November 18th was our only full day in Surin. We'd originally planned on arriving the 17th and staying for two or three days, but then we wanted to try and spend as much time in the southern Thailand as we could, so we opted for a shorter stay. This ended up working out ok, but we were only really there for the Elephant Breakfast and attached ceremony and activity, and not really for any of the other sporting events (elephant soccer, etc.). While this was unintentional, I did enough research on how elephants are treated in captivity to be somewhat leery of the whole thing. Point is, I didn't really mind missing the other events, though I'm sure they would have been a spectacle. What I might have rather done than visit the Surin Elephant Festival would have been to have visited a local elephant sanctuary where we could have washed and fed elephants, but not ridden them. That might have been a better match for my qualms with how elephants are tamed and treated.
But, setting those qualms mostly aside for the day (so I wouldn't rain on everyone else's parade), we headed out early to get to the Elephant Breakfast. We hurried, but we needn't have, as the things that started first were more general, and not the elephants coming in. Instead, students were lining up in a long packed column - all in their uniforms with images of the king held up in front of them. To one side some other student groups were playing in an orchestra. Street vendors of various sorts had set up all along the grass behind the sidewalk that the elephant buffet was set beside (the elephant buffet was set up on long tables lined with bamboo and then filled with melons, bananas, and small pineapples - perhaps half a mile long - maybe less). We arrived at the main square and watched for a little bit from behind a seat stand. Brandon was the first to walk out past the invisible barrier. He asked a police officer if it was ok for us to come out there and the officer told us that we could pretty much go wherever we wanted. So we all came out and sat for awhile, observing and waiting. When the elephants finally came in, Brandon and Duane scooted to the center statue area in the middle of the square - little did they know that they would be there for awhile. There were a few parade floats that came into the square and then moved out, but the elephants came into the square and stayed, eventually filling the entire square. The opening ceremony involved the students coming into the square from the long street they'd filled and filling the bleachers that we'd stood behind earlier. And then everyone sang a song (the lyrics were in Thai on the back of the images of the king we'd been given). It was all very interesting and a little difficult to know what was coming next. More elephants came into the square and Shauna and I (on the outside of the circle/mass of elephants) slowly moved farther and farther back.
Eventually the ceremonies were over and the elephants practically raced down the road to the elephant breakfast. We wandered down the street and were able (along with everyone else) to pick up fruit off the table and hand it to the elephants whenever they wanted. That was pretty cool. Elephant's trunks are really pretty amazing, curling around whatever we gave them (that they wanted) and then popping it into their mouths. They were also intelligent enough to bite off the tops of all of the pineapples!
We wandered down the buffet line for a little while, dodging elephants. We could see that people were riding the elephants, but didn't know how much they were or where to get on. Duane flagged down an elephant trainer (almost as one would a taxi) and the man on the elephant followed Duane back to the bleachers where they could get on. They then left on their ride and were gone for quite awhile!
Brandon had disappeared, I think taking pictures/video behind them, so I stepped to the side and took shelter in the shade of stand of masks (as in, Halloween like masks). As I stood there waiting, a young girl and her mother stopped beside the masks and the little girl pointed to the masks and said, "Batman? Superman?" Thinking that she was pointing at the Spiderman mask that was right there, I pointed to that one and said, "Spiderman." She eagerly nodded and they thanked me. A few moments later, they came back over and the mom told me that she wanted to take a picture with me, but her phone battery was dead. Although a somewhat odd solution (since she wouldn't probably ever see my photos), I offered to take one with my phone, and she agreed. They were wonderfully friendly and kind. She told me her daughter's name was Sophia (pronounced with a silent h, so there is no f sound, just a p sound), and that she was half German.
Brandon came along then, so I said goodbye, and headed off with him. He tentatively asked me if I would ride an elephant with him (knowing my qualms) and I agreed. So we went up one of the bleachers to where it looked like people would be loading on, and after some confusion, got on one. As we headed down the road, we passed Duane and Shauna finally coming back from their long ride. And it was a pleasant experience, if somewhat odd to be so high up and softly shifting from side to side. When we came back, we saw Shauna sitting on the bleachers surrounded by a small group of students. When we met up with her, she said she'd been answering some questions for them. As we wandered around looking for some breakfast/lunch, slowly heading back to the hotel, we were set upon by many more groups of children with more questions. It's like they were all in English language classes and were assigned to interview an English speaker. Many of them recorded the audio of the conversations, or at least took pictures with us before we wandered on. After awhile we sort of avoided them a bit, as there was such a continuous stream of different groups! We finally found a Thai crepe maker and ordered some crepes. A very nice man (from Mexico, though he grew up in San Francisco), helped us to order our crepes. He was at the festival with a group of his students from a local school where he taught English. After the crepes we got a few other yummy things and then headed back towards the hotel, stopping for ice cream (from 7-eleven) once or twice. Duane and Shauna had done a lot of walking and hadn't yet ridden in a tuk-tuk, so we sent them on their way back to the hotel and then followed on foot.
We relaxed for most of the afternoon at the hotel and then headed to a small local market to find some dinner. Our path there was along a somewhat busy roadway (like a highway in the states a little bit) and we felt just a little too close to the cars. And it was a little dark. So after walking up and down the small market, and buying a few dinner items, we headed back along the sidewalks to get back to the hotel. The problem with the sidewalks (and this was the case in much of Thailand) was that they were terribly uneven (not broken, just created in many different stages with different materials by different people) and sometimes nonexistent where the shops pretty much met the road. In which case we were basically walking in the road, although with slower traffic.
We made it back to the room, had our dinner, and relaxed - mostly chatting about wonders of the world. We tried to arrange for a tuk-tuk to come and pick us up early in the morning. The hotel for our bus pickup to Buri Ram was not very far - probably not farther than the elephant ceremonies of the day before - but it was early and dark enough, and still far enough, that we wanted to get a ride. Surin was generally not touristy at all, which was simultaneously wonderful and problematic. It was wonderful because it felt more like we were celebrating a local tradition than one that had been taken over by tourists, and problematic because there were fewer English speakers. Thus, when we arranged for our tuk-tuk, we weren't really sure whether we'd get it or not, but we hoped so.
Regarding my qualms with elephants, while it was clear that most of the elephant trainers clearly loved their elephants, we did see at least one trainer beating the head of an elephant with their training hook - to the point where blood was running down the elephant's forehead. This hook is the same hook that all elephant trainers carried. While most of them seemed to have tamed their elephants and could not use the hooks very gently, I'm still pretty sure that somewhere along the timeline in the past for each of these elephants, they were all likely beaten with these hooks to make them into the docile creatures that could be around humans safely. It's not a pretty thing to explore, but I do think it is worth being aware of.
A fun additional note, a few days later when we were down in Krabi, Duane spotted a newspaper with this picture in it - and in the center circle he spotted Brandon and him right there among the elephants! Shauna can also be spotted (because of her hat) near the bottom left corner.