It is always said that when you visit Thailand you must see the incredible Asian elephants, and what better way to get up close to elephants and have a positive impact on their lives than to do a month of volunteering with them.
I chose an ethical elephant volunteer project with the company GVI, who are different from the usual elephant camps that you see everywhere in Thailand, where you feed and bathe the elephants. This project is collecting data on the elephants who have been rescued from the bad tourist camps, logging industry and elephant trekking, and are now in a natural habitat up in the mountains of North Thailand.
The project takes place in the Mae Chaem District, 5 hours North of Chiang Mai, this area is inhabited by hill-side tribes known as the Karen community, in a village called Huay Pakoot. The Karen people have a unique and sacred relationship with the elephants, which has been going for hundreds of years, the elephants to them are like family.
The elephants themselves are living a semi-wild life, during the day they are looked after by their mahout who will stop them from getting in to trouble for example trampling on crops. The mahouts know their elephant inside and out so mainly use commands to guide them around the area. The elephants have a chain around their foot which is used to tie them to a smaller area so that during the night they do not roam into prohibited areas, the chain itself does not hurt the elephant and contains a weak link which, if the elephant needed to, could break if they are spooked.
Whilst taking part in the project we stayed in a house in the village. Each volunteer is allocated a homestay family who will provide a room for you whilst also cook all of your meals. The village speak a language called Pakinyaw, which is different to Thai, so, to communicate with them it is encouraged to try and learn the language. We would never be able to completely communicate with them as the Pakinyaw language has many different tones that we cannot learn, however we could learn the basics. For example ‘da blue’ is hello, thank you and goodbye. The interns working at GVI gave us Pakinyaw lessons to help us to communicate with our homestay families.
I was staying at Tanapols house, who is the mahout to one of the GVI elephants, he can speak some English so communicating with him was easier than in some of the other families. The facilities in the village are very basic and involve mainly squat toilets and bucket showers, if you are lucky some houses have a shower head (but still only cold water!) My family had a bucket shower, which involved a large bucket of cold water and a smaller bucket to use to tip water on to yourself. It was a system that I never quite grasped and some bucket showers are better than others. For example I would not recommend taking one when cold otherwise you may get hypothermia. The squat toilets also take some getting used to and I can firmly say that my leg muscles are much stronger now!
An average day in Huay Pakoot started at about 5:00 when the roosters start their calls. I learned to incorporate their incredibly loud noise in to my dreams so my day could start a little later. We had elephant hikes in the morning at 7:30 where we would hike out to the where the elephants were currently at. There are 4 different hikes to take to see different elephants. The hikes have different difficulties, for example some may be more uphill than others, or some may involve more trekking through denser jungle than more open land. Hikes were lead by GVI staff members and sometimes the interns, however the mahouts had main control over the elephant.
Elephant hikes would return at about 11:00 at base which is the best time to then have a bucket shower, then have lunch, and after there where a variety of activities to take part in, some days there would be presentations to educate us on different topics such as elephant biology and the Thailand ecosystem, as well as the threats of the Indian elephant. The Asian elephant has only 1000 elephants left in the wild in Thailand due to habitat loss and the illegal hunting and poaching trade.
On the elephant hikes we would collect different types of data on the elephant, we did a welfare check where each elephant is scored on different categories on its health and whether it is getting healthier from moving out of the tourist camp. We also collected data on their behaviour, one data collection was 120 minutes long and every two minutes the activity they were doing was recorded, and the other involved recording when a behaviour was seen for example if the elephant was displaying exploratory behaviours such as smelling.
We also had the opportunity to teach English at the local school as well as play after school activities with them. We would teach them different topics such as body parts, colours and animals. The evenings consisted of dinner at your homestay families and mainly movie nights at the main base.
I personally enjoyed spending my Wednesday mornings at the nursery and anuban (the pre school), where we played with the children and taught them games, basic English and also a lesson on hygiene to try and encourage them to brush their teeth and wash their hands.
During the project I spent Christmas and New Years there. It was not your normal Christmas but I spent it with amazing people, eating Thai food and drinking rice whisky, then going carolling around the village, it is fair to say the villagers where not too impressed with our singing! It was a truly unforgettable Christmas! On New Years there happened to be a wedding at the same time which meant the whole village was in celebration. We were invited to the wedding’s after party where there was music and dancing. We finished 2017 on top of the village hill with a bonfire and music watching the abundance of stars and the incredibly bright full moon.
The project itself was the biggest culture shock that I have had, it was very difficult to adjust in the beginning to this completely different way of life, however it opened my eyes to such a different kind of happiness that the villagers have away from the stress of modern life. At the end of my time in the village I was ready to leave but also sad to say goodbye to the amazing people that I met and the relaxed village life.
It is now time to say goodbye to the whole of Thailand and move on to the next adventure in Australia, and whilst I am incredibly sad to leave behind this beautiful country, I am so excited to see what the rest of 2018 has to offer!
“We should be more like elephants, with large and heavy feet to have them fix into the Earth and not rise, with BIG ears to teach us how to listen, with a small mouth to talk less and feel a bit more, a rough skin to protect us from danger and a memory to help us remember who we are.”