Return to the Elephants

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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 www.suringproject.org. 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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Why Volunteer at the Surin Project

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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: www.surinproject.org

A Week with the Eles

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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.

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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.

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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.

Elephant Time

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Family Time

My first stop upon returning to Thailand, was Taphan Hin in central Thailand to spend a little time with my Thai family. Family is such an important facet of Thai culture. Over the years I have become the oldest sister in the Tabjeen family, being only 3 years younger than mom. As often as possible when I visit Thailand, I try to make it a point to visit the family.

This visit, they set up my own “home stay” room. The room used to belong to Pa (aunt) Lee before she finished building her house. Now Nat uses it on the weekends to teach a special English class to a few of the kids that live in the neighborhood. The room was adorned with a bed with a silk coverlet and a blue mosquito net, pink curtains and my own bathroom. Dad even made sure I had my own source of bottled water. Such a sweet gesture to ensure my comfort while I am visiting.

Having my own room was also necessary now that Nat, Gao and their baby Nong Name and Gao’s sister are all living in the main house with Nat’s parents. Nong Name, my 6-month old nephew, is a 10 kilo (22 pound) bundle of joy and sweetness. This child is surrounded by love and caring. Lung (uncle) Buhm takes care of him every day. Just seeing the love and happiness radiating from Lung Buhm’s face when he is holding or playing with Nong Name warms the heart.

One of the days Nat took me to his school to help teach English. Nat truly enjoys teaching and wants to set his students up for success in being able to read and speak English. Having worked in the tourist industry, Nat has a true appreciation of how important this skill is. Arriving at the school, I was greeted with the obligatory stares and giggles from both the boys and girls. The interest continued as we were teaching with the grade 6 girls that gathered outside the classroom door about half way through the morning.

The morning was spent working on basic conversation skills with the grade 3 and 4 students. Keeping it simple with things like: “How are you?”; “I am fine, thank you. And you?”; “I am fine.” We also played some games to keep it interesting. In the afternoon, the entire school (about 35-40 students) joined together in the classroom. My task… teach them how to sing Jingle Bells. A slow yet successful process, culminating in a rousing singing of Jingle Bells that was a little sketchy on the verse but solid on the chorus. Two of the kids dressed in Santa costumes and came in dancing during our singing.

The students and I after learning Jingle Bells.

The students and I after learning Jingle Bells.

This trip I also did my best to try to avoid the hospital. Last visit, around 1 AM I found myself on the way to the urgent care due to a small bout of food poisoning. This trip, on the way home from the school, I found myself at the side of the road thanks to a small bout of something (probably food related). I made Nat promise not to tell his mom.  Usually I have no problem eating Thai (or Indian or Nepali) food, so having this happen twice is really unusual for me. Mom was a bit worried that evening when I couldn’t eat very much, sticking to rice and grilled chicken.

Instead, ant bites almost resulted in a trip to the doctor. Thailand has 7 different varieties of ants. I am allergic to at least one variety. The bites swell up, becoming puffy and red puffy and itching incessantly. Quickly I learned the words for ant (moot), mosquito (yoong) and itching (kraan). Insisting that I knew what was wrong, everyone in the hospital housing area produced every manner of pill and lotion that they thought would help me. The bites scoffed at the pills and calamine lotion. Eventually, the best solution was the topical steroid that Nat had. Before I left, Dad made a trip to the pharmacy resulting in two full bottles of the Kanalon Lotion for me.

This trip the request was made of me to make a western dinner. A request I couldn’t refuse since it came primarily from Dad, a wonderful man who does everything he can to make sure that I am comfortable when I am there. We settled on spaghetti, since that was the only thing anyone could come up with that represented western food and that I thought I would even have a remote possibility of successfully making. Somehow the combination of fresh tomatoes, basil, onions, garlic, tomato sauce (actually more of what we would call ketchup), ground pork and red pepper flakes transformed themselves into a sauce that reasonably resembled spaghetti sauce. Everyone said it tasted delicious, even better than the pizza restaurant in town. My heart was just happy seeing the joy that it brought to everyone.

Hanging with the Elephants

Volunteering at the Surin Project is less about doing work than it is about showing mahouts and other tourists that there is an alternative to the ways elephants are currently used in tourism. The balance of using elephants for tourism and protecting the elephants from harm is a particularly delicate balance. Elephants need to eat and mahouts (the people who care for the elephants) need to support their families. An elephant eats about 10% of its weight in food each day. To support that type of appetite, mahouts must find a way to earn money.

Mahouts and their elephants living at the Elephant Study Center in Ban Tha Klang (where the Surin Project is based) are given a stipend of 8000 baht a month. Almost half of that money goes to feeding their elephant, driving the mahouts to find supplemental income. Some of the options that mahouts have are: using their elephants in the twice daily circus show at the center where they do tricks for the entertainment of the tourists; offering elephant rides around the center piling 3-4 humans plus the weight of the saddle (150 pounds/75 kilos) on the back of the elephant; leaving their family at the center and taking their elephant to work at trekking camps elsewhere in Thailand; or leaving their elephants on chain all day while the mahouts work in the fields or other employment outside of the center.

The Surin Project offers another alternative. The Elephant Nature Foundation offers an additional 8000 baht per month to mahouts that agree to have their elephants be part of the Surin Project. The mahouts must agree to a set of rules to be part of the project. Mahouts are not allowed to use a bull hook, a foot long stick with an 1.5″ heavy metal hook on the end, used for controlling the elephant and sometimes as a means for punishment. Elephants are not allowed to be in the circus, to give rides or to participate in festivals. And the elephants must be off chain for 4 hours each day.

Off chain time is spent on forest walks, bathing in the river or roaming, swimming and eating in the enclosure. These activities are where volunteers can make the most impact in demonstrating that another form of tourism exists. Showing the mahouts that tourists are perfectly content in walking with elephants instead of riding them or bathing the elephants instead of watching them perform tricks, is the first step in helping to change the culture.

Forest walks allow volunteers to watch and be near the elephants. The elephants glide gracefully through the forest, the cushion on the pads of their massive round feet absorbing the weight of each step. The anatomy of an elephant’s foot still amazes me. Elephants essentially walk on tiptoe with tough spongy connective tissue for the sole. The spongy shock absorber and ridged and pitted sole are what allow an elephant to move so silently and sure-footedly through any terrain. The main sounds are the swishing of their bodies while they pass through the trees, the occasional snap of a breaking branch as one decides it needs a snack, and the chatter of the volunteers and mahouts.

Nong Lek enjoying her walk in the forest.

Nong Lek enjoying her walk in the forest.

Another activity where volunteers have the opportunity to interact with the elephants is walking to the river and bathing the elephants. Each of our trips to the river took different paths. The first walk was through the village to the road that would take us to the river. I’m pretty sure that a group of farang (foreigners) walking through the village drew more looks than the 11 elephants walking in front of us. The second walk was through the rice fields that have been burned off and are waiting for the next crop of rice to be planted.

Bathing elephants is an activity that has always been a very rewarding activity for me. Ever since the first time in 2008 when I splashed and scrubbed Jokia at Elephant Nature Park during a day visit, bathing elephants has been one of my favorite ways of interacting with elephants. In the river, we are given a bag of food to first feed the elephant. After eating, we begin scrubbing and splashing the elephants to get the dirt off (so that they can apply a new layer of insect repellent and sunscreen when they get out of the water.)

Bath time for Jaeb and Warrin.

Bath time for Jaeb and Warrin.

Bathing Nong Lek was wonderful. She’s one of the smaller elephants on the project, so much easier to get around with in the water. Su Chad, her mahout, is also very adept at getting her to follow commands such as putting her head down in the water or getting down on her side. With her it was like two children playing and splashing in the water. Of course, she is a bit bigger of a kid and I had to be careful to watch where her feet were going (as that is the most dangerous part in the water.) I got to scrub her body, behind her ears and her forehead and trunk and the top of her head. Looking into her beautiful sweet eyes felt like there was a soul-to-soul connection.

And then her friend Nam Fon came to play. This pair can often be seen playing in the water. Like children, they will sit on each other, hold each other down and just toss about playfully. Watching them do this in the enclosure or during the bath on the forest walks is amusing. Experiencing it close up and almost getting sat on is a whole different experience. Thankfully I managed to escape in one non-flattened piece, laughing the entire way out of the water.

Life at the Center

This week being my second visit to the project, the changes are what were most apparent to me. The biggest change is in the elephants and mahouts that are now part of the project. Only 5 of the elephants and 3 of the mahouts that I met last April are still part of the project. The elephants and mahouts that have left had their reasons. The most common reason that the mahouts leave the project is that the mahouts feel they cannot abide by the project rules consistently. Other times, they decide that they can make even more money taking their elephant somewhere else. Both reasons underlie the depth to which the change needs to occur in the elephant tourism culture.

A new minimart has opened within the study center. Now we no longer have to walk into the village for treats such as ice cream, chips (crisps) or the occasional beer. Poi with her loud cheerful voice and laugh greeted us every time we walked past the shop, which was several times a day. Mornings it was often a remark on the weather: now mai ka? (are you cold?) or now mak mak (very cold). During the day it would be waving her small child’s arm and saying “hello”, or “bye bye” in the evening. Over the course of the week, I am pretty sure our group was responsible for making her profit for the month. Especially when we cleared her out of beer, buying one for each mahout on the project at the final dinner.

A more pleasing change for me was getting to see the enclosure and forest when it is green and lush. All the green leaves on the trees provides a beautiful compliment to the reddish brown dirt, clear crisp blue sky and grey and pink elephants. On walks, the sunlight filtering through the leaves just added to the beauty. A far contrast to the dry brown landscape I had experienced before.

Every climate in the world has its own standard of hot and cold. For Thailand, right now is the cold season, which typically means lows of 60 F (16 C) and highs of 85 F (30 C). This year is unusually cold. In fact, even the farang (foreigners) on the project were cold. Every evening around 10 pm, a cold wind would start blowing. The wood houses do very little to stop the cold wind from blowing through, making for a cold night bundled in whatever blankets I had available. In the morning, after a breakfast involving cuddling with a warm glass of coffee, cocoa, tea or hot water, we would join the mahouts around their fire waiting to get started on the daily chores. At night, the field outside my house where the non-project elephants are chained was dotted with fires to help keep the elephants a bit warmer.

The field outside my house is home to 5 non-project elephants. Most of these elephants stay on chain nearly 24 hours a day. The little guy closest to my door was really not happy about his predicament of being on chain. Many times it looked as though he was plotting and trying every possible tactic to get the chain loose. Even when he would be moved to his alternate spot just around the corner he would continue his struggle. His constant straining at the chain made me sad and at the same time secretly root for him to be successful.

At night, the 3 younger elephants in the field would sleep laying down. The light of the full moon would transform their color to a ghostly pale grey. Seeing the sleeping elephants by that light was almost eerie, as if it was a specter of a future for these young elephants.

The sight of the non-project elephants being on chain, giving rides or walking down the street carrying their own heavy chains, is a sight that never gets easier to see. To me, seeing the elephants carry their own chain almost seems like putting salt in a wound. Not only does the elephant have the chain around their ankle all day, even when not attached to the post, they have to carry the weight of the chain. Nothing can be done other than to send the elephant caring thoughts, continue to volunteer and educate other tourists, and hope that the elephant tourism culture can change before it is too late.

A Little Work

Projects are another way volunteers contribute to the success of the Surin Project. Often the project teams are a combination of mahouts and volunteers, providing an additional interaction opportunity. The projects this week included planting corn, making a perimeter around the field to hopefully protect it from cattle that use that area to graze, and transferring elephant poo from a poo box to a box where it will continue to decompose and be turned into fertilizer. Cool weather and a volunteer group that was anxious to do work made quick work of the projects.

Recently, the Surin Project purchased a small amount of land where they can raise sweet corn for feeding the elephants. The mostly grey-brown clay soil had been tilled by tractor, leaving large clumps in long furrows. Our job was to go along, dig a hole every foot or so, place 5 seeds in each one and cover the hole. Having done work like this in Thailand, I made sure to pick the right tool for the job. The best tool for digging holes is a long metal pole with a curved piece of metal at the end that looks like one of the straws you get in a thick drink that acts like a spoon. I started digging and Nana (the driver for the project) dropped in the seeds and covered the seeds using his bare feet on the wet clay. He patiently allowed me to do the first 5 or so holes. Then he made me switch places with him. Taking the hole digger, he quickly went to work digging holes just deep enough for the seeds in almost straight rows. I took off one of my shoes, following behind dropping seeds and covering them using my bare foot in the mud. The corn seeds had a strangely unnatural pink color.  I’m not sure if the pink is a fertilizer to help it grow faster or something to keep the seeds from rotting while they germinate. By the end of our work, my hands were covered in bright pink dust and my foot was covered in mud.

The next day, we went back to the field to hang a sign indicating that it is property of the Surin Project and to create a perimeter around the field to protect the seed and seedlings. Farmers will take their herds of cattle through the rice fields that are between planting so that they can graze. The perimeter involves posts sunk deep into the mud every 8 or 10 feet or so, strung with the plastic string that is the primary binding mechanism used in Thailand with plastic bags tied along the string to make it visible and provide a deterrent to the birds that are another threat to the seeds and seedlings.

Nana was in charge of gathering the small trees or branches, each a couple of inches in diameter, for the posts. At our stop on the way to the field, Nana only found 4 poles that met his liking. Using 2 or 3 strikes of the machete, the small tree was taken down and just as deftly using the machete the small branches were removed leaving a pole. Once at the field, Nana set off on a quest for more branches. Watching Nana gather tree branches to use for poles is watching a masterpiece in action. Once he found all the acceptable poles he could that were at ground level, he moved to getting branches out of the tall slender trees. He would shimmy up the trees, and with a few hacks of the machete, down came branches.

While Nana collected branches, Ocha and Chris began digging holes and Siobhan and I  made our best attempt at hanging the sign. The sign, made out of plaster board painted a pale green with darker green letters, was not as easy to attach to the tree as it seemed it should be. The first obstacle was getting the nail into the plaster board. Eventually we managed that task without cracking the plaster board. The second obstacle was attaching it to the tree using the single slightly rusty 3 inch nail that Ocha had brought with him from the center.

The fields are surrounded with berms. Some berms are only a foot high, others are several feet high. This particular berm was about 3 feet high with the trees growing out of the slope about a foot and a half from the flat path along the top of the berm. At this point I should probably mention that Siobhan and I are the two shortest volunteers. Leaning across the gap, I held the sign while she worked on hammering the nail into the tree. Some progress was made, but not enough to successfully attach the sign to the tree. In the process, strikes of the hammer that missed its target were creating a crack in the plaster board and raising concerns in our minds of the likelihood of the plaster board staying on the nail should we even manage to get the nail into the tree. After discussing the situation with Chris who noticed us struggling, we decided to use the nail to balance the sign and to just use some of the string to tie it in place on the tree. At least it was still up that afternoon when Vincent and I went back to finish the string around the perimeter.

Elephant poo at the project is recycled in two ways. The first is using to make poo paper, which is turned into goods that can be sold. The second is to compost the poo in to fertilizer. To support these efforts, all the poo is gathered into poo boxes near the elephant shelters. For the fertilizer, the poo is then transferred to a composting box where the necessary ingredients are added to help it decompose completely. The last project that I helped with was moving the poo from the shelter by Nong Lek and Kahm Koon (two of the smallest elephants on the project) to the composting box. The tricky part was not working with Chris to carry the basket of poo but rather trying to figure out where to dump the bucket and having enough momentum to make it easy. Only once did I actually fall in the compost box. Definitely a moment of comic relief!

Making Friends

A real emphasis at the Surin Project is getting to know the mahouts as well as their elephants. On the first day, we do an ice breaker game to learn everyone’s name. We call it the “ay ya” game. A ball is thrown around the circle and the people on either side of the person catching it have to say “ay ya”. If they mess up, they have to stand up and name one of the people in the group, farang naming mahouts and mahouts naming farang. Failure to name a person correctly results in the performance of a dance in the middle of the circle.

Through out the week, friendships form. Even if they aren’t based on much conversation. One of my favorite mahouts was Su Chad, the mahout for Nong Lek. Su Chad is a quiet, older mahout. Surprisingly, this quiet looking man has quite the mischievous streak. On our way back from cutting sugar cane, Su Chad first cut my team pieces of sugar cane to eat. Then he proceeded to take a dry sugar cane leaf and sneakily tie it to another mahout’s bag that was strapped across his back. Then he tied a piece of sugar cane to make a tail. It was really hard not to laugh out loud at what was transpiring. I’m not sure if the other mahout noticed or if it fell off. The next day, when we were bathing Nong Lek, he splashed me with water, so I splashed him back. Later that day when planting corn, he pretended to get my foot with his hoe.

Su Chad giving Nong Lek her morning shower.

Su Chad giving Nong Lek her morning shower.

Another favorite pair of mahouts was Pan and Em, mahouts for Warrin and Jaeb. In my mind I think of them as the masked bandits, always just a bit mischievous. For the duration of the week they wore hats that covered everything but their eyes. In fact, I didn’t even recognize Em at the Mahout Dinner on Friday evening. Pan is round and jovial, always greeting me with a robust “MJ”. Em on the other hand looks like a stick figure acting as a clothes hanger. The last walk through the forest, I ended up walking with Em and Pan and their elephants. They kept trying to convince me that I should be a mahout. Talking in Thai (or trying to talk in Thai), having closer contact with Warrin and Jaeb and laughing made for a wonderful end to my week.

The interaction with the mahouts culminates in the Mahout Olympics. Mahouts and volunteers are separated into four teams comprised of a combination of mahouts and volunteers. The activities vary by season. This week the first event was a slingshot contest. The mahouts practice almost daily with slingshots, so I feel pretty proud of the one time I actually hit the bottle since I had only shot a slingshot once during the week. Next up was Mahout Basketball. Here the 2″ diameter round seeds are tossed into a plastic bottle that has been hung on a post. Between events, Vincent and I practiced with Krow (one of the mahouts on our team) for the third event. This event involved taking 5 seeds in the palm of your hand, tossing them and catching as many as possible on the back of your hand and then tossing those up and closing your hand around them. Practicing with stones was one thing, using the slippery seeds was another. At least I managed to catch 2. The last event was the 3-legged race. Despite a tricky transition where both Aed (a quiet mahout that I don’t think I had met until the Olympics) and I opted to take off our shoes, we did really well with our “nueng (1), song (2), nueng (1), song (2)” managing to take third place.

Friendships are also formed between the volunteers on the project. The group of volunteers that came together this week was one of the best groups that I have had the pleasure of volunteering with since I started volunteering in 2010. Many of the nights were spent talking late into the night about a variety of topics. Sometimes it was just one-on-one chats, other times it was 2 or 3 of us gathered around the table at the meeting point by the light of the makeshift Christmas tree (a dead tree branch that had been planted and strung with lights and ornaments, reminiscent of the tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas) until the wind and cold drove us to say goodnight. One of the best nights was listening to Christmas songs and talking about what Christmas means to each of us and our favorite Christmas songs and movies. Hopefully our paths will cross again.

Helping Elephants in Surin

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Plight of the Elephants

In Thailand, approximately 1,000 elephants remain in the wild, placing the Asian elephant on the endangered species list. Unfortunately, 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 lets. 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 currently home to 160 elephants and their families. The government provides an income of 8,000 baht ($230) a month for families and elephants living at the center. About half that money goes to feeding their elephants. Often mahouts have to turn to another source of additional income to feed 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 and often another 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. One of the most heart wrenching was a young elephant that spent his entire time on chain in a shelter. Day and night this little guy spent his time straining at his chain.

Throughout the day, morning to night, the air was filled with terrific bellows by many of the elephants. These cries were impossible to not interpret as frustration and anguish. Unlike the happy trumpets and belly rumbles I’m used to at the park, these cries were filed with sadness that drove straight to my heart.

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 and 3 old lady elephants. The mahouts 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 we had were at local restaurants. And the volunteers desire for WiFi access, ice cream or other items supported the local convenience store.

Cleaning Shelters and Cutting Sugar Cane

Morning chores alternated between gathering the dried remains of sugar cane, which we had raked into piles the evening before when we cleaned the shelters, and cutting that day’s supply of sugar cane. Wearing long sleeved shirts was essential for both tasks, as sugar cane has rough edges that leave small scrapes on exposed skin. My shins are currently a testament to the effects of walking in sugar cane.

Shelter duty involved stuffing as much of the dried cane in the back of a tractor and taking it to a field where we had to spread it out so that it could continue to dry and decompose. Part of the team would go and clean the enclosure area where the old lady elephants live and where the 12 elephants get to feed and roam.

Sugar cane cutting was definitely my preferred morning activity. Any time I have an opportunity to tempt fate by using a sharp blade to slash through a plant, I’ll take it. Yes, despite hearing my litany of injuries over the past 2 years, they still let me use a machete. I am happy to report that all of my extremities are intact, although I think at one point one of the mahouts was particularly worried about my leg possibly getting cut.

As the dry season continues, sugar cane is becoming harder and harder to purchase for feeding the elephants. The current field owned by the project is nearly depleted. One potential field to purchase is almost 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the camp. Rainy season is still a few months away, without any guarantee that the region will receive enough rain to truly help the crops grow.

What Happens to the Poo

While cleaning the shelters, the poo is gathered into poo boxes (or piles for the shelters without boxes.) From there, the poo is used either for making paper or making fertilizer. The camp has its own poo paper factory. Approximately 40 kilos (88 lbs) can be processed at one time. The dried poo is ground, chemically treated, washed, bleached, washed again, then finally made into paper using mesh screens. From there, the paper is used to make cards and other items for people to purchase.

Our only real project, due to extreme heat, was to finish building a poo box at the enclosure. In the morning we went and gathered bamboo stalks. I once again got to use a machete in an attempt to cut down one of the bamboo stalks. Bamboo is not easy to cut and the mahouts were patient with me. Then they took the machete away.

In the afternoon, we cut and split the bamboo, then nailed the bamboo slats onto the box. Working with bamboo is almost as hard as trying to cut it down. First we had to clean the remaining branch stubs off the stalks. Sounds easy, and Apple (one of the volunteer coordinators) certainly made it look easy, but it isn’t. Then we cut the stalks into the right length. Final step was to split the bamboo using a machete and a hammer. Very tricky to get the machete started in a way that splits it evenly. Once the slats were ready, we hammered them on to the poles. And voila, the project was done.

Working in the intense heat wasn’t easy, but it was better than sitting around just letting the heat sap my energy. No one was required to help, it was just nice for the rest of us who had the energy.

Off Chain Time

As part of their off chain time we would take the elephants for a walk through the forest to a pond, where the mahouts would take them for a quick bath. The image of a forest currently in your mind is probably nothing like the actual forest we were walking in. Part of the walk did have trees that were taller than us, their anorexic trunks and branches providing a modicum of shade. The next part of the walk might be considered a field trying to be a forest with skinny trees and lots of shrubbery. Moving out of the forest, we crossed the area being cleared for Elephant World, the next attraction to be part of the center. Seeing the broad expanse of cleared area with leveled dirt made me feel disheartened. The area, once filled with trees, also grew mushrooms which the villagers were able to sell at market for additional income.

Walking with the elephants was a great time to get to know the mahouts and their elephants. Throughout the week we were challenged to learn the elephants names, identifying marks and who their mahout is. I managed to achieve all the names and about half of the mahouts. Next time I’ll at least have a head start.

Afternoon off chain time alternated between enclosure time and walking to the river. Enclosure time is when the elephants get to feed and roam on their own. The enclosure has trees for them to amble through and a pond for them to swim in. As well as being a good opportunity for pictures, enclosure time was a great way to watch the elephants interact in more natural groupings. Fah Sai is clearly the popular girl of the bunch. Wherever she went, Euang Luang was sure to follow shortly. And Sah Fai was also there as part of her entourage, often to the annoyance of Euang Luang.

Being in the river with the elephants was quite possibly one of the best experiences of the week. Each volunteer had a bag of food (cucumbers the first time, taro the second time) to feed their elephant. Once the food was gone, we would hep wash the elephants as they rolled about in the river, enjoying a brief moment of buoyancy. Seeing eye to eye with an elephant and getting to feel the expanse of their body definitely warms your heart.

The other great part of being in the river was the respite from the draining heat. Just remember to keep your mouth closed and watch out for poo fights breaking out. The ride back to camp after the long, hot walk in 110 degree heat (43 C) on blacktop road, was also a nice treat. That is, once the metal bars on the back cooled off enough to hold onto.

Mixing with the Mahouts

One of the really nice parts about this project was the opportunity to meet and interact with the mahouts. Throughout the week we had several activities to encourage interaction, beyond going for the walks.

The first evening at the project, the volunteers were welcomed with a ceremony performed by the local shaman and the mahouts. The volunteers sat in a circle and the mahouts gathered around us. A white string was wrapped around the volunteers to symbolically join us together and the shaman said blessings and prayers, evoking the spirit of togetherness and of family. At one point during the ceremony, the mahouts threw leaves from a tree on us to bless us as well. The ceremony finished with the tying of blessing strings on our wrists. First the shaman went around the inside of the circle and after he blessed us with a string, we turned to the outside and each of the 14 mahouts on the project tied a blessing string on our wrists. The blessing strings are worn for a minimum of 3 days, after which you can take them off. You are not supposed to cut them nor should you throw them on the ground (unless you place them under a tree.) In this way, we were all joined together.

One of the first activities we did directly with the mahouts was an ice breaker activity.The ice breaker activity involved leaving around a paper ball and whoever was holding the ball when the music stopped had to draw a piece of paper with an activity written on it. If you couldn’t do it, you had to walk like a duck. Fortunately, the one I drew was to introduce yourself in Thai, which I know how to do.

The last evening the mahouts had a BBQ. We had the opportunity to join them if we wanted. Sitting with them, sharing drinks and talking was great fun. Sarote, the head mahout, is a wonderfully friendly person. Throughout the week he had moments of mischief including tickling the backs of people’s legs with branches to feel like a bug was on them and making me a wreath out of branches. When offered Sarote’s glass of beer, you were expected to drink it in one fell swoop.

Every time I have come to Thailand the question is asked, “did you try a fried cricket?” I have always said that I wouldn’t go out of my way to try them, but that if offered, I wouldn’t turn it down. Friday night I finally had the occasion to try a fried cricket. Once you get over the mental hurdle of what this crispy thing with legs is that you are about to eat, they really aren’t bad. And the second one was easier than the first.

The evening also included the Farang (foreigner) Show. Kirsty and Wills (the project leaders) started the show with the performance of the Grilled Chicken song. After which two of the mahouts performed it properly. Next Monica, Meike and I performed a German children’s song about a little duck. After that, two of the mahouts also performed a Thai children’s song about ducks. The last two farang performances were dancing ones. At the end everyone got up and did a Thai dance around the platform area.

Saturday morning we had the Mahout Games. Divided into four teams, we competed in several events to gain points. Each team had two volunteers and three Thai members. The first event was the poo toss. Each team member got to throw two (dried) poo balls into a bucket being held by another team member standing on an overturned bucket. Next we made the challenge harder by blindfolding the tosser. Last activity was the seed throw. These large seeds have two blades on them that act like a helicopter. Earlier in the week I had shown Wills that it was better to throw them underhanded instead of overhand to gain better distance. Our team won the games! (A first for Wills to be on a winning team.)