Best known for its much-hyped annual elephant round-up, the provincial capital of SURIN, around 150km east of Khorat, is an otherwise typical northeastern town, a reasonably comfortable place to absorb the easy-going pace of Isaan life. There’s a handful of good, mid-range hotels in the centre and, as a bonus, there are some fantastic Khmer ruins nearby. Many pass through the city on their way to the village of Ban Tha Sawang, 7km away, where Thailand’s most exclusive silk is produced.
Surin’s elephant tie-in comes from the local Suay people, whose prowess with pachyderms is well known and can sometimes be seen first-hand in the nearby village of Ban Ta Klang. Thais, Lao and Khmers make up the remainder of the population of Surin province; the Khmers have lived and worked in the region for over a thousand years, and their architectural legacy is still in evidence at the ruined temples of Ta Muean and Ban Pluang. For the twenty-first-century traveller, there’s overland access between Thailand and Cambodia via Surin province’s Chong Chom checkpoint near Kap Choeng.
Surin’s elephant round-up, held every year on the third weekend of November, draws some forty thousand spectators to watch four hundred elephants play football, engage in tugs of war and parade in full battle garb. These shows last about three hours and give both trainers and animals the chance to practise their skills, but if you arrive early (about 7.30am) you can watch the preliminary street processions when locals set out long trestle tables filled with pineapples, bananas and sugar cane so the elephants can munch their way into town. Note that however well controlled the elephants appear, you should always approach them with caution – in the past, frightened and taunted elephants have killed tourists. Tickets cost B500–800 and can be booked through TAT, the provincial government website or Saren Travel, who can also arrange accommodation and transport if you contact them three months ahead; alternatively, you could join one of the overnight packages organized by Bangkok travel agencies.
One of the best reasons for coming to Surin, other than November’s elephant round-up, is to take one of the excellent local tours organized from Pirom & Aree’s House. Pirom is a highly informed former social worker whose trips give tourists an unusual chance to catch glimpses of rural northeastern life as it’s really lived. His village tours feature visits to local silk-weavers and basket-makers, as well as to Ban Ta Klang elephant trainers’ village, and it’s also possible to do overnight village trips, including one that takes in Khao Phra Viharn (when open), Khong Chiam and Pha Taem.
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).
There are a/c minivans and non-a/c buses via Prasat to the Chong Chom border pass, 70km south of Surin; or you can arrange a taxi through Farang Connection, located behind Surin bus station. Cambodian visas are issued on arrival at the Chong Chom–O’Smach checkpoint, from where you can get transport to Anlong Veng and then on to Siem Reap, which is 150km from the border crossing (start negotiations for a taxi transfer to Siem Reap at B350/car, but expect to pay slightly more). There have been reports of people on visa runs being asked for more money by officials on the Cambodian side, especially if they try to return to Thailand on the same day. There’s a casino on the Cambodian side, making this crossing popular with Thai gamblers.
Arriving from Cambodia, songthaews and motorbike taxis ferry travellers from the border checkpoint to the bus stop for Prasat and Surin. For details on other overland routes into Cambodia.
Most hand-woven Thai silk is produced by Isaan village women, some of whom oversee every aspect of sericulture, from the breeding of the silkworm to the dyeing of the fabric. Isaan’s pre-eminence is partly due to its soils, which are particularly suitable for the growth of mulberry trees, the leaves of which are the silkworms’ favoured diet. The cycle of production begins with the female silk-moth, which lives just a few days but lays around 300–500 microscopic eggs in that time. The eggs take about nine days to hatch into tiny silkworms, which are then kept in covered rattan trays and fed on mulberry leaves three or four times a day. The silkworms are such enthusiastic eaters that after three or four weeks they will have grown to about 6cm in length (around ten thousand times their original size), ready for the cocoon-building pupal stage.
The silkworm constructs its cocoon from a single white or yellow fibre that it secretes from its mouth at a rate of 12cm a minute, sealing the filaments with a gummy substance called sericin. The metamorphosis of the pupa into a moth can take anything from two to seven days, but the sericulturist must anticipate the moment when the new moth is about to break out in order to prevent the destruction of the precious fibre, which at this stage is often 900m long. At the crucial point the cocoon is dropped into boiling water, killing the moth (which is often eaten as a snack) and softening the sericin, so that the unbroken filament can be unravelled. The fibres from several cocoons are “reeled” into a single thread, and two or three threads are subsequently twisted or “thrown” into the yarn known as raw silk (broken threads from damaged cocoons are worked into a second-rate yarn called “spun silk”). In most cases, the next stage is the “de-gumming process”, in which the raw silk is soaked to dissolve away the sericin, leaving it soft and semi-transparent. Extremely absorbent and finely textured, reeled silk is the perfect material for dyeing; most silk producers now use chemical dyes, though traditional vegetable dyes are making a bit of a comeback.
These days, it’s not worth the bother for women who live near town to raise their own silkworms and spin their own thread as they can easily buy Japanese ready-to-weave silk in the market. Japanese silk is smoother than Thai silk but lasts only about seven years when woven into a sarong; hand-raised, raw Thai silk is rougher but lasts around forty years, and so is still favoured by women living in remote villages.
Once dyed (or bought), the silk is ready for weaving. This is generally done during slack agricultural periods, for example just after the rice is planted and again just after it’s harvested. Looms are usually set up in the space under the house, in the sheltered area between the piles, and most are designed to produce a sarong of around 1m by 2m. Isaan weavers have many different weaving techniques and can create countless patterns, ranging from the simplest single-coloured plain weave for work shirts to exquisitely complex wedding sarongs that may take up to six weeks to complete. The most exclusive and intricate designs are those produced in Ban Tha Sawang, costing tens of thousands of baht for a single sarong.