Inhabitants of Thailand's Surin Province in lower Isaan, especially its Suay people, have long been skilled at capturing elephants in the wild and domesticating and taming them—skills passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. A lifelong relationship is ultimately formed between mahout and elephant, one in which the elephant comes to be considered a member of the mahout's extended family. In Thailand's past, elephants were trained for use in battle or for labor in the logging industry, abilities no longer needed. Logging has been banned by the Thai government since 1989.

Today the mahouts cling to the old traditions as best they can, even as the number of domesticated elephants has grown to surpass those remaining in the wild. The annual Surin elephant festival, or "roundup," provides a rare opportunity for both the mahouts and their elephants to display their abilities, as well as to reenact the kinds of roles they—or their ancestors—once played in battles of the past.