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Thailand, Tuskers and Tourism




We’ve just been to the Elephant Roundup in Surin, Thailand’s big annual elephant festival and as always it was spectacular and fun.

Last year we went to the main elephant show in the stadium where two hundred elephants play football and fight wars, so this time we went to Friday’s elephant buffet in the town and it was well worth the effort.

For this event the elephants parade into the town centre followed by elaborately decorated floats and there by the monument to Phukdi Sri Narong Chang Wang, the elephant warrior who founded Surin, the elephants gather by the park and lake and have their ‘breakfast’.

I’ve never before seen such a vast quantity of fruit, laid out on tables all down the street. There was sugar cane, bananas and water melon in huge abundance and I’m surprised the elephants didn’t all end up with stomach aches.

Waiting for the elephants to arrive we watched the various shows of dancing and mingled with the crowds and then at last they appeared, lumbering slowly up the road, each with a mahout on its back who directed them towards the fruit.

It was a great festival atmosphere with throngs of happy Thais, children, balloons, dancing girls in fabulous costumes and every element of a really good street party. What’s always such fun too is that in Thailand ‘health and safety’ can go hang and the revellers are free to mingle and to snap pictures among the legs of the browsing tuskers. Last year there was a serious incident but it was kept under wraps as nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news. The show must go on.

In my book, “MY THAI GIRL AND I”, I comment that expats everywhere can be seen in bars gazing into their beers and expatiating at length about what drives them mad living there…and expats in Thailand are no exception. I remember one such grumbler who’d just suffered a minor setback in the Land of Smiles and he was vocal in letting off steam over his beer Singh. “These Thais,” he said. “They couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery!”

But no, I told him, he was utterly and totally wrong.

A festival, a funeral or fair. A big party or a piss-up in a brewery. That’s exactly what the Thais are brilliant at organizing, and the elephant show is only one example. It was as always a triumph of the Thai talent for promoting collective public fun. Surin was awash with a colourful tide of happy people and elephants, was simply heaving with local and foreign visitors and the cash registers were ringing loudly.

What strikes me as sad though is that while they are so successful at selling this amazing cultural asset once a year, for the rest of the time the town is a sleepy provincial backwater and its tourist trade is negligible.

I’ve read that only 3% of foreign visitors ever visit Isaan <I would be surprised if it was that "high"Stick>, the huge rural bulge to the North East that is home to almost half of Thailand’s population <More like a thirdStick>. A rice growing area with a limited modern economy, it is depressingly poor and so desperately needs to develop a viable tourist industry.

If there’s a single explanation for the present political upheaval in Thailand it could be that the level of economic development in the rural areas, and especially in Isaan, has fallen too far behind that of the cities. While national politics and the purse strings are controlled by the urban elite, the slumbering mass franchise of the countryside is now beginning to assert itself and to promote its political champions.

Every possible means should therefore be found to help Isaan catch up economically and as agriculture is not the sole answer, promoting tourism is an obvious opportunity. Thailand has very fully exploited most of its touristic potential and the one major asset still neglected is Isaan and its traditional rural culture.

So here comes my very own ‘Isaan tourism action plan’, a dream scenario that would need capital expenditure to develop flagship visitor attractions in the region. The area is large and a visible circuit of specific attractions is needed, together with active central marketing by the tourist authorities to give them life. The cost need not be excessive though.

Road and railway links are good and most towns are already well served with good but inexpensive hotels which are sadly underused. Inter-city bus services from Bangkok go everywhere, though are difficult for non-Thai speakers to use. It would however be so easy to designate certain VIP routes from Moh Chit as special tourist services and a departure point could also be developed on a vacant site in the city centre. The other option is to offer package tours using mini-buses or larger coaches when the demand picks up. These would be very acceptable to older (higher spending) tourists who will often use such tours in their own countries.

Most of the attractions are already there, though Surin needs to build a permanent elephant centre, not far out in a village, but as close as possible to hotels and transport in the town centre. This would provide elephant displays to visitors all the year round, together with a living eco-museum of rural culture, including basket and silk-weaving and the culture of Thai fragrant rice.

Taking a train from Bangkok’s historic Hualampong station out onto the rice plains, then climbing slowly up through jungle and mountain onto the Korat plateau and to Surin (or even as far as Ubon) would be a great adventure. Perhaps it could be a steam train even. There are several serviceable steam engines in service and these are only used a few days a year. Then at Surin station, the passengers are met by samlors (cycle rickshaws), or even by elephant to take them to their hotels. The faux exotic possibilities can be generated ad infinitum.

Other opportunities in Isaan are many and obvious. There is the ancient settlement at Ban Chiang, one of the world’s earliest examples of copper smelting, whose pleasant museum was desperately in need of improvement when I went there a few years ago. The prehistoric rock paintings on the dramatic cliff at Pha Taem in Ubon province overlooking the Mekong river, with the craggy hills of Laos on the other side are well worth a long journey. And there’s a superb five star resort overlooking the river nearby.

The heritage of Khmer temples throughout Isaan is superb. Visitors to Surin could be taken the hour or so onwards to the temples of Muang Tam and Khao Phnom Rong. Then when either Thaksin or sanity is restored, a few hours east lies the utterly magical cliff top temple of Khao Phra Viharn, surely one of the world’s great sites. (See on this blog, ‘Thailand’s Temple of Doom’, 3rd July 2008, and ‘A Shared Heritage’, 5th August 2008.)

Not to mention Phimai in Korat and an abundance of smaller temples such as Sikoraphum, less than an hour from Surin town. This is used as the setting for Thai dancing and for an annual sound and light show that are of world class but are totally off the tourist map.

Then there are huge opportunities for inexpensive access via these sites to visit Laos and Cambodia. A train to Nong Kai will allow visitors to cross the river to Vientiane in Laos, followed by a bus or boat tour down the Mekong to visit the sleepy river towns. A train to Ubon and a visit to Pha Taem can be followed by a trip into Laos to see the Khmer temple of Wat Phu, to visit the Mekong rapids at Si Pan Don (Four Thousand Islands) and the quite spectacular waterfalls on the Bolavens Plateau. (See on this blog, ‘Wat Phu, Champasak’, 27th August 2007, and ‘Four Thousand Islands’, 29th August 2007.)

From Surin it’s only an hour to the border at Chong Jom and one of the great and unvisited Cambodian sites, the ancient Khmer city at Banteay Chmar is about thirty kilometers away. And of course Angkor itself is not much more than a hundred kilometers to the south. Isaan thus has much to offer but it is also the ideal overland gateway to so much more besides.

Isaan families are in crisis as the young and fit go away to work on construction sites and in the tourist industry in other parts of Thailand. Their region has historically been neglected by the centre but with excellent communications, there is now no longer any reason for that. Developing Isaan tourism would instead bring those jobs to the people and valuable social integrity to countryside communities that are struggling to exist.

For a start, a proper elephant and cultural centre in Surin town would help bring increasing prosperity to this part of Thailand. The Surin elephant show is so good that it should not just be an annual event, but it needs support and marketing from the central authorities if it is to develop further.


Andrew Hicks

Stickman's thoughts:

I have always felt Isaan appealed most to long-time visitors of the country. It's hard to argue in its favour over other parts of the country which have more places to visit and better infrastructure. The big difficulty in Isaan is that the attractions are spread out and public transport is not the easiest way to see them. You really do need a car!

Here are some of the highlights of Isaan.