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THAILAND, is one of South East Asia's most intriguing yet deceptive countries - a place that cloaks a wealth of exciting, exotic colors, sights, sounds, smells and festivals. Here the locals eagerly pursue that most cherished of concepts, sanuk or fun. To a Thai, if it isn't sanuk, it isn't worth doing. Yet this same people place great stress on spiritual and religious devotion and on merit acts. Somehow their joy of life and pursuit of fun is juxtaposed in a very natural way with their deeply held religious and spiritual obligations.

One of the best way to witness the Thai's love of life and colorful ceremony is to attend a festival - there are plenty of them in this ever fascinating Buddhist Kingdom. One of the most interesting of the annual festivities first held in 1960 is the Elephant Round - Up in the north east town of Surin, a small place in I-San near the Cambodian border. Thais descend on this place by every conceivable means of transport - buffalo, rickshaw, pedicar, lorry, van, car, motorcycle, some even by elephant - there is seemingly no limit to the mode of transport used. People come from the far ends of the Kingdom even foreigners pour in bus and train loads from the likes of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. They all come to see what Asia's largest animal - the lovable elephant - can do and they rarely go away disappointed.

The Thai people hold the giant, grey elephant in great esteem, especially the festival participants many are from the village of Tai Klong, which is around 40km north of Surin. The Asian elephant is slightly larger than the African one but the Thais even believe the shape of their country resembles the head of the elephant. It should be added the Thai species, in contract to those in Africa, is easily domesticated within a matter of weeks and in the lush rain forests of northern Thailand - and neighboring Myanmar - you can see elephants hard at work hauling logs.

The north eastern part of Thailand, known to the Thais as I-San, is one of the country's most fascinating regions. Its very distinctive character is in part due to its topography, to the local folk, who have their own unusual dialect, cuisine and lively, exuberant folk culture. I-San was once part of the proud Khmer empire so perhaps that also helps explain the very real differences that seem to abound in this intriguing part of Thailand.

The north east's most popular - and certainly most visited festival - is the annual Surin elephant festival. This is always held, come what may, on the third Saturday of November. In this very well patronised tribute to the Buddhist kingdom's best loved animal, over two hundred of the giant beasts are assembled to entertain and thrill the huge crowd, which gets larger year by tear. Few visitors are disappointed with what they see. The stars of the show perform a range of tasks which are well beyond the ability of many smaller domesticated animals. Between folk dances and other cultural performances, these versatile behemoths star in displays of old-time elephant hunts, demonstrations of intelligence, strength and gentility, and the spectacular re-enactment of a war elephant parade.

For several years now the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) have organized overnight trips to Surin for the festival. For around US$160, the visitor can get a first - class train ride from Bangkok - including a sleeper - , entrance to the elephant show, a trip to a silk-weaving village, folk dance demonstrations and, for good measure, some delightful meals, including incendiary Thai dishes. It seems likely, because of the overwhelming success of this venture, that it will become a permanent excursion every November. There are now so many foreign visitors that the local hotels cannot cope and some tourists have to be accommodated in Korat.

At Surin itself the festival takes place over two days. There are elephant races, sparkling demonstrations of old-styles elephant hunts as well as numerous displays of the sheer strength and incredible versatility of the elephant. Battle cries resound around the dusty arena as the festival recreates battle scenes of yesteryear and there is even a tug-of-war between an elephant and some seventy brawny members of the Royal Thai Army. They perform in ordination and harvest ceremony scenes and the young calves following their mothers have the spectators cooing. There are sprints in which the swiftness of the animal is well demonstrated - in short sprints they can reach speeds of up to 35km an hour. The Surin elephants take part in soccer, pick-up small objects such as matchboxes with their trunks and obey different commands.

In spite of their great bulk the elephant is actually an exceptionally agile animal and year after year they show their qualities of agility at the Surin festival. Nonetheless despite strength and agility they also show an endearing gentleness which goes a long way in explaining the deep affection that the Thai people hold for them. No one, rich or poor, young or old, local or foreigner, who visits the Surin festivities is not somehow moved by the events - the time when Thailand's elephants have their very own day the annual round-up.

Thailand Fact File

Getting there: Numerous international airlines have flights to Thailand. Most touch down at Bangkok's International Airport. There are air services to Chiang Mai and bus services to Surin.

Getting around: tuk-tuks, bizarre three-wheelers are good for short journeys.

Climate: The climate is generally warm with the hottest season being between March-May. During November through February, temperatures are considerably lower.

Visas: Visas are required for stays of over 30 days and recommended for all people leaving Thailand overland.