When famous French archaeologist/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 city in the Angkor Empire, 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 settlement.
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 centres 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, however, 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-day Surin.
Although small Khmer ruins are peppered throughout the province, 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 society. A large-scale elephant museum is the new addition to downtown Surin, not far from a handful of goofy elephant statues near the train station. If you happen to be here during the festival, you'll be treated to some of the most elaborate elephant shows in the world.
'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 extremely pushy in their attempts to sell sugar cane that is then fed by tourists to the elephants, but we don't recommend encouraging them as a tightly packed city like Surin is no place for these giant but sensitive animals. If wanting more responsible close encounters with chang (as elephants are called in Thai), head up to Baan Ta Klang.
When the festival is not going on, Surin is a decent enough city to hang out in for a day or two, but we would only recommend it if you've got plenty of time on your hands. You'll find a great central market, a lively nightlife strip and, at the risk of generalising, not the friendliest locals in Thailand (at least that was our experience). Surin does however have a few decent places to stay and makes a good base for exploring the Khmer ruins, silk-weaving villages and Baan Ta Klang, all in the outlying province.
If you're planning on heading to Cambodia from Surin, there are several minibuses per day from Surin 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.
Surin is a small and tightly packed city that's easy to walk around, although it's almost hard not to hop in a samlor as there are so many hoping to give you a lift.
The central market is the city's beating heart, located in the middle of town and stretching north from Krungsi Nai Road and west of Thanasan Road, about a five-minute walk south of the train station. The songthaew stand where you can find cheap transport to provincial destinations is also located in the market vicinity, and an army of samlors and tuk tuks can be hired here.
A short walk due north of the market brings you to Thetsaban 1 Road, where you'll find a tourist information centre, a handful of restaurants and the air-conditioned Phetkasem shopping plaza just east of the roundabout, where Thetsaban 1 crosses paths with north-to-south running Thanasan Road. Continue east and Thetsaban 1 hits Jitrbumrung Road. Surin Ruam Phaet hospital is another few hundred metres east from here.
Head north on Jitrbumrung Road and you'll quickly reach the bus station, just east of which is a series of cafes and foreigner-oriented restaurants. A tad east of that is Sirirat Road and Soi Koka, which are home to a number of bars and restaurants.
The train station at the northern end of Thanasan Road is only a five-minute walk from here, and around the corner on Thanit Nikomrut Road is where you'll find an elephant museum that was under construction when we last visited in late 2012.
Lak Mueang Road is the main east to west thoroughfare through the south part of town. The police station is on Lak Mueang, just east of where it intersects with Jitrbumrung. Heading south, Jitrbumrung turns into Route 214 and passes a night market and the provincial stadium area, which is where much of the elephant festivities take place.
Banks and ATMs are scattered around town and aren't hard to come by. Internet is available at Natky Net & Game cafe, right across from Soi Koka on Sirirat Road.
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Text and/or map last updated on 1st February, 2013.