The Elephant Buffet

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.

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