When famous French archaeologist and explorer Etienne Aymonier visited Surin town at the end of the 19th century, he found a collection of bamboo huts on a sandy knoll surrounded by orchards and gardens. He also found the layout of what had clearly been an important Angkor period settlement, with two large enclosure palisades and a wide moat surrounding a square citadel with four entrance gates.
Indeed the local name for Surin at that time was Banteay Srok — “Citadel of the Region” or “Regional Fortress” in Khmer — and a rather melodramatic local saying was, “If Surin shall fall then so shall Khorat!” If not a major urban site, as the lack of temple ruins would seem to indicate, Surin was at least once an important Angkor military base.
With the decline of the Khmer empire, some cities such as Angkor Thom, Banteay Chmar and Beng Melea were completely abandoned, while the more robust regional centers such as Phimai, Lopburi and Khorat continued to prosper under Thai control. Surin seems to have fallen between the two, just clinging on to avoid the “lost city” category but reverting to an unimportant little village.
Virtually none of the old Khmer city remains in modern Surin, which re-emerged in the 20th century as a medium size capital city of the same-named province and home of the famous elephant festival held annually in November. The area’s ancient roots are still evident in the people who live in Surin, many of them ethnically Khmer or Suay (a mix of Mon and Khmer). Expect to hear almost as much Khmer spoken as Thai in modern Surin.
Today elephants are Surin’s claim to fame. In the province’s northern reaches, an entire village — Baan Ta Klang — has long been devoted to elephants, which hold a special place in Thai and Khmer cultures. If you happen to be in Surin during the festival, you’ll be treated to some of the most elaborate elephant shows in the world. At any time, you can see goofy elephant statues all over town, including on the street signs.
Begging elephants, or elephants that are paraded around town by “handlers” who charge 20 baht for the chance to feed the animals, can still be seen in the city. The handlers can be pushy in their attempts to sell fruit that’s fed by tourists to the elephants, but we feel that a tightly packed city like Surin is no place for these giant but sensitive animals. If wanting close encounters with chang (as elephants are called in Thai), head up to Baan Ta Klang.
When the festival is not going on, you’ll still find a great central market, a lively nightlife strip and a few good places to stay. Surin also makes a good base for exploring the Khmer ruins and craft villages in the outlying province. From here you can even take a day trip into southern Buriram province to explore the spectacular Phanom Rung and Muang Tam ruins.
If you’re planning on heading to Cambodia from Surin, minibuses frequently run to the border crossing at Chong Jom / O Smach, from where you can either grab a share taxi to Siem Reap or get to Samraong first from where you can either continue onto Siem Reap by share taxi or head east for Anlong Veng.