Elephant Race Festival in the Central Highlands

 The Elephant Race Festival takes place biennially in March in Don Village in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak.

elephant race festival in the central highlands
elephant race festival in the central highlands
elephant race festival in the central highlands

In preparation for the festive day, people provide their elephants with grass, bananas, papayas, sugar cane, corn and sweet potatoes, and free them from their hard work to preserve their strength.

On the big day, elephants from different villages gather at Don Village. The race track is on even ground, wide enough for 10 elephants to stand alongside each other, with a length of one to two kilometers. People from near and far in their best and colorful costumes flock to the festival.

When the tu va (horns made into musical instruments) give the signal, the mahouts command their elephants to move to the race track and stand in a row at the starting line. The leading elephant stands in front, whirling his trunk and nodding his head in greeting the spectators. Atop each elephant there are two handlers in traditional costumes.

The tu va signals the start of the race and the elephants rush ahead to the sounds of boisterous cheering from the crowds and the echoing sound of drums and gongs.

At the end of the race, the pachyderms lift their trunks above their heads to wave to the viewers, walk deliberately flapping their ears gently, gazing through half-closed eyes to receive sugarcane from the crowds. The winning elephant gets a laurel wreath, and sugar cane and bananas from the festival-goers. The elephants then participate in a swimming competition across the Serepok River, in tug-of-wars, throwing balls and playing football.

Upon returning home, the elephants receive a warm welcome from the villagers. Very often, the winners are elephants from Don Village that has a tradition of training and tending elephants.

The elephant race is the biggest festival in the Central Highlands. It not only displays the martial spirit of the M’nong ethnic people, famous for their bravery and skill in hunting wild elephants, but also the magnificent landscape of the Central Highlands which underscores the grandiose nature of this traditional festival.

Pham Tiep