I had been travelling around South East Asia, teaching English, for a few months and only had a few weeks of my trip left.
I had bussed it through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and had returned to Thailand for the last leg of my trip. I had already volunteered in Kaho Lak, in a secondary school, where the kids were so eager to learn English, that every day was extremely rewarding. On arrival in Siem Reap, Cambodia I had ended up teaching English in Bo Wat,a huge temple which dominated the town. This came about purely as the result of a conversation I had had at the airport. Often, the big organisations make volunteering inaccessible for many, as their fees are so high, so I was grateful to find a project, with little effort and no expense.
I had wanted to visit Chiang Mai, in Thailand, as I had heard so much about it and I wasn’t disappointed. The main reason however, that I had decided to spend more time in Thailand, was to experience volunteering in an elephant sanctuary, which was located about an hour way from Chiang Mai.
I had been teaching English as a foreign language in various places during my trip but had actually found projects after my arrival. I don’t agree with paying to volunteer but I made an exception this time. I really wanted to have this experience and I knew that my contribution would go to the upkeep and benefit of the elephants. It cost me in the region of £200 for the week which, in retrospect, was worth every penny.
The sanctuary was originally founded by a very tiny Thai lady called Lek who had, during her childhood,developed a special bond with a working elephant her grandfather had kept on his farm. Later on in life, she became aware of the plight of the Asian elephant,vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous mahouts. Elephants would be tortured into submission when they were calves and made to perform for tourists, made to walk the streets begging, made to carry endless tourists on their backs and made to work, logging in the forests. (this practice is now illegal). Lek started the sanctuary with one elephant and when I was there in 2010 there were 32. No doubt the numbers have now increased.
Next time you see an elephant playing football or painting with a paint brush in it’s trunk, remember it’s spirit has been broken by torture in order that you may marvel at it’s capabilities.
They are very much like humans emotionally and the way they look out for each other is quite amazing. They have four huge teeth, weigh literally a ton and live to 80 years plus. They eat….a lot! Vegetarian of course! The matriarchs all gather together, as if in a mother’s meeting, and the babies are as mischievous as any human toddler. If the matriarchs perceive that one of the babies is in danger they will gather together and charge!!!
Each elephant has a story but one which struck me, as particularly sad,was the one about Jokia who lost her calf whilst logging and went into depression as a consequence. The mahout, who was fed up with keeping a redundant elephant, decided to abandon her. When she was found in the forest she was blind in both eyes. No one knows how this came about, but fortunately she was found and taken to the sanctuary. Nowadays, Jokia enjoys her freedom in the herd and has formed a special bond with Mae Prem, a gentle older elephant, who takes care of her.
Another elephant had part of it’s leg blown off by a landmine another was made to walk the streets of Bangkok begging and as a consequence of the traffic and pollution, is half deaf and has damaged feet. The awareness of the plight of this creature is increasing slightly but there is still a lot of educating to be done. The dilemma is, of course, that mahouts need to make a living but there is no excuse for downright cruelty.
Often, when it comes to light that an elephant is being mistreated,the sanctuary will try to persuade the mahout to release it but often this involves paying the mahout large sums of money. This is where donations are invaluable.
I arrived at the sanctuary in the afternoon. There were about fifty volunteers of various nationalities at the initial meeting. There were parents with children, young couples and individuals such as myself, all eager to face this wonderful challenge. We were briefed about the next day’s schedule which was to begin at 6.30 a.m. We drank tea, chatted and then, I was shown to my bamboo hut.
The accommodation was rustic but adequate. I had a wander around but by this time all the elephants were in their pens, settled for the night. I had dinner with other volunteers and then some of us played cards while others enjoyed a Thai massage from local village women. Everything was pretty quiet by 10.30 p.m
The following day, we had breakfast early and then piled into the back of an old pick up truck. In fact there were four trucks in convoy taking us to the maize and sugar cane fields. There, we were shown how to cut down the maize and sugar cane and pile it into the awaiting truck. Now, this was hard work especially as the sun was hotting up but as we were many, the task became less arduous. All trucks piled up, we then walked back to base where we gathered to prepare the tons of water melons and bananas for the imminent feeding time. One of our volunteer jobs was to chop all the fruit into chunks and portion it into various buckets.
Then the bell rang. The elephants approached the feeding deck slowly but purposefully and the trunks waved in the air as they saw the parade of volunteers holding the heaving buckets of food. Some stood patiently with wide open mouths exposing their rock like teeth and huge pink tongues whilst others searched frantically with their trunks, hoovering up any food offered. Sometimes almost hoovering up a volunteer too!
Feeding time lasted about an hour and suddenly all buckets were empty. The next task was to wash out the buckets in preparation for the evening session.
We were then taken out into the field to have a personal introduction to each elephant. We were briefed about the individual elephants circumstances which had lead them to be there, and had any impending questions answered. This was followed by a buffet lunch and, I must say, the food was excellent.
During the afternoon we were summoned to the river where we each acquired a bucket and long handled brush. After having rolled up our trouser legs we immersed ourselves into the river, no more than thigh high, where the elephants awaited us. Some sitting. Some standing and some just plain lying down trunk and head only above water! They absolutely loved it! We threw buckets of water over the exposed flesh and scrubbed with the brushes. Quite regularly a volunteer would get soaked while the elephant squirted water, capriciously, from it’s trunk. The only elephants not present were the babies and a couple of the matriarchs. The reason for this was the possibility of the young calves being too frisky with strangers being present and consequently, causing the matriarchs to panic and charge.
Later on in the afternoon, we were asked to volunteer to muck out the elephants’ pens or help with the food preparation, for evening feeding time.
At five, the same scenario was repeated at the feeding deck. with the elephants doing their trunk tricks, delighting the younger children. Sometimes, one of the elephants would aim for someone’s hat suctioning it off their head and tossing it aside. It was not unusual either, to get a wet, sloppy elephant kiss as the trunk approached zigzagging, towards the unsuspecting fruit laden volunteer.
At six, another delicious buffet was laid on for us, which we appreciated wholeheartedly. It had been a long day and only the first of the week but everyone was enthusiastic to continue, despite being totally shattered!. Many people opted for a good massage, while others relaxed with a book or chatted amongst themselves about the events of the day.
The routine was much the same for the subsequent days which were far from mundane. There were also thirty rescue dogs to take care of as well as goats and buffaloes.
The sanctuary relies totally on the volunteer contributions as well as donations from people, all over the world, who have fostered individual elephants. There is no shortage of volunteers, so far, as this is an experience which most people find inspirational and keep as a unique life long memory.
My name is Marie Maille and I teach English to foreign students. I have recently been backpacking around South East Asia and India and would recommend this trip to anyone wanting to really experience living.