Return to the Elephants


Back Again

This trip to the Surin Project is my fourth since 2013. On every visit, it is always heartwarming to see my mahout (the people that care for the elephants) and elephant friends. The first person from the project to greet me is Nana, the driver. Because I usually meet the volunteer group arriving from Bangkok at the Buriram bus station, I am typically there waiting when he arrives. His warm smile and cheerful Sawad dee krabp (hello) never fail to bring a smile to my face. Next is Sarot, the main Thai coordinator of the project, when we arrive in Ban Tha Klang at the Elephant Study Center. This time I was able to show him the final version of the tattoo that was fresh and healing the last time I was there. He rubbed it with his wrist and said “good luck, good luck.” My tattoo is that of a Kui (pronounced: goui) symbol he drew on one of my previous trips representing the eight directions we can go in life so that you never lose your way.

For the first time since participating in the project, I stayed in a different house. The project rents houses from the mahouts for the volunteers to stay in. Typically it is two volunteers to a house (or more if there are couples). Because I have a history of disturbing other volunteers with my snoring, Wills arranged for me to have my own place in Dao’s house. Even though Dao is no longer on the project due to health reasons, we still rent his house. Having the change was nice even though I was a bit farther from the Volunteer Meeting Point. Outside my window was Sai Faa’s shelter. Hearing the sounds of an elephant eating, sugar cane swishing against her legs, and the occasional belly rumble is such a calming and happy sound.

The first chance to see the rest of the mahouts, and meet the new ones, is at the welcoming ceremony. Every week of the Surin Project begins with a ceremony performed by the local shaman. The ceremony is part Buddhist and part Kui, which follow a more animistic practice. Pan always seems to be the first mahout to arrive, and I am always greeted with “MJ, MJ”. At least this week I was sitting next to a second week volunteer, so was not the brunt of Pan throwing star gooseberry leaves at me like the last time.

The purpose of the welcoming ceremony is to bring us together for the week as a family and wish us projection and health while we are there. One of the concepts I really enjoy about the welcoming ceremony is the idea of bringing your spirit back to you. As animists, the Kui believe that occasionally your spirit may wander off. Throwing star gooseberry leaves is a ritual to bring your spirit back to you.

With only 12 elephants on the project, the number of volunteers is limited to 12. In the past, the largest group I had been part of was 9. This week we had 12 volunteers. Seeing the growth in popularity of this project is awesome. Of all the Elephant Nature Foundation projects that I have participated in, I believe in the Surin Project purpose and mission of “working to improve the living conditions of captive Asian elephants” the most. For more on the Surin Project see my post: Why Volunteer at the Surin Project or visit Sadly, this trip also marks the last time that Kirsty and Wills will be there as the project coordinators. I will be sad to see them leave; however, their legacy will last in the solid foundation they have established for the project to continue to expand and grow.

Who’s New and Who’s Gone

Each visit to the Surin Project starts with a roll call of elephants and their mahouts. For one reason or another, sometimes elephants are taken off the project. While it is sad to see some of them go, at least they are replaced with other elephants. Two elephants, Jaeb and Sai Faa, left the project since my last visit. Both left because the mahouts had health reasons. Replacing those two elephants are Nuua Tong and Manow.

The cutest addition to the project, bringing the number of elephants back up to the 12 (technically 13) that can be supported on the project are baby Anda and her mom Kaem Sen. Baby Anda is about 4 months old and as cute as ever. Watching a baby elephant trying to figure out how to use their trunk and eat the sugar cane is adorable. Sometimes Kaem Sen gets a little anxious when Anda is running around or when volunteers get a little too close. When she does, she begins slapping her trunk in an attempt to try to get little Anda under control.

Typically when an elephant leaves the project, the knowledge that their life has changed is sad and generally fleeting as the elephant is out of sight, out of mind. Staying at Sai Faa’s mahout’s house, her new existence caused me a bit of heartache. Dao, Sai Faa’s mahout, had to leave the project for health reasons that wouldn’t allow him to participate in the walks and other required work. Sai Faa, his elephant, has been returned to a life of giving back-breaking elephant rides during the day and being on chain the rest of the time. Her saddle is on a shelf just outside my door by the stairs. The missing saddle during the day is a subtle reminder of the change in her daily existence. When she is not out giving rides to the hordes of tourists that visit the Elephant Study Center, she is on chain in her shelter. On the Surin Project, elephants are only allowed to be chained by one chain. Dao is now chaining Sai Faa with two chains. She has a chain on her back leg to keep her in her shelter and a chain between her two front feet. The chain between her two front feet allows her to take steps of only about 3 feet, which at 5’3” is my typical stride length when I walk. Sometimes when I saw Dao, I just wanted to ask him “why?”

Sai Faa on two chains in her shelter

Sai Faa on two chains in her shelter

On the project, the mahouts are under contract to not carry or use a bull hook. A bull hook is a 2 foot long stick with a sharp metal hook on the end. The mahouts in the center are Kui, the local tribe. As animists, the Kui believe that spirits inhabit the bull hook and carrying the bull hook gives them protection from injury. The hook is used to control the elephant, usually not intended to pierce the elephant’s skin, although on occasion mahouts will use it in that manner. Dao has also returned to carrying a bull hook. Seeing him guiding Sai Faa by the ear using the edge of the hook is not a happy sight. When giving her a hello from the stairs while Dao was putting away her saddle one day, it was hard to not think that the small wound on her head isn’t from a bull hook.

Project Life

The main “work” volunteers perform on the project is giving the elephants opportunities to be off chain and interacting as elephants would in the wild. These opportunities are in the form of walks through the forest, watching them eating and playing in the water in the enclosure and walking to the river for baths.

Every day involves at least one walk in the forest, sometimes two. The first day of the project, the volunteers typically go through part of the forest where the poo paper factory and elephant graveyard are located. Having been on that part of the walk multiple times, Sarot took me to hang out with the elephants as they ate while waiting for the rest of the volunteers. Sitting and watching the elephants munch their way through piles of sugar cane and take care of some itches by rubbing against trees is fantastic. This time was also a chance to refine my sling shot skills in practice for the Mahout Olympics at the end of the week, and also because it is fun. Thong Di lent me his sling shot and set up a couple of sugar cane stalks to hit. Even I was impressed by the fact that I actually hit the stalks several times with some accuracy.

One of the changes on the project this time was the opportunity to go into the enclosure during enclosure time to observe the elephants more closely. On prior visits, the volunteers were restricted to trying to see the elephants from the platform that looks out over the enclosure pond. Often the elephants hang out in the enclosure behind the stands of trees, hidden from view from the platform. Getting to go into the enclosure allows the volunteers to observe the elephants more closely.

No matter how many times I do it, bathing an elephant never gets old. Feeling their massive body so close, looking them eye to eye, and scrubbing them from head to tail fill me with joy. Luckily we have two opportunities during the week to bathe the elephants. Wednesday I washed Warrin. Pi Pong, Pan’s dad who was taking care of Warrin that day, is very succinct and business like in his work, unlike Pan who tends to live up to his Roman-mythology based name. After washing Warrin, I headed over to help with Fah Sai. At some point during the bath, Thong Di will give Fah Sai the command to take water in her trunk and blow it out while he aims her trunk at a generally unsuspecting volunteer. After dousing Alexia, Thong Di turned Fah Sai’s trunk on me. Even though I know I will lose a water fight with an elephant, it doesn’t stop me from splashing Thong Di after he has Fah Sai spray me. We go back and forth saying “mahout apnam (shower)” and “volunteer apnam”, laughing uncontrollably in the process and getting out of the river soaking wet.

Bathing Warrin in the river

Bathing Warrin in the river

Friday I got to bathe Tangmo, which was a wonderful reward for me after the week of interacting with Krow. Tangmo is one of the smaller elephants on the project and is much more mobile in the water. For some reason Krow likes to completely douse himself when bathing Tangmo even though he always says that the water is “yen mak mak” (very cold). So with a “MJ… neung, song, sam (1, 2, 3)” both Krow and I dunked ourselves underwater. Sometimes I think they do these things to see if the volunteers will play along. Most the times I participate because I think it is fun and helps create friendships with the mahouts.

Occasionally we do actual physical work. Every day we have morning chores of picking up the dried sugar cane from the shelters, cleaning the enclosure area and cutting the sugar cane for the elephants. The volunteers are divided into teams and rotate jobs each day. With 12 volunteers the work is done in about 15 minutes, except for the shelter team which goes on a long tractor ride to spread the sugar cane in a field to be used as mulch for young sugar cane. This trip I only had one opportunity to cut sugar cane, which is probably my favorite task as I get to use a machete. Sugar cane cutting this time was a little frustrating as the machete they gave me to use was about as sharp as a butter knife.

One of the days that my team was cleaning the enclosure, we got to meet Lin Daa. Lin Daa was in the enclosure when we arrived and her mahout quickly gathered her so we could clean. On the way out, I had forgot my water bottle and went back into the enclosure to get it. As I was coming out, Lin Daa was coming back in. Turns out Lin Daa belongs to Krow’s parents and is one of the few elephants not on the project that takes advantage of the opportunity to use the enclosure. After the standard conversation of “what’s your name”, “where are you from” and a little astonishment that I can speak just a little bit of slow Thai, Krow’s dad explained to me that Lin Daa is pregnant and that he is 50. Krow’s mom emphatically in loud slow Thai explained that they are Krow’s parents and emphasized again that they are both 50.

Friday the volunteers actually help the mahouts with some project that is needed for the elephants. This week one job was building a poo bin, which is a bin where elephant poo is stored before it is either used to make paper or turned into fertilizer. The other job was going with Sarot and a team of mahouts to cut down poles. Working together we cut as many 3” diameter eucalyptus trees as were needed until we were told that we had enough. My job was to go with Pi Pong to cut trees using a saw. Again, he had a very swift and business-like manner to his work, walking from eucalyptus stand to eucalyptus stand finding just the right ones to cut. He was patient with my sawing skills and gave a bit of direction when to cut slower. No one is really sure what project Sarot has in mind for these poles.

Working with Pi Pong to cut down eucalyptus trees

Working with Pi Pong to cut down eucalyptus trees

Special Moments

The Surin Project is really working to emphasize a more hands-off, just hang back and watch, approach. Occasionally, having the discipline to not go up and touch the elephants and take pictures can be a Herculean feat. Especially when Sarot is encouraging volunteers to come up to the elephants and have their picture taken. Sometimes the temptation is overwhelming and the spirit is weak. Perhaps it is because both elephants and massage therapists use touch to heal or just because elephants are such beautiful creatures, whatever the reason, I sometimes find the desire to touch the elephants overwhelming. On one of our walks when we were hanging out with Fah Sai and Euang Luang in the forest, Sarot was encouraging volunteers to get in and hug Euang Luang’s trunk as a photo opportunity. I couldn’t resist and got in there for my hug. Mid-hug she gave a deep gentle belly rumble, which to me is one of the most comforting sounds that I know.

Sitting back and watching the elephants results in some pretty awesome experiences as well. During one of the enclosure times, we all stood or sat at the sala (a small simple shelter with a platform and a roof) and just watched Kaem Sen and Anda. Singhat, Kaem Sen and Anda’s mahout, is so beautiful and gentle in how he interacts with Anda. Watching the love and the start of the bonding between elephant and mahout is so special. He would get down to Anda’s height and just let her be in contact with him as she explored her environment. At 4 months old, she is just starting to get used to figuring out how to eat, often attempting to copy what mom is doing. Sugar cane is an obstacle she just hasn’t quite mastered and her attempts to do so are comical and adorable. After a bit of struggling, Singhat gives her an Anda-sized piece of sugar cane that she happily eats.

Watching the mahouts grow and change the longer they are on the project is a benefit of volunteering several times. Seeing the change in Krow, Tangmo’s mahout, this time was precious. The moments where he puts his head against Tangmo or kisses her are just beautiful, truly emphasizing the bond a mahout has with his elephant. In the wild, elephants form family groups and several elephants will take on the role of Auntie to the babies. Tangmo is starting to play this role for Anda. While we were watching Kaem Sen and Anda in the enclosure, Krow brought Tangmo over to be with them and also give Anda an opportunity to continue to grow more comfortable with his presence. Seeing Krow put his head against Anda’s belly and kiss her was precious.

Krow giving Tangmo some love

Krow giving Tangmo some love

A major highlight of the week at the Surin Project is the Mahout Olympics. Volunteers and mahouts are divided into teams to play a series of games. My team was Alexia, Boon Ma, Nana, Suwat and myself. The first event is the slingshot challenge. Five bottles are set up and each person gets five stones. For each bottle that is knocked down, the team gets 3 points. Even after a week of practicing with a sling shot, I was only able to knock down 2 bottles. Fortunately, Nana and Boon Ma are extremely talented with a sling shot. The second event is knuckle bones. Knuckle bones is where you take 10 stone-like seeds, place them in the palm of your hand, toss them in the air, catch as many as you can on the back of your hand, toss those stones in the air and catch as many as you can in your hand using a downward motion. I managed to catch two stones. Nana helped us greatly in this event by catching all 10 stones. The third event was the poo ball catch. Each team member has three chances to use a rake to fling a (dry) poo ball at their teammate that is holding a bucket. The poo ball must be caught in the bucket without the catcher leaving their designated circle. I think we managed to get 2 out of 12 in the bucket. Final event was the 3-legged race. With our ankles bound very securely together, Nana and I started and Boon Ma and Alexia took over, obtaining us a second place finish. Unfortunately, all that left us in a tie for last place.

The last place was determined through a match of teams performing Rock-Paper-Scissors. My team went 3-1 in the tie breaker, declaring us the last place team. Our “prize” for last place was a bit of embarrassment and a lot of laughter. After our team picture, we had to perform the Barbeque Chicken song. Only part of us knew the actions that go with the song, but we gave it our best shot. Next, all the other participants had the opportunity to generously cover our faces with baby powder. Krow gave me extra special treatment by using soot to draw lines down my cheeks to my chin, across my eyebrows and on my nose. Once we were sufficiently white faced, we officially closed the Mahout Olympics by performing the Chang song. Again, we did our best to both sing and do the motions for the song. The last part of the embarrassment was the walk back to my house, passing by the extremely friendly shop owner, who got terrific joy at seeing my face covered in white.

Krow and I after the Mahout Olympics

Krow and I after the Mahout Olympics

Not all of the special moments this week were particularly happy. One less-than-happy moment was the spider eviction that I had to perform one night. I am fine with geckos chirping and running amok, especially since they eat mosquitoes. Even the rhino beetle that performed a nightly fly-by of my mosquito netting sounding like a helicopter landing didn’t really bother me, even not knowing where it landed. What bothered me was the night I went to plug in my phone to charge and the rather hefty spider that plopped down on my computer and scurried in the general direction of my bed. It’s possible that I let out a girlish squeak or maybe it was the commotion of me jumping out of my room, switching on every possible light switch on the porch in an attempt to find the broom and then frantically attempting to fling the spider out of my room, that brought Dao’s wife Ruak up to check on me. When she arrived I had successfully evicted the spider. To answer her quizzical look and question if I was ok, I used the international hand gesture of wiggling fingers to explain there had been a spider in my room.

The other less-than-happy moment was the moment that my camera lens jammed on our second walk to the river. One of the other volunteers that is particularly handy with a camera and I had ventured into a rice paddy to get a really cool shot of the elephants as they were walking. As the fields were dry and the angle of the shot was against the berm between rice paddies, a cloud of dust struck my camera. Sadly, attempts to get it un-jammed have been futile. I’m hoping that possibly when I return home, or maybe even while I am on Koh Chang for my last week, that it will be possible to have it repaired. In the meantime, I am grateful that the camera on my Samsung Galaxy phone is almost as good as my regular camera.

Elephants walking to the river

Elephants walking to the river (the shot that killed my camera)

Love is in the Air

One of the crazy moments of the week was when dozens of brides and grooms descended on the Elephant Study Center to participate in a mass ceremony of getting married on an elephant on Valentine’s Day. The sheer number of people at the center was overwhelming, bordering on insane. The main ceremony platform is located just down from our meeting point. Throughout the week we watched the progress of the platform being transformed with the ceremonial trappings.

Finally on the big day it became a zoo of humans, cars and elephants. Participants and their families started arriving in droves around 8:30 am, just as we were returning from our morning chores. Parking anywhere they felt there was space made it impossible for us to return the truck and tractor to their places, eventually just giving up and parking them among the cars. Elephants were gathered in the field behind the ceremony platform, all decked out in ornate cloths under their saddles and some wore headdresses of flowers. The mahouts all had the same bright red shirt. Trucks from the center had been decorated with flowers and bunting to participate in the elephant parade, also adding to the chaos.

Having that much chaos is stressful for the elephants, both our project elephants and the elephants that are waiting to carry the newlyweds around the center in a parade. Fortunately the event went off without any tragedy. Kaem Sen and Anda’s enclosure is the closest enclosure to the ceremonial platform. Kaem Sen is on chain while Anda is allowed to run back and forth. Kaem Sen was clearly anxious about the fact that people kept coming up the closure and wanting to touch her baby. Thankfully we avoided the bulk of the commotion by going on our morning walk through the forest.

As a government sponsored elephant, sometimes the elephants on the project are required to participate in certain events such as this. To refuse to participate would result in the mahout losing their government salary for the week and potentially even losing their place at the Elephant Study Center. Fah Sai was requested to participate. So on Saturday she was dressed up like the other elephants, ornate cloth and basket on her back, and Thong Di had to carry a bull hook for the morning. On our walk in the forest, Nong Neun was particularly vocal about the fact that Fah Sai wasn’t there as part of their friend group. Hearing her trumpets calling to Fah Sai echoing through the trees was a testament to the friendships that can be formed between the elephants.

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