“If a man knows not what harbor he seeks,
any wind is the right wind.”
Nothing like getting off an overnight bus at 7:00 am (where I hardly got any sleep) and then hopping on a motorcycle taxi, with my fully loaded backpack on and weaving through streets full of morning traffic AND elephants as I’m clutching on to the driver who is half my size. This was my introduction to Surin; not really a city, more just the biggest town in a somewhat remote area.
I’m not one to make plans when travelling, preferring to just pick a destination, show up, and go from there. That’s not what I had done this time. Unlike Bangkok or Chiang Mai, where I had just come from, Surin is a bit more off the tourist track, enough so that I couldn’t find a map of the town.
Along with that, the town was supposed to be filled to the brim with people for the Elephant Round-Up festival. So, I had made an online reservation for $30 a night for Aree’s House, a guesthouse suggested by Lonely Planet. The price was pretty high for Thailand, but I figured that prices were jacked up for the festival.
After wandering out of the bus station and finding the TAT Office closed, I decided that I had no idea where to find Aree’s House. So I hired the motorbike taxi. After a few minutes of chaotic traffic maneuvers and me weighing the back end down almost to street level, I was at the front gate of Aree’s House speaking with Aree herself and she had no idea who I was.
And here is a perfect reason I don’t plan ahead: This wasn’t Aree’s House. Or at least not my Aree’s House. This was Pirom-Aree’s House, and they were full up. My Aree’s House, I later found out when I tried (in vain) to get a refund through the website, was located in Hua Hin, 3 hours southwest of Bangkok and 11 hours from Surin.
Aree and her husband, Pirom, were concerned that I would miss the Elephant Buffet, which would be starting very quickly. My taxi was still waiting at the front gate as I had this conversation with them. They generously offered to let me keep my backpack in their locked dining room while I went back into town to see the festival and found another place to stay. As I unstrapped and grabbed my more valuable personal items to bring with me, Pirom returned with a street map of Surin that would prove invaluable.
Just based on the brief experience of selfless hospitality they showed me, I was sorry that I couldn’t have stayed with them. But I certainly would recommend them or stay with them if I return to Surin.
The driver then brought me straight to the center of the Elephant Buffet, where a very large crowd was gathered around a monumental roundabout made to look like 2 elephant tusks. All around the monument were tables loaded with enormous piles of fruit.
The show had two commentators: the primary Thai announcer and then one who repeated everything he said in English. Each had to remind the spectators that the piles of food were for the elephants and not for the humans.
Festivities began with a few sets of dancers each doing different acts. After about 20 minutes of dancing, the commentators kept urging everyone to move back, for the elephants were coming.
I had circled around to the street where the elephants would be entering the area. They came in a long parade, all with riders, with the Surin Provincial governor in the lead. A block or so down was a staired platform that spectators were actually boarding many of the elephants for a ride into the center of the excitement.
Once all of the elephants (several dozen) were in the center area, the governor made a speech and then the Buffet commenced. The crowd flowed in toward the monument and began offering food to the plentiful pachyderms, which they gladly accepted. Consuming whole spiked pineapples and bunches of bananas; the mounds of food steadily shrank until only scraps were found on the road.
The commentators then began asking for volunteers for the competitions coming next. Curiously, they were only looking for foreigners. I thought about doing it, but was untroubled to simply watch whatever ridiculous stunts they decided to do, which included a race in which the contestant had a soda bottle tied to their waists and had to hit a ball toward a goal by thrusting their hips, thereby swinging the bottle in a forward manner. It gained a good deal of laughter.
A small while later, the Elephant Buffet ceremony wound down and the crowds and elephants began to disperse into the town. I followed suit, walking through a reservoir-side park filled with trinket stands and more elephants and then down some arbitrary streets to see what the town had. After coming to a couple outskirts of the town and turning around, I headed back toward the center and bus terminal to look for a hotel.
As I was looking, I was considering the possibility of having to go back to Pirom-Aree’s House and just moving on from the town that night. It turns out that was a vastly premature assumption. As I neared the town center I came across a group of hotels. The first one I entered said they had plenty of room and offered me a cheap room for 200 ($6) a night.
While I normally would have just walked back to Pirom-Aree’s for my bag and enjoyed the beautiful weather of that day, exhaustion from the last few days and not sleeping the night before was beginning to catch up with me. So instead I hailed a tuk-tuk who took me there in a quick 5-minute ride. I thanked Pirom and Aree again and was back to my hotel, falling asleep no later than 20:00, the earliest in a very long time.