I had many things on my bucket list when hopping on the 18-hour flight to Thailand, all alone, with Thailand being my adventure playground. But even though I had planned my trip in exquisite detail, it was the spontaneous decision to embark on a week’s long jungle adventure with elephants that was the highlight of my month-long excursion. I had heard about the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary before, but I’d never taken the thought of going seriously, it seemed expensive, and muddy, and my ignorance shadowed me of what the experience in fact entailed. It wasn’t just feeding elephants bananas and watching them trot around, although there was a lot of that, it was an all-encompassing volunteer experience, the likes of which you wouldn’t be able to experience anywhere else, one that divulged you into Thai culture as well as made life lasting bonds with both humans and earths largest land mammal. As cliché as it sounds, it was the time of my life.
It all started as I sat in my hostel near Chiang Mai’s lively neighbourhood ‘Night Bazaar’, sipping on the Thai equivalent of a Sainsbury’s basics lager. I spotted a leaflet, tucked away in the corner. Most of it was in Thai, but I checked out the website it listed, which thankfully was in English. It went into some detail about the trip, what to expect, what I would need, and so, without thinking, I booked my place on the week volunteer scheme. Luckily, I got the last available place for that week and later that night I received and email saying that I would be picked up from my hostel at 9am tomorrow morning, as well as more in depth information about the placement, and that was that.
I woke up the next morning slightly apprehensive, partly because I was pretty much going on a whim with little insight into what to expect, and partly because I had no idea who would greet me to pick me up at 9am. 9am came and went, my apprehension grew stronger and my dream of meeting elephants seemed to be dwindling into a black hole. A good thing about Thailand is that the weather is almost always good, so I didn’t mind sitting outside and waiting, although by 10:30 the urge to give up was stronger that I could cope with. To my surprise, at 11am, 2 hours late, a banged up pickup truck arrived. A young, athletic, Thai man hopped out, introduced himself as Bee, grabbed my bags and strapped them to the roof, saying no more than 2 words. It was this type of frenzy that I’d grow to love over the next 7 days. Sat in the back of the truck were 10 other volunteers, young backpackers just like myself, and a group of people I would come to know as the ‘elephamily’ (a pun about elephants, and family) in the very near future.
The journey in the open back pickup was an interesting one. Driving up through Chiang Mai’s mountains on bumpy dirt roads made for a rather thrilling and stomach churning experience, in fact, it was quite scary at times, but the introductions with the other volunteers distracted our minds adequately enough. We arrived at the base camp in Chiang Mai, for a briefing and to receive 2 quite beautiful ‘elephant ponchos’ and 2 equally beautiful ‘elephant bags’. From there we got back into the pickup, and the nauseating journey up Chiang Mai’s mountains continued.
The first thing on the trips itinerary was a trek through a mini jungle, in order to reach the camp. It was a hot day, at least 30 degrees, and despite the fact the scenery was quite spectacular, the throbbing shoulder and back pain from the weight of our bags significantly hampered the experience. Regardless of this, though, the vivid, colourful Thai wildlife and flowing, untouched streams made for a great start to the trip, especially with the shelter the forest bought from the sunlight and mosquitos!
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by equally jumpy and energetic Thai nationals as Bee was earlier. It was refreshing to see, that these people quite literally living in and with nature were so happy, it was humanity in its purest form. With little time to even set down our bags, we were handed giant trays of short, stubby bananas, it seemed that we would be partaking in an elephant style diet this evening. Following our dinner of bananas and delicious bamboo soup, a group of day volunteers arrived. We were instructed to change into our swim suits, which was easier said than done, at least for the women, due to the limited number of bamboo huts available, and then attend a talk for the day’s visitors. For this, I must admit, I zoned out. It was hard not to take in where I was in such intricate detail, and unfortunately, this led to my concentration on what was being said somewhat disintegrate.
The talk must have been interesting since there was a buzz about the place afterwards, and then after a quick glance to my left, I spotted the reason for this newfound buzz, and that was the elephants. It was quite breath-taking, seeing the elephants for the first time in my life, as they effortlessly trampled down what was quite a steep and slippery hill, like natures 4×4. Stupidly, I was shocked at how big they were, the tusks almost as long as the average human body. Then, out of the bushes came a bumbling, mischievous, baby elephant who captured the attention of everyone, as the bigger elephants scoffed down the stumpy bananas. It was quite the spectacle, and definitely a humbling experience. It was finally time to feed the elephants. This was an interesting experience, you could feel the strength of these beasts as they sucked the food from your hands, and it was spectacular to see the control these elephants had over their trunks. Managing to snap bamboo in half, manoeuvre it around, and even peel the bananas. One takeaway from this short encounter that I noted to myself to remember in the future, was to stay away from their tails, they were like whips!
Following this, we were invited to bathe the elephants. If there’s one thing you should know about elephants, it’s that they love mud, in fact, to elephants, mud is life. They recognised what time of day it was, and began getting excited, becoming more energetic and jumping around, as much as elephants can jump around that is. The elephant masters, as we called them, bought them down into the mud and water, where we were patiently waiting and his only instruction was to go crazy, get as muddy as possible and roll around a lot. A few minutes of awkwardness due to people being reluctant to get muddy was soon replaced by a frenzy of rolling around, rugby tackles and happy, smiling faces on both the humans and the elephants. The only potential problem was that elephants are heavy and they like to roll around, meaning you need to be somewhat careful, but other than that it was pretty much a free for all. Further down the stream there was a clean water section and soap for us to wash all the mud off and get clean, as best we could, considering the situation. By the end of the week my desire to get clean had completely diminished however, since I was having mud baths with elephants at least twice a day, but for now, my hygiene was still of importance.
It was the end of the day for the day volunteers, and we were instructed to get back in the pickup as we were being transported to our base camp; camp 6. It wasn’t a long journey, but equally as bumpy, and we had to be careful in dodging the stray tree branches that were crashing into us.
The camp was huge, I guess it had to be if it was housing 8 elephants. With a vast, open, dirt terrain; a huge natural pool and stream, as well as a grassier area around the side in which tables and fridges and the like were, that would be where we eat. At the back of the camp were bamboo huts with toilets in, and hoses they called showers. I never knew that bamboo was so versatile, but here at the camp they had managed to make a mini village out of it. There were also 2 huts, filled with beds, and by beds I mean a thin sheet on a hard wooden floor, encompassed by mosquito nets. The bigger hut, which I slept it, had space for 8 of us, meaning the remaining 3 slept in the upper tier hut, which was equally as luxurious. As we claimed our ‘bed’ we had some time to bond. It was amazing to see such a diverse group of volunteers, ranging from multiple countries including Canada, the US, Korea, China, and of course the UK, band together, and although I didn’t know it yet, become such close friends. Living in such a remote area, away from all the tediousness of everyday life, with no wi-fi, no processed food, and no reality television, is how the best relationships are made. You are forced to interact with each other, and I got to know these people more than I could have imagined over the next week, even if I did struggle without Wi-Fi for the first day or 2.
Next on the itinerary was dinner. The Thai cooks were brilliant, every night making a unique
and delicious soup, it was bamboo soup again tonight though, as well as a vegan friendly and ‘normal’ main course, with fruit for dessert. They were big meals and served with unlimited rice and a vast array of other options, it was surprisingly some of the best food I’d ate in Thailand, even if it was cooked in a little hut on an open fire. We spent the evening talking, drinking the delicious Thai beer; Chang, I say that with upmost sarcasm, and eventually one of the volunteers got his guitar out and we sang along. It was a special night, the only negative being the slightly nauseating smell from the strong mosquito repellent, but unfortunately that was necessary since mosquitos are ruthless and determined to suck as much blood as possible, particularly at night, I would later find this out the hard way.
After a few hours, the monumental amount of food and beer made for a tiring combination, so I called it a night. Gino, the guitar playing Korean/American volunteer, had changed it up from classics like Tiny Dancer to softer, blues music, it was a joy to fall asleep to and distracted me from the lack of comfort the bed provided, although the beer certainly helped with that as well. I had a moment to reflect on what was such a crazy day. It felt like a blur. From the moment I got on that truck this morning I knew I was in for an adventure, but I never could have expected this. Living and working with elephants in the Thai jungles for a week. It sounds surreal, and it was, but it was also reality, and I can’t describe how excited I was to fall asleep that night so I could immerse myself in whatever tomorrow held.
Surprisingly I had a fantastic sleep, but like I said, the beer probably helped with that. The wakeup call was 7am, which was great as I always wanted to acclimatise my body to waking up early. I was excited like a kid on Christmas day, so waking up was nice and easy in this instance. We were called outside, buzzing to find out what we would be doing today, only to be told that in order to have breakfast, we must clean up the mountains of elephant poo left by the 8 elephants the day before, and unsurprisingly, there was a lot. It was an interesting start to the day, but not necessarily a bad one, in fact, it was quite fun. Elephant poo doesn’t actually smell so it wasn’t too bad, and seeing as there was 11 of us, we got through the mound of mess relatively quickly. And that signalled the start of day 2…
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