Volunteering with Elephants in Thailand

Written by: Tina Thorburn

A Day in The Life of a Volunteer

The smell of acrid smoke greets my nose as I push the snooze button on my alarm. My ears adjust to the sound of roosters, children and the chink of a lid on a pan. I’m in Bleh Doh Key, a tiny Karen village in northern Thailand and it’s 6am.

I clamber out of bed, dress to cover my knees and shoulders and walk up the hill to the school field. Here the sun climbs the smoky sky as I run laps. It’s January and burning season in the fields. Villagers follow an intricate seven year Swidden agriculture crop rotation, the fields that are harvested and burnt this year will be left to fallow for the next 6.

I finish and scramble back to my hut, grabbing little white flowers on the way. I change into my overalls and work shirt and head out the door. As I walk to the Global Vision International (GVI) base, a bamboo complex on stilts overlooking a forest filled valley, I greet my home stay family. Ya Ya, the two year old waddles over to me, dirty and half naked, arms outstretched for a tickle. Her sisters run to me nattering at the same time; I hand each a flower and a high five. Quickly we run to my bathroom, a shed with a cement floor, a squat toilet, a drain and a large barrel of water and brush our teeth together. The four girls, Pocharee, Jiri, Jenee and Juju copy my every move as we scrub our teeth. Splash, spit, and we’re done. High fives all round.

Breakfast at base is eggs and bread, sometimes they’re fried, sometimes boiled, sometimes scrambled. Volunteers and staff mill about organizing for the day, which volunteer is scribing and who is observing for which elephant.

At 7am the mahouts appear, they’re the Thais who ride the elephants. Today they are shy – Jor Doh, a kind eyed, young Burmese refugee has his face covered and hidden in a T-shirt come bandana. Boon Chew, a 15-year-old cutie, marches alongside Jor Doh, as if we’re not there. Ree Rah, a long haired super quiet 16 year old with soft eyes gently strides past. Padie Saee, an elder man with a sweet smile and kink in his right pinky, smiles shyly and shuffles his feet. And so we walk, foreign volunteers and shy mahouts, into the forest that surrounds this mountain village.

It’s the dry season. The air is hot and the sky smoky as the sun pierces through. We walk and walk. I pick a flower for each of the mahouts, originally an act to break through their shyness, now a daily ritual that brings smiles to their lips.

Some days we walk for an hour, other days for 10 minutes, but every day we’ll walk and eventually the mahouts will signal and we stop. The elephants are near. The mahouts will disappear into the forest, almost prancing to find their elephants, conveniently chained to a tree near a stream. At first this surprised me, I thought we were here to put the elephants back into the forest and observe them, not chain them. But elephants are fast movers and love the sweetness of corn and other crops, and will go in search of these agricultural treats, only to be shot at by angry farmers. So, the elephants are chained each night to ensure that in the eight hours they have away from their mahouts they don’t get themselves into any trouble.

The kids enjoying a bit of the 'mobot'

Not long after the mahouts disappear we’ll hear that familiar sound as five elephants meander through the forest. You can see Tong Dee, the pseudo-matriarch of this man-made herd, a beautiful, slow moving giant with long eye lashes and a stance that says, “you’re welcome”. Her and Padee Saiee have been paired since their teens and are now at the ripe age of 50-odd. Padee Saiee proudly refers to her as his wife, having never married or had children.

Not far is Mah Nah. She is beautiful, slightly shorter with bright keen eyes. Ree Rah and Boon Chew work with her, each with their own styles, but both with care and love. Over there is Boon Jan, a tall, slim elephant, with a narrow build and fierce eyes. Her little baby, Song Kran, is a feisty one. His little elephant legs look chubby as he bumbles alongside the others. He’s forever curious and always putting things in his mouth, from plastic bags to random foliage. Kids, the same everywhere! Jor Doh works with Boon Jan and her baby, using his voice, like the others, to urge her this direction or that.

Being with the elephants in the forest as they feed is magical. There is something grounding about sitting watching an elephant use its trunk to peel the bark of a tree and rhythmically chew it, or watching as a mahout helps cut the hard to reach leaves or bark from a tree and hands it down to his elephant. My favourite days, however, were the days we walked the elephants into the village for a health check.

“Padiee Saiee! Gorchaw ah lou tee!” (Wash the elephants please!)

Tina volunteering with elephants in Thailand

Every Tuesday and Thursday, health check day, we’d walk past a huge pond by the temple. If it was hot, the elephants would need no urging, they would automatically stride in and start washing themselves. Often the mahouts would stand atop them, scrubbing their thick skinned backs with tough brushes. It was so fun watching the elephants slosh and splash in the water. Little Song Kran was a little submarine with his trunk above water as he frolicked in the brown water near his elegant mother.

The mountains of northern Thailand are majestic and its people open and loving. I came to the GVI project for the elephants, but what really captured my heart was the village. The children are joyous, the men sweet and the women warm hearted. The elephants are so important to these people, they are their family. The history of domestic elephants in this part of the world is long and rich. Elephants are part of their way of life, originally for transport, then as part of the logging industry, and when that got banned in the late 1980s they turned to tourism as a way to keep their elephants employed.

It seems like such a weird idea to employ an elephant, but they are expensive to maintain and kept to their own devices they would pester farmers and wreak havoc. However, as an industry, tourism is fickle and cruel, and tourists are tailored to crave elephant rides and shows that involve elephants doing unnatural “tricks”. To accommodate this, and to keep their elephants employed and fed, many mahout move to the big cities away from their tight family units, to look after their elephants in these “tourist camps.”

A mahot taking it all in

GVI is working with this village to put their elephants back in the forest. With this trial herd, volunteers come and collect data on the different elephants’ social behaviour, bringing to the village the necessary funds to pay the mahouts, keep the elephants fed and, most importantly, in the forest where they belong.

I went to Northern Thailand to see these unique elephants and I left with a heart full of memories of a beautiful community. It’s places like this and people like these that make the world go round.

Or my world at least.

Further Information

If you’re interested in volunteering on a gap year then head on over to our volunteering section for some advice and inspiration.

Also, you should read our article on choosing a volunteering placement – after all, there’s a lot of things to take into consideration!

And finally, if you really want to talk about volunteering with animals on your gap year then get chatting to your fellow gappers on the message boards!

About the Author: Tina Thorburn

Tina Thorburn

Tina came into contact with gapyear.com after winning Global Vision International’s worldwide “Are you the difference?” competition in 2010. Having taken two gap years, one straight out of school to move to Australia, and more recently after finishing her undergraduate studies to volunteer for a year with GVI. From scuba diving off the Seychelles coast to teaching kids in Peru, Tina has been lucky enough to travel, live in and soak up many different cultures. Gapyear.com has been a great place to share her stories and experiences (and photographs), and for that she loves it.

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