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.

Why Volunteer at the Surin Project


Plight of the Elephants

In Thailand, approximately 1,000 elephants remain in the wild, placing the Asian elephant on the endangered species list. Unfortunately, the approximately 3,000 captive elephants are considered livestock, similar to cattle, and are not protected as an endangered species. Captive elephants have a mahout (care taker) that forms a bond with the elephant. Often this bond is a life long relationship.

When young (about 3 years old), the mahout seeks to break the elephant’s wild spirit. Often the breaking process is through negative feedback involving beating with a hook (a foot long rod with a sharp metal book on the end) until the elephant displays the desired behavior. Once broken, if the elephant is destined for life in the tourism industry, they face further training to perform feats that are not a natural part of an elephant’s behavior such as playing soccer (football) or basketball, throwing darts at objects, painting or standing on their front legs. Again, this training is through negative feedback.

In 1989, logging was banned in Thailand. Elephants that once provided essential manpower were suddenly unemployed and their mahouts found themselves without a viable income source to feed their elephants and their families. Many mahouts turned to a life of street begging with their elephants or using their elephants in the tourism industry for trekking or circus shows. Ultimately, mahouts went from a standing of significant status to being on the lowest rung of the ladder.

Street begging elephants faced long days on the streets without access to proper nutrition or water as tourists paid to feed an elephant a bunch of bananas. In 2012, street begging was finally banned in all of the major cities in Thailand. And only a few years ago did authorities start enforcing the ban by fining mahouts using their elephants for begging

Trekking elephants and elephants used for giving rides at tourist locations face back breaking work carrying a heavy saddle (30-50 kilos/56-110 lbs) plus the weight of the tourists which can be another 70 to 120 kilos (150 to 265 lbs) or more, depending on the number of riders. The saddle is often ill fitting as they are a “one size fits all” design, held on with ropes that if tied wrong can constrict movements of the elephant’s legs and their ability to breathe. The elephant wears the saddle the entire working day. Despite the massive size of an elephant, their spine is not designed to bear this type of weight.

Life at the Elephant Study Project

Despite its research sounding name, the Elephant Study Project is basically a relocation option for formerly street begging and otherwise unemployed elephants and their mahouts. The center is located in Baan Tha Klan in the Surin province. Set on 2,000 acres of land, the center is home to anywhere between 150 and 200 elephants and their families. The government provides an income of 8,000 baht ($230) a month for families and elephants living at the center. Often mahouts have to turn to another source of additional income to take care of their families. One option is to perform in the circus that is held twice a day or to offer elephant rides around the center.

Many of the elephants at the center are “on chain” the entire day, either because their mahout is working elsewhere or because they have no place to roam. “On chain” means bound to a stake by a heavy chain allowing the elephant a very small area to move in, typically a radius of only about 6 or 8 feet. Some elephants also have a chain binding their front feet together allowing them very little movement. Another method of being “on chain” is a chain around their neck attaching them to a tree or post of a shelter.

Elephants “on chain” tend to develop stereotypical behaviors, akin to a bored human drumming their fingers or taping their foot. Some elephants sway, some move their head in circles, others rock back and forth. Most elephants at the center display some type of stereotypical behavior. Walking around the center it was heart wrenching to see these beautiful creatures facing this reality on a daily basis.

Why Volunteer?

The Surin Project was started by the Elephant Nature Foundation as a way to provide elephants a better existence and to demonstrate that tourists are interested in seeing elephants acting as they would in the wild. Volunteers pay about $400 a week to be part of the project. This money covers project expenses for the volunteers and to pay the mahouts salaries.

The project currently has funding to support 12 elephants. The mahouts on the project are paid an additional 8,000 baht salary to participate in the program. While these elephants still spend a large portion of their time on chain, the project ensures that they get at least 4 hours a day off chain to go for walks, for swims in the river or for roaming in the enclosure built with the support of the Surin Project. Mahouts are not allowed to use hooks or any sharp objects to control their elephant.

Besides directly supporting the mahouts, the project helps the community and village as a whole. Volunteer lodging is homes that are rented from study center families. The women take care of the houses daily to ensure the bathroom is kept clean and the refrigerator is stocked with an endless supply of water, and will do laundry if needed. Many of the meals the volunteers have are taken at local restaurants.

For more information, see the Surin Project website at:

A Week with the Eles


Walking About

Buriram is not really a city that draws a large number of foreign visitors. Mostly because Buriram offers very little to see. As I discovered in my almost 5 hours of walking around between Sunday evening and Monday morning.

Setting out with my not-to-scale map that was really more of a suggestion of where streets are and how they are named, I began my tour of Buriram. Just to make navigating more interesting, typically only one of the two roads at an intersection were labeled. I either knew what street I was on and had to guess at the cross street. Or I knew what the cross street was but wasn’t quite sure I was on the street I intended to be on. I’ve also decided that sidewalks in Thailand are definitely not designed to be walked on. Uneven and often taken over by food stalls or various repair shops, it was generally easier at times to just walk in the street.

Being a white foreign female in a town like Buriram, definitely draws some attention. Generally, I was greeted with curious looks that changed to a smile when I smiled at them and said “sawad dee kaa” (hello). Men would occasionally shout out a “hello”, to which I typically responded with “sawad dee kaa” or maybe just “hello” depending on the moment. The clearly drunk Thai male on the bicycle was the most interesting interaction. Holding his beer in one hand and pointing with the other, I think he was trying to suggest that he wanted me to take him to America with me. Finally I said I needed to go, so he shook my hand, said he loved me and I quickly went on my way. Reluctantly he turned his bicycle around and off he pedaled.

If I had remembered to wear a t-shirt instead of a tank top, I could have gone in the two wats (temples) that are located in the main part of Buriram. To go into a temple, you are supposed to have your shoulders covered. So mostly I looked at the temples from the street. I did venture into the City Pillar monument. I refrained from going inside the building housing the 2 city pillars since I wasn’t sure if I was already being disrespectful by being in the monument area with my shoulders not covered.

Welcome Back

Returning to the project is like coming home. This visit being my third time volunteering at the Surin Project, I was mostly aware of the changes. A new concrete and tin roof shelter has been built for Tangmo, Wang Duen, and Nong Lek to hang out. A rebuilt structure for Jaeb, since she had been working intently on destroying her last one. And just like visiting home, I have stayed in the same room and the same house each time, although now Sing’s wife, Pi Jan, is the house mom.

The week begins with an opening ceremony that is a combination of Buddhist and Kuy (Goi) beliefs. Lead by a shaman, the ceremony is a mixture of happiness and reverence. The purpose behind the ceremony is to bring us all together and to wish for us a healthy and good week. The kuy people believe in white and dark magic, so much of the ceremony is about bringing the white protective magic to all the people there.

The ceremony is also the first time where all the volunteers get to meet the mahouts, the caretakers of the elephants. The aptly named Pan, Warin’s mahout, was sitting behind me. He remembered me from my last visit, greeting me with “MJ MJ”. Three times during the ceremony, all the mahouts throw mulberry leaves at us to bless us. Several meanings are tied to this blessing. The main meaning is to bring your spirit back to your body. The kuy believe that occasionally our spirits wander off to the forest. The mulberry tree has special magic and being blessed with them helps the spirit to return to the body. Another meaning is that someone who is blessed by these leaves will be great and will be loved. Pan, Thong Di, and Em were sitting behind me so I was greatly blessed with large handfuls of mulberry leaves showered on me with great force. A terrific welcome from the mahouts.

The cast of characters, both elephants and mahouts, has remained mostly the same since my visit last December. One new elephant, Wong Duen, and her mahout, Nei, have joined the project. Another elephant, Ploy, and her mahout, Sing, have returned to the project. Unfortunately, Ploy’s baby girl Kwan has not been allowed to come back to the project by the owner. And sadly, Sai Faa and her mahout, Dao, are not on the project at the moment because Dao is sick. Hopefully she will return to the project when Dao is better.

From a project success standpoint this consistency is a good sign. Many mahouts have a difficult time with the rules imposed in their agreement to be on the project. One of the rules is that they are not allowed to use a bull hook, a 2 foot stick with a large metal hook attached to it, to control their elephant. Many mahouts view just carrying the bull hook as a talisman of protection from injury. To give up the bull hook is to give up the idea that they are protected from injury.

Life on the Project

The Surin Project is focused on helping to change the culture of elephant tourism in Thailand by demonstrating that people will come to interact with elephants in a much more natural way. As a volunteer, our primary “work” is to ensure that the elephants have at least 3-4 hours each day off their chains. This goal is accomplished through going for walks in the forest and to the river and by allowing the elephants to wander in the enclosure to eat and play in the water. (For more on the project and why it is important, click here.)

Throughout the week we take several walks through the forest with the elephants. Generally, we try to stay out of the way of the elephants, not always easy since elephants move surprisingly quietly, and just watch them as they stop and forage for food, enjoying a tasty vine here or some other plant there. One of our walks takes us to a bamboo thicket. This particular day, Fah Sai was intent on having some bamboo as a snack. Sarot hurried us out of the way as she reached for a giant stalk. With a great crack she pulled it to the ground. While watching her and admiring her great power we were momentarily oblivious to the nest of red ants that we had ended up in. These ants are particularly vicious and bite with a vengeance. The ants seemed to drop off the bushes and crawl up from the ground, all the sudden appearing on shirts, in hair, on legs, everywhere. By the time we got out of the area I had eight major bites, one on my back the rest on my legs.

Of course some work does need to be done during the week. Mostly in the form of morning and evening chores. In the morning, we have three tasks that our teams rotate through: cleaning shelters, cleaning the enclosure and cutting sugar cane. None of the tasks are particularly arduous, taking at most 30 minutes to complete. My favorite task is cutting sugar cane. Not only because I get to use a machete to hack down the 8 foot tall stalks of sugar cane, but also because I get to work with the mahouts.  I am always amazed at the speed and skill with which they accomplish their task. Clearing away the dead leaves with a whoosh whoosh of their machete and cutting the stalk with  a simple thwack of the machete. The mahouts are sweetly tolerant of my swoosh….swoosh as I copy them in clearing away the dried leaves and the thwack, thwack, thwack that it takes me to bring down one sugar cane stalk. The task is still sanook (fun) involving much smiling and laughing.

Our one project for the week was to help plant a field of sugar cane for the elephants. Sugar cane fields are planted by laying sugar cane stalks in furrows, cutting the stalks into about foot long pieces, covering them with elephant manure and then covering with the dirt. Any opportunity for me to use a machete is always welcome, so I volunteered to cut the sugar cane stalks. Careful to stand a furrow over from where I was working to make sure my bare toes were protected by a barricade of dirt, I made my way up and down the rows cutting the stalks. Using a machete effectively definitely takes consistent practice. Much more practice than my once or twice a year. Second only to getting to use a machete, the best part of doing this project was getting to walk barefoot in the soft freshly plowed field of red sandy soil.


Another component of the Surin Project is to help support the community of Ban Tha Klang. Two of the days this week we went to a local school to teach the students. Divided into four teams, we created lessons for teaching basic conversation, body parts, alphabet letter sounds, and numbers. Autumn and I chose numbers. Though both of us teach adults, neither of us are particularly fond of teaching children. Our first day was a bit of a struggle. The second day we changed up our lesson and taught the kids a song using numbers. By the end of our hour of teaching, all of the kahnom (grade) 1-3 kids could sing: “1 little, 2 little, 3 little elephants; 4 little, 5 little, 6 little elephants; 7 little, 8 little, 9 little elephants; 10 elephants more.”

Coming from the dry climate of Colorado, the heat and humidity of Ban Tha Klang was on occasion almost stifling. Only one day passed without rain sometime during the day or night. The rest of the days included a rain shower, often in the late afternoon and occasionally well into the night. Instead of cooling the air, each passing afternoon shower seemed to leave the air twice as heavy and twice as hot. Rain showers at night were welcomed to keep the hordes of June bugs at bay and did actually make it a little more cool to sleep.

All the moisture made the landscape of the village much more vibrant. The lush green of the trees and plants contrasted with the red clay soil provided a vibrant backdrop for our elephant walks. Especially our walks to the river through the bright green of the young rice fields. Add to this tableau the shades of grey and pink of the elephants, partially covered with the red soil the elephants use for sunscreen and bug repellent. Such a beautiful and refreshing sight.

The heat and humidity also upped the number of bucket showers to be had each day. On average, I took 2 each day. Definitely a far cry from my last visit to the project where it was so cold that bucket showers were tolerated only when the amount of dirt became overwhelming. Scooping the cool water from the bucket and pouring it over me brought welcome relief from being covered with sweat, mosquito repellent and dirt. Regardless of how hot it was, that first scoop of water always brought the same cold shock of jumping into a cold body of water. And always felt so refreshing.

The week for me this time culminated with the mahout dinner and the farang (foreigner/volunteer) show. The mahout dinner gives us a chance to spend time talking and laughing with the mahouts. Sitting next to Sarot, the head mahout, can always prove interesting. When Ocha brought the traditional dish made from beef throat, Sarot took a fork and put a piece of it on it, dipped it lightly in the sauce and handed it to me. I have always lived by the rule that I will try any food that is offered to me, a practice instilled in me by years of travelling with my dad. The meat tasted reasonably good. Probably wouldn’t eat a whole meal of it, but I did reach for a second piece after a while, making the mistake of dipping it too much in the sauce which left my lips tingling for quite awhile from the spice. A while later, Sarot again took my fork and gave me another bite. I also made the mistake of letting Sarot make my second drink of Hong Thong (a wiskey-esque alcohol) and soda water. I think it had more Hong Thong than soda water.

The farang show is always good for some laughs. The girls performance was singing The Lion Sleeps tonight. Percussion and was provided by the collection of instruments we created out of a bamboo bin played with a stick, a piece of bamboo and a stick and two maracas made from water bottles and rocks. For only practicing once, we did great. Rob’s performance was sweet too. He made a rap out of all the information of the elephants and their mahouts. The mahouts always follow up with a performance, typically the frog mating dance. Even though I have seen it several times, I still don’t quite get it.

Bathing Elephants

No matter how many times I do it, the best part of the week is the chance to bathe the elephants in the river. Twice during the week we walk with the elephants to the river, spend a little time watching them eat the sugar cane, and then get in the river with them. In the water, each elephant gets its own bag of mangao, a cross between a turnip and a potato, and then the bathing begins. These massive animals so solid on land are almost buoyant in the water.

Bathing Fah Sai was one of the most amazing elephant bathing experiences I have had in a long time. Fah Sai is the biggest elephant on the project. At 5’3″, I am roughly half as tall as she stands at the shoulder. Not a skinny elephant by any means, her mass leaves me awestruck when she passes close by. To get to play with her in the water was so incredible.

After feeding her 2 bags of mangao, that Thong Di made sure each one was rinsed of dirt before handing them to me to feed her, Thong Di had her lie down in the water. I started splashing her with water and scrubbing her with my brush. To help me better reach her ear and other side of her face, Thong Di gave her a command to put her head down farther into the water. At one point I was practically on top of her head. The feeling of being so close to such a beautiful animal is hard to put into words. The heat of her body, the gentle breathing, the thick skin with the wiry hair, the power in her ears and trunk.


By the end of the bathing, I was soaked from head to toe. Especially since Thong Di kept having Fah Sai bring water into her trunk and on command blow it at me. Each time the initial burst of warm trunk (nasal?) air preceding the blast of water from her trunk hitting me square in the face. I was all smiles sloshing out of the water beside Fah Sai, her wake making a ruckus in direct contrast to the stealthfulness with which she moves on land.

People ask me what keeps me coming back to the Surin Project (or any of the elephant projects). Part of my response is to try to help change the culture of tourism in Thailand and to protect the elephants from abuse and harm that can come to them through elephant rides, circus tricks and trekking. What truly keeps me coming back is getting to experience the energy of these gentle giants. Elephants are empathetic and compassionate creatures. Experiencing their touch and looking into their eyes refills my heart and refreshes my spirit.