Traditionally regarded as the most expert hunters and trainers of elephants in Thailand, the Suay tribe (also known as the Kui people) migrated to Isaan from Central Asia before the rise of the Khmers in the ninth century. It was the Suay who masterminded the use of elephants in the construction of the great Khmer temples, and a Suay chief who in 1760 helped recapture a runaway white elephant belonging to the king of Ayutthaya, earning the hereditary title “Lord of Surin”. Surin was governed by members of the Suay tribe until Rama V’s administrative reforms of 1907.

Now that elephants have been replaced almost entirely by modern machinery in the agricultural and logging industries, there’s little demand for the Suay mahouts’ skills as captors and trainers of wild elephants, or their traditional pre-hunting rituals involving sacred ropes, magic clothing and the keeping of certain taboos. The traditions are, however, documented, along with other elephant-related subjects, at the rather desultory Centre for Elephant Studies in the southern part of Ban Ta Klang village. To satisfy tourist curiosity, the centre also puts on elephant shows to coincide with the arrival of tour groups.

There are currently around two hundred elephants registered as living in Ban Ta Klang, and their mahouts are given subsidies for keeping them there. This discourages them from taking the elephants to Bangkok, where curious urbanites would have been charged for the pleasure of feeding the elephants or even walking under their trunk or belly for good luck (pregnant women who do this are supposedly guaranteed an easy birth). The downside is that there’s very little for the elephants to do at the study centre, and they spend much of their time shackled up.

In a bid to give Surin’s elephants a better life, the not-for-profit Elephant Nature Foundation has set up the Surin Project, which provides open spaces for elephants to roam in and teaches mahouts the benefits of ecotourism. At the time of writing, just twelve of the study centre’s elephants were being cared for full-time at the project, with five more elephants at the centre on a part-time basis, but the aim is for more to join them soon. It’s possible to volunteer at the camp, and for B12,000 a week you can help to dig irrigation channels, build shelters and plant food for the animals. The rate includes food, accommodation and transport from Buriram, Bangkok or Chiang Mai (pick-ups every Mon).

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