You don’t see many elephants in the San Francisco suburbs where I grew up. A few stray cats – sure. But massive animals that can stomp on an SUV? – not so much. I suppose this is one of the reasons I relish traveling in developing countries; the exotic animals that I can only see here in a zoo are somehow integrated into daily life. In India, for example, you can go to a wedding and watch the groom ride in on a horse (or an elephant!). In Morocco, you can watch a snake tamer charm an actual cobra. In Costa Rica, monkeys drop down on your shoulders as you’re hiking, trying to relieve you of your necklaces and sunglasses. And that’s not even including African safaris, where YOU are the interloping animal, and hence up-for-grabs prey like everything else!
Stumbling upon exotic animals in urban settings is one of the strange joys of travel, and nowhere is this stranger and more wonderful than the Elephant Round Up in Surin, Thailand. A small, nondescript town in the eastern part of the country, Surin plays host to a pachyderm palooza once a year, towards the end of November. During this two-day event, the mostly-tame elephants paint pictures, whirl hula hoops on their trunks, and engage in tug of war competitions, often against Thai soldiers. (The elephants always win!). The Tourism Authority of Thailand has dubbed the venue of the event, Si Narong Stadium, the “World’s largest domestic elephant village.”
I happen into Surin on the last day of the festival. The proprietor of my hotel, Somchai, informs me that’s it’s been a great event, except for the bull elephant who went a little crazy in the main square and knocked over a bunch of stalls. Note to self: look both ways for Dumbo when crossing the street! I DO have the pleasure of watching a rather unique event: elephant soccer. Essentially you get a bunch of pachyderms on a football pitch, along with their riders, and then you throw in a soccer ball. I wouldn’t say that the elephants actually “kick” the ball during the match as much as lumber forward and kind of run into it. Still, the ball does tend to move forward, in a semblance of a football game. Elephant polo is a little more coherent. At least the riders are leaning down and whacking the ball with some intentionality. Elephant polo is a more chaotic affair, but the novelty of seeing it on a bright, sunny day in eastern Thailand is fairly priceless.
(For all our planning and organizing, the best experiences in life – or at least, the most memorable – seem to happen when we’re least expecting them. You’re walking along the streets of New Orleans and stumble upon a street performer whose soulful performance makes you cry. Or you take a break from online dating and meet your soulmate by chance at a laundromat. I’m not saying we shouldn’t make plans and execute them. I’m just saying, be willing to take a pause on your busy agenda when you stumble upon something intriguing. Trust your gut and you can’t go wrong.)