Stern mahouts, raw sugarcane, echoing distress, spiky eyelashes, mirthless vendors, proffered citrus, Krong Thips & Surin.
Carrying a tray of bananas and stalks of raw sugarcane, we wait on the front stoop. We are on the shady side of the street, but it’s hot; sweat is dripping down the back of my leg. I fan myself with a copy of the Bangkok Post. The street trembles. When the elephants finally come, they fill the streets of Surin. The elephants are beautiful. Some have funny little tufts of hair on their heads. Others have magnificent pink ears that wave and swat. Noses adorned with natural pink stripes and dots, their heads are draped in yellow silks. But the elephants are agitated, the larger ones in chains. From where our thirteen-year-old son, Terrin, and I stand, we can see the younger elephants’ eyes, brown and glassy, looking back at us through spiky eyelashes. The older ones gaze straight ahead. The mahouts keep the beasts in line, pushing bull hooks into the animals’ foreheads and underarm flesh.
Walking to the buffet line where more than one hundred elephants will eat treats, it is slow going. The crowd, mostly locals, gets quiet, except to say things like, “Oh, shit, are they going to fight?” One bull knocks another with his tusk. They snort. The elephants behind them echo their distress. As the crowd gets tight, my ex-husband, Suthin, pulls Terrin over to an ATM behind a barricade and waits while the tussle sorts itself out and I can reach them again. The parade moves along and we slip down a side street. When we get to the town square, there is a small group of the beasts under a big blue tent. Dripping with dark oil, these bulls are too aggressive to join the procession. I am not sure if it is fear of being crushed by the elephants, or the crowd, or the bull elephant’s musky smell hitting me in hot waves that brings me to puke on the curb. Suthin orders a cold Sprite that the vendor pours into a plastic bag with ice, keeping the bottle. Suthin asks me if I’m all right as he hands me the bag’s red rubber band to hold. I nod my head. He tries to distract Terrin while I recover. Later on, he tells me I was green.
Suthin jokes, “Two Thai people and one farang,” meaning me as the foreigner, but the ticket seller doesn’t laugh.
The first to arrive at the elephant buffet bite through bundles of green and yellow bananas. Mahouts still on their backs, the elephants scramble for the carved watermelons. Corn, cucumbers, guava. The crowd offers them oranges by hand. Shirtless mahouts eat peanuts and smoke Krong Thips. Children watch the elephants with big eyes. Suthin buys crisp jicama for himself and pineapple for me and our son. We walk with the tourists to the stadium and buy three tickets. Suthin jokes, “Two Thai people and one farang,” meaning me as the foreigner, but the ticket seller doesn’t laugh. Terrin doesn’t understand Thai because he grew up in upstate New York, so he doesn’t laugh either. I laugh because with his American gait and face like mine, Terrin doesn’t look Thai or speak Thai. And I laugh because Suthin will never stop being funny to me.
The light-and-sound show begins with the national anthem and flag ceremony. A line of Khmer dancers in striped silk billows out from backstage and bows to the audience. The mahouts make the elephants stand up on their hind legs. The elephants are tired and sour. A soccer game. A painting contest. A tug-of-war between thirty men and one elephant. The young elephants try to keep up with their mothers, and the crowd claps, but nothing can be heard over the sounds from a pile of oversized black speakers. On the outskirts of the stadium, Thai tourists climb into howdah chairs and ride the weary elephants around in tight ovals.
The highlight of the show is a reenactment of the famous battle between Burma and Siam. The Siamese are outnumbered. Burma is on the verge of defeating Siam’s ragtag army. It is the year 2136 (1593) and Naresuan is about to become king. He will not allow dishonor to come upon his country, but he cannot beat the Burmese with strength alone. Pretending to weaken and retreat, the anticipated attack from the Burmese follows. On the field, dozens of men stream out from backstage brandishing swords. Reeking from musth, the elephants from Ayuthaya’s Siamese army attack, but cannot subdue the Burmese and their warrior beasts. Meanwhile, the crowned prince of Burma, Mingyi Swa, judges the battle from under a tree. The brave Naresuan knows his chances are slight, but he confronts the prince. They agree to duel atop their mammoth pachyderms.
I tear up too, but for me it is the hot sun and the blaring speakers. And the shame.
While the costumed soldiers act out hand-to-hand combat on the field, the two bull elephants lumber toward each other, touching their upturned tusks gingerly. Royal carriages tied with thick ropes wrap around their middles. Upon the thrones sit each of the two kings in their battle helmets. The elephants bow to the audience, and their fierce battle ensues. His face gushing with blood, he continues to fight until he kills the Burmese prince, slicing him diagonally in half from neck to waist. The Burmese army retreats in shame, and Siam is once again triumphant. The crowd is on their feet, giving noisy accolades to the actors, man and beast.
Before I look over at Suthin, I know he is crying. It is at this point in the story where he wipes his tears, every time. “I am proud of my country,” he says. “The Siamese were outnumbered, but we won anyway because”—pointing to his temple—“we are smart.” The crowd in the bleachers whoops and cheers. I tear up too, but for me it is the hot sun and the blaring speakers. And the shame. Terrin has had enough of the amplified shouts and the cement stadium seating. Suthin wants to stay until the end, but reluctantly goes with us to find the car in a distant field. We jostle through the balloon sellers and the sleeping tuk-tuk drivers who have blocked our way. Suthin buys three young coconuts and pokes straws through the soft white meat, handing them to each of us. Our ears ring as we get in the ancient Toyota Corolla. No one says a word for twenty minutes, at which point Terrin utters only, “Whoa.”
Kathryn Stam is a professor of cultural anthropology at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, New York. Her fieldwork and other travels have brought her to Thailand, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, the Netherlands, Costa Rica and Ireland. She is an advocate for resettled refugees. She is currently writing a memoir about culture and her experiences trying to communicate across cultures. Follow her on Instagram: @stamkathryn. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s 2020 Emerging Travel Writers’ Prize.
Lead image: Lauren Kay