Chiang Mai, Thailand
Although it was lovely waking up in plusher than usual surrounds, my ulterior motive for staying at Hotel M was that it was only a couple of blocks in a straight line to the head office of Elephant Nature Park where I was due to report for active duty at 8am. None the less, I’m humiliated to admit, I got absolutely and thoroughly lost! I got so turned around that in the end, I jumped into my very first Tuk tuk who’s driver was no doubt pleased of the ฿40 (AU$1.20) to take a gullible tourist a couple of blocks. I was equally pleased for the experience and safe delivery to the front door.
Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a rescue and rehabilitation centre 60kms out of Chiang Mai for abused and retired working elephants. Started by Sangduen Chailert (Lek) in 1996, it is currently home to 35 asian elephants who are variously blind, disabled or otherwise neglected and abused by their former owners. My friend, Laura, visited the park on her own trip to Thailand several years ago and told me about their volunteer program – I signed up immediately! I’ve always loved elephants and the thought of being up close and personal with them is something of a dream come true. More than that however, is the intuition that in helping them out for a week, I may actually be helping myself in terms of gaining much needed perspective ahead of my big return home.
I had little idea of what to expect. I didn’t know if I was one of many or a few. I didn’t know what I’d be doing. I didn’t know how I would be living. All I knew it that this was one of the most exciting and meaningful parts of my journey and I couldn’t wait! I pushed through the doors to find an otherwise normal office filling up with similarly backpacked people from around the globe, a couple of chickens, some stray dogs and a litter or two of quarantined kittens.
I had my name marked off, paid the balance for my stay and collected my volunteer t-shirt and water bottle. It seemed my frantic rush to get there on time was in vain as nothing much seemed to happen for the following hour. I mingled a little and it wasn’t long before I realised it wasn’t just the heat I had to reacclimatise too but also Aussie accents! Although we were well represented, we were by no means the majority with others from UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, The Netherlands and Taiwan. All in all, we were a contingency of around 30 people from all walks of life ranging in age from 18 to retirees in their 60’s.
We were divided into 3 groups, assigned a local Volunteer Coordinator (VC) and marshalled onto awaiting minibuses. Once underway, our VC, Aik, introduced himself and put us all at our ease. One by one we introduced ourselves as well before watching an introductory video on the harsh realities of working elephants in Thailand and what ENP is doing to help . From my backseat, I was happy to remain in relative silence for the remainder of the drive into increasingly thick jungle while others chatted away. We saw our first elephants just a few kilometres from our destination but they obviously weren’t ENP residents given that they were being ‘driven’ by mahouts (elephant keeper) with hooks and bearing baskets of tourists.
Turning into ENP, my excitement was palpable! We threw all our bags into a big communal pile and without further adieu we were introduced to our first elephants! There they were, larger than life – two small families with babies and we were invited to feed them bananas, pumpkin and watermelons from their allocated baskets. My heart could have burst in my chest with sheer delight! I was positively giddy!
After the elephants had their fill, it was time to feed the humans. A veritable vegetarian feast was laid out for us and the day-visitors buffet style. Whenever I’m away from Australia for any great length of time, the food I miss most is Thai food (which no doubt speaks of my dietary choices and much as it does of the ubiquitous availability of the cuisine) so this meal had been a long time coming and excelled any expectation I could have had!
From the human kitchen to the elephant kitchen, it was time to get to work unloading a literal tonne of watermelons! Luckily for our backs, they were the tiniest watermelons I have seen which made the task of passing them along the human chains we’d formed from the truck to the awaiting shelves a lighter, if not faster, task. It felt good to already be involved and feel a swell of camaraderie amongst our ranks. Cheers went up all around as the last watermelon was passed.
Filthy from the task, we were glad to hear that it was bath time… for the elephants. We were handed buckets and led to the river where the elephants and their mahouts (sans hooks!) awaited our arrival. The simple instruction was to jump in and chuck water at ’em! Some of them chucked it back with their trunks, others helped themselves and a couple even sought solitude in the deeper water – individual personalities were already shining through. Clearly they didn’t really need our help with this task but they seemed to enjoy the interaction though nowhere near as much as we did. If I have felt such pure joy in my life before, I don’t remember when!
Soaked to the bone, we were given free time before our afternoon orientation. The greater group seemed to very quickly disseminate into smaller cliques of people who were perfect strangers only this morning but who’d now become fast friends bonded by the extraordinary experiences of the day. I settled in with gorgeous Chicgoan – Lindsay, towering Calgarian – Geoff and USA-born-current-Mexican-citizen-and-al l-round-free-spirit – Suzanne. We chatted and got to know each other a little better before being summoned back to the common area for room assignments.
The VC’s had apparently put a lot of thought into pairing people up. Obviously couples and friends travelling together were matched but for the rest of us, they found connections like Natalie (UK) and Deborah (Australia) who both work in prison services in their respective homelands. So when they called out ‘Rachel’ followed by ‘Naomi’ and I put up my hand to identify myself, they were quite upset about the apparent spanner I had thrown in the works by not being Japanese. I was as confused as they were considering I had never made such claims and would have thought ‘Doyle’ was perhaps more suggestive of my irrelevant lineage than my multinational first name. Incidentally, Rachel is not Japanese either but Taiwanese so the connection was tenuous at best anyway. After momentary consideration and consultation, the VC’s let it slide rather than redoing to whole sleeping plan.
We collected our bags and found our basic accommodations. Considering I had imagined a dorm scenario with shower blocks, I was thrilled to be sharing with just one other person with our own separate bathroom, albeit it with cold water only. Brrrrr!
Rachel and I swapped stories as we unpacked and got ready for the evenings activity. As it transpires, we actually have far more in common in terms of motivating life circumstances that lured us to the hopefully healing power of ENP. We couldn’t have been a better match and I’m tempted to call it fate (if not for the fact that very notion is still in the ‘for reconsideration’ basket).
Evening fell and we all reconvened back at the main common area for a traditional Thai welcome ceremony in which we each received a white string tied around our wrist for good fortune. It has to be worn for a minimum of three days and allowed to fall off rather than be taken off.
Formalities over, we decamped again into our fast forming groups for dinner. A few among us discovered the bar which would further define fledgling friendships. Afterwards, there were more fun and getting-to-know-you-games led by the VC’s – funny man – Aik, super-camp – Chet and sweet pea – Chay.
Before the day was over, I was also able to allay my greatest fear about the week ahead – wifi is available! Such a relief! I headed to the sweet spot as soon as I got the password. There I found a kindred
spirit I’d seen earlier in the day similarly clutching and starring anxiously at her iPhone scanning for signals. I can already tell the very vivacious Becky and I will be spending a lot of time in each others proximity!
One more drink with my posse and then back to bed for a night that seemed later than it actually was due to the darkness devoid of light pollution. This morning when I woke up, I had never seen an elephant outside of a zoo; tonight, I have fed, washed and played with them, thrown my arms around their rough and wrinkly trunks and kissed their beautiful freckled skin. This morning, I was a stranger in a strange land; tonight I have friends with whom I’ve already shared amazing life experience. To top it all off, I get to sleep in a bed with a mosquito net!!! Although that implies I may be eaten alive by morning, right now it brings to mind childhood perceptions of the exotic lives lived by others in far away lands. Tonight, younger me is so excited and impressed by who she grew up to be that I doubt she’ll get much sleep thinking about doing it all again tomorrow!