Day one of the project did not start of well. Not hearing my alarm ring in the morning I sleep through breakfast and am woken up by a loud banging on the door. It was Burm, one of the project creators. Luckily for me I was the only volunteer to pick up in Chiang Mai and they had things to do before leaving town, giving me two hours before they come back to take me to Mae Jaem a small town two hours away where the elephant sanctuary is.
We make many stops on the way to the project location, due to it’s remote location with no cell reception or stores nearby. Also making a lunch break I am able to taste my first real Thai meal; some noodles with squid and sticky rice with chicken cooked in honey. After honking when passing over a bridge – as a sign of respect for the ancestors – and passing through cornfields we arrive in this adorable little “compound” with a pond and huts all around it; Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary; BEES (read more about the project in another post). The huts are made of wood and the roof of steel, as furniture there is a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net around it, a small shelf and chair. The huts are decorated in the most adorable way – all elephant themed of course. With little elephant fairy lights, pictures of the elephants in elephant-shaped frames, elephant statues, elephant books and books on elephants. The people at the project are the most warm and welcoming group ever; thankfully three of them speak English so communication is not an issue. Lunch and dinner consist of rice as the main dish and small bowls with things to add to it like vegetables or noodles with vegetables. I am able to help with the cooking and discover many delicious Thai recipes every day. The cooking can sometimes be tedious since the kitchen is the cat’s main chilling area and so I sometimes find myself cutting up carrots with a cat sitting under my arm. Breakfast varies between scrambled eggs and pancakes or cereal.
The days are very repetitive and methodical, waking up in the morning around 7:30 and having breakfast then leaving to go see the elephants in the forest. There are four elephants in total, two older elephants Mae Kam and Mae Jumpee, then a mother and her baby Kam Mee and Boon. Each elephant has it’s own Mahout, an elephant trainer, to keep an eye on them when they are roaming around in the forest during the day. My guide Shin and I track the mother and her baby until we find them somewhere in the forest. Once we found the elephants I am able to take some pictures of them and talk to Burm about the project, his past as a novice monk and my travels. For lunch we either go back to camp or stay with the elephants and eat on the spot. When we eat in the spot Burm cuts a piece of bamboo as a plate, then takes two smaller strips and fashions them into chopsticks!
When in the forest I am able to discover many different plants and fruit, with leaves that can dye your hair red, fruit full of vitamin C, a plant that tastes like coconut, and tree sap that falls in a stalactite formation that can be sold for 20 baht a kilo as flint due to its flammable nature. In the afternoon what we do depends on the day. It can consist of washing and cutting up pumpkins for the elephants, cutting sugar cane, going out to cut corn and bring it back for the elephants. Every day I am able to spend some time with the elephants while feeding them treats. Boon is an extremely spirited little elephant and always wants to play however due to the probability of him crushing us with his strength and weight we are unable to. The mahouts and Burm still try to play with him as best they can, running around and hiding behind trees where he cannot reach them as easily.