As our car wound through the Khotcha-anajak project, also known as the Elephant Kingdom, one of my friends gestured enthusiastically out the window and her eyes twinkled with delight like a child when she spotted elephants ambling about seeking food in a green meadow.
"Have you never seen an elephant before?" was a question I couldn't help but ask her. She emphasised how unique this scene was compared to what was seen in a zoo. We appeared to be on a safari, exploring a woodland with a field of open grazing animals.
In response to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother's commitment to conserve Thai elephants, the Zoological Park Organization of Thailand established the project in 2009 to repatriate pachyderms that once roamed large-city streets to the northeastern town of Surin.
Situated in Tha Tum district, this 3,000 rai project is home to 200 domesticated elephants and a prototype of an elephant village in keeping with the sufficiency economy principle. Each mahout is paid 10,800 baht a month and given a 4 rai plot of land to cultivate grass for each elephant, and a 2 rai plot to build a home for their family, while their animals receive food and veterinary care services.
The project provides a variety of eco-friendly tours and recreational activities so visitors can learn about sustainable elephant welfare management, the way of Isan life and the distinctive Kui cultural heritage. Our half-day trip began at the sacred Phra Khru Pa Kam memorial where elephant master Uncle Lun conducted a traditional ritual to invoke the guardian spirit's blessings, protection and success.
To show their bravery and power, young Kui men once captured wild elephants using a trap fashioned of pa kam leather and local wisdom has been passed down from father to son to become an elephant spirit man. They were armed with treasured amulets such as pig fangs for invulnerability, maha sawat wood for eyesight and tiger fangs to protect them from dangerous animals as they moved through a jungle.
"There are five main types of elephant spirit men. The highest rank, Gum Luang (or Kru Ba Yai), is capable of capturing 10 to 15 wild elephants and is responsible for performing all ceremonial rituals. Second and third place go to Mor Sa Dum and Mor Diang, who have successfully caught six to 10 and one to five wild elephants, respectively. Mor Ja is an expert in elephant capture but is unable to catch a wild elephant, in contrast to Ma (or mahout), who assists in elephant capture and rides on the back of domesticated elephants," Uncle Lun said.
"We're now not allowed to catch wild elephants, thus all Kui males over the age of 40 will be assigned the role of mahout to maintain our traditions. We continue to perform various ancient Kui ceremonies such as welcoming an elephant to our region, and using local herbs to treat a sick animal."
Visitors can enjoy an elephant ride through a forest and take a shower with elephants in the Moon River.
As the weather started to get hotter, we boarded an e-tan truck and travelled to the residence of two elephants named Pang Sombun and Pang Dok Rak. Here, visitors may observe a veterinarian giving a health checkup and a nutritionist preparing food for daily meals.
Naturally, pachyderms are quickly startled, so we needed to learn how to approach them and give them time to become acquainted with a new person. Seeing how they react to their surroundings may indicate that they are in great health. Pedicures are also included in the routine, and a livestock syringe injection is utilised if a vet is unable to reach an animal.
Elephants require 10% of their body weight in food each day, therefore the project provides them with fresh grass every three days, along with extras like pineapples from Chaiyaphum and Chon Buri, sugar cane and bananas as well as bamboo during the dry season.
To offer sufficient nourishment, the project also encourages mahouts to plant Napier Pak Chong 1 grass instead of fruits with high sugar content since it grows rapidly and is nutrient-rich.
A few steps away, visitors got a chance to greet Pang Dok Rak, who once served as a wet nurse for the injured calf Chabakaew that made headlines four years ago after it fell into an old disused cesspool in Bueng Kan province.
A short ride from the house of Pang Sombun and Pang Dok Rak, a group of artisans demonstrated how to use elephant dung and paper mulberry tissue to craft a variety of handmade souvenirs like piggy banks, picture frames and umbrellas.
We also pretended to be explorers and made camp on the banks of the Moon River to keep an eye on a group of foreign tourists being trained as mahouts. They rode elephants to explore the forest before taking a relaxing bath in the peaceful stream.
Visitors are welcome to take a half-day tour of the project.
Later, we moved on to the nearby Ban Ta Klang Elephant Village, which prides itself on being the world's largest community of elephant YouTubers. Part of the Surin Elephant Research Center, it spans 2,700 rai and has a variety of leisure activities including elephant shows and a souvenir market, where a wide range of jewellery and amulets made from elephant tails and ivory are sold.
Just a 2km drive from the Elephant Kingdom, the popular celebrity elephant Plai Bua Ban and his owner Watanyu Muenrat, who operates the Elephant Thailand YouTube channel with 1.05 million subscribers, open their house to welcome visitors.
"My father brought Plai Bua Ban home in 2015 after he spent years working at Nong Nooch Tropical Garden in Pattaya. At that time, I was a teacher and experienced with social media, therefore I started by posting videos of Bua Ban on the website. Positive feedback made me understand that YouTube had the potential to generate more revenue. I left my job to launch the channels for Elephant Thailand and the Bua Ban Family, allowing animal enthusiasts and followers to monitor the elephants' daily activities and donate bananas and grass to feed them," said Watanyu.
"I taught the locals how to create their own YouTube channels, and the number of creators quickly grew when they discovered how to survive the Covid-19 outbreak. Almost every household has created content for YouTube and expanded to other platforms like TikTok, Twitter and Facebook."
The customs and techniques to control an elephant have been handed down through the generations, but Watanyu chose to pick up the skills independently. He merely tethers one leg of the elephant so that it may move about freely and comfortably. Also, he creates evening activities so that he and his jumbo can exercise and unwind together.
Visitors can 'walk through an elephant's tummy' to fend off bad luck.
"In my opinion, 90% of Thais are now aware of the customs around the care of house elephants. In the past, we would chain an elephant's two legs to slow them down. It is similar to rearing American pit bull terriers when the owner cannot allow them to roam freely outside the home. Today, we develop content to educate people about domesticated elephants and our culture. But we cannot speak in English, we are unable to communicate with outsiders."
We departed the elephant village at dark and spread out a mat on the grounds of Wat Pa Ajiang to join the "Mor Lam Siang Isan Concert X Isan In Love" festival which will tour the region until April 23. It is a collaboration between the Tourism Authority of Thailand and TopLine Music to promote the Isan culture through soft power.
The 66-year-old molam singer Urai Chimluang, better known as Noknoy Uraiporn, and her well-known Siang Isan band have succeeded in promoting molam as Isan pop culture in the digital era. Influenced by Western music, she spent 10 years figuring out inventive methods to merge luk thung and indie and preserve prominent Isan traditional performances so that future generations would be aware of their origins.
"In the past, a molam performance was a mix of contemporary cultural acts employing poetry to tell a story, running from 8pm until 6am. It looks like a likay performance. Our shows have been modified to be livelier and more enjoyable so that the audience may dance along with us. Our current members are from younger generations who have a dream of becoming singers. I think that molam will never die," Mae Noknoy said.
Uncle Lun conducts a ritual in honour of the Phra Khru Pa Kam monument.
I was seeing a molam concert for the first time and a parade of performers in colourful feathered costumes caught my eye. A medley of dancing music was played to raise the curtain before a comedy troupe took over a stage to crack jokes. The highlight seemed to be a dramatic musical theatre production that explores a love story and current social issues. These came in the Isan dialect and it was tough for me to grasp. However, I took pleasure in soaking up the amusing environment and learning about the Isan lifestyle.
The Elephant Kingdom project is at 156, Tha Tum district, Surin province. For further details, visit facebook.com/Elephant Kingdom Surin by ZPOT.
Waranyu and Watanyu Muenrat run the Elephant Thailand channel on YouTube.
Renowned molam singer Noknoy Uraiporn.
A vet offers medical treatment for elephants.
Villagers conduct a workshop on how to make paper and souvenirs out of elephant dung.
Ban Ta Klang Village offers a programme of elephant shows.