puppies. They were so massive, and yet so gentle and intelligent, graceful despite their clumsy appearance. I stood transfixed as my banana-eating friend walked off to the next table, swinging its black-bristled tail and contentedly flapping its ears. Then I snatched several pineapples off the display and waited for another elephant to approach.
At first there were only a few, each one attracting dozens of outstretched arms. But elephants can sneak up on you. I was so engrossed by passing out fruit that I didn’t notice their numbers were growing until, reaching to grab more food, I realized that the street was full of enormous gray animals. And whereas in America, you’d probably have to sign a liability waiver before even picking up a banana, here there were no barricades or cops making sure that little kids (or adults) didn’t, say, stand directly in the path of a 5-ton bull elephant hell bent on getting his next piece of sugar cane.
So that’s exactly what I did. As more and more elephants joined the crowd, I planted myself in front of the table, offering snacks to every one that passed. I assumed that they would prefer the sweetest foods on the table, but instead, many elephants seemed particularly excited by cucumbers, going so far as to place a few in the crooks of their trunk to save for later. One giant male preferred jicama; another had eyes for the occasional stray carrot. The fruitcake of the morning turned out, surprisingly, to be watermelon – the small globes were difficult for the elephants to hold on to, and I watched more than one slip to the ground as the elephant reached for something else.
By the time the buffet wound down, the tables were nearly empty, the remaining fruit snatched up by mahouts (who tucked it into baskets to keep for later) or locals who liked watermelon more than the elephants did. Even the sugarcane was mostly gone. In the end, nothing was left behind but ragged palm fronds, crushed fruit that had dropped to the ground and, for me at least, more than 300 huge reasons to return.
On the morning of our scheduled border crossing between Cambodia and Thailand, Peter and I woke up nervous. Why our anxiety? Well, first, we had a time limit: the next day marked the beginning of the 50th annual Elephant Roundup in Surin, Thailand, which was the reason we were crossing the border to begin with. And second, here’s what our guidebook had to say about our intended route:
The remote, dirt poor province of Oddar Meanchey, created from parts of Siem Reap province that the government didn’t control for much of the 1980s and 1990s, produces very little apart from opportunities for aid organizations. . . .Only a trickle of foreign visitors uses the O Smach/Chong Jom border crossing, which is pretty remote on the Thai side and in the middle of nowhere on the Cambodian side. At the frontier, there is a zone of Thai-style modernity, with two big casino-hotels, a paved dual carriageway a few hundred meters long and a modern market. But from there south you’re in outback Cambodia. The road meanders between minefields and at one point you have the choice of paying 20 baht/2000 riel for a dodgy private toll bridge built of logs by enterprising locals, or driving through a river. All along the way, you pass motorbikes so overloaded with fruit, cheap household items, and petrol smuggled in from Thailand that they often topple over. . . To Samraong (40 km, ½ -2 hours), a moto costs 250 baht, a private taxi 1200 baht, and once you get to Samraong, where are you? Nowhere.
Right. We decided to get an early start, and met our driver at 7 in our hotel. The first thing I noticed was that his Toyota Camry* had the steering wheel on the right side, an unusual and questionable choice, since Cambodia drives American-style. Second, he had a faded tattoo melting into his chest (which was visible through the opening in his low-buttoned shirt) – the sort of tattoo one might imagine a child soldier getting in the mid-1970s as part of his allegiance with a murderous guerilla force. Combined with his mustache and aviator sunglasses, he didn’t project an image of my ideal chauffeur. And third, despite reconfirming our destination several times, he seemed to be driving on the wrong road.
In fact, he was definitely driving on the wrong road – there are two border crossings that could conceivably lead to Surin (unlike Rome, not too many roads go there) and O Smach is to the west. We wanted to go there because, unlike the other one, O Smach has a regular bus service on the Thai side of the border. But instead, we were barreling along toward the eastern border, passing everything from dogs to pigs to people on motorbikes carrying enormous sacks of rice. We began making contingency plans of how to get a ride back to the correct crossing.
But it turned out that our driver was smarter than we were – the road that we were on was paved, and the road leading to O Smach (with the aforementioned log bridge) was, presumably, not. A quick left turn close to the unwanted border crossing and we were zooming toward O Smach on what turned into a well-maintained dirt road, somehow managing to bypass the homemade bridge, the lake, and the smugglers along the way – though we did pass a hotel called “Porn Phun.” As for minefields, we saw several signs from international organizations claiming credit for their clearance – but we also saw several people on motorbikes holding crutches. I didn’t get out to pee.
There were indeed two casinos in the no-man’s land between Cambodia and Thailand (which didn’t get too many foreign visitors, judging from the stares I got when I went in to use the bathroom). A casino at 10 a.m. is an inherently depressing sight, but instead of a smoke-filled room of quarter-pumping pensioners, the cavernous interior had no customers except for two women playing roulette. It was a sort of existential place – empty casino in the middle of no-man’s land at a border crossing in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t linger. Instead, we walked across the border, hopped into a minibus, and were off.
As our minibus hurtled down the road, I instinctively reached for my seatbelt, and felt a little sheepish when I looked up to find the rest of the passengers staring at me. What was this crazy American doing? I smiled back, self-conscious about being such a safety-conscious westerner in a land without infant carseats – and then noticed that other people were following my lead. One by one, the other passengers buckled up, occasionally glancing toward my seatbelt to see how I had done it. Exchanging a smile with an old man seated behind me (who was now more likely to stay there), I decided that, at in terms of road safety – or at least peer pressure — Thailand was ahead of its competition.
Our first stop, after checking into the hotel, was to try to get Peter some medication for a potential case of parasitic worms that he may have contracted in Nepal. (Word to our mothers: Dr. Kurth has been consulted and the situation is under control.) We were a little worried about the availability of Praziquantel in remote Thai cities – but the hospital ended up being more efficient than a drive-through window. Ten minutes after we got there we’d seen a doctor, been shepherded into the pharmacy to confirm medication and dosage, been given a bill, paid, and walked out the door. What’s more, on the way to the hospital I had my first run-in with an elephant, whose handler was selling 20 baht bags of sugar cane that you could feed it. So my day, begun on the Cambodian border, ended on a much more promising, if a bit disgusting note: with my hand in an elephant’s mouth.
* The Camry Question:
There are a ridiculous number of Toyotas – and, in particular, Toyota Camrys from the mid 1990s—on the road in Cambodia. As in, out of 45 cars we passed on the way back from the temples one afternoon, 38 of them were Toyotas. (During a later experiment, we got 19 out of 20.) The owner of our guesthouse claimed it was simply because people in Cambodia “really like Camrys,” but we’re both suspicious. Peter pointed out that Toyota sedans were among the most stolen in that time period, and we saw at least one dealer sticker from Rhode Island. I’m not sure how to research our hypothesis, but I have a feeling that petrol isn’t the only thing that’s been smuggled across the border.