Elephant Nature Park SWAVIG Trip 2015, “Lek, the elephant whisperer.”

This post was originally written in 2015 when we took our first group to the park. There have been a lot of positive changes! There is now an ATM at the park as well as a coffee shop! YAY! The work and trip itself has stayed the same for the most part and updates are in parenthesis in respective paragraphs.  – April 2019

This was the first big trip we took as an organization! Very exciting! 33 passionate employees, their friends and family joined us on a journey to Chiang Mai, Thailand for a week at the Elephant Nature Park. An elephant sanctuary for abused and exploited elephants.

We are planning on making this an annual trip and this is a good recount of what we did and what to expect. There are two follow up articles coming soon for further reading. Sorry there isn’t much of an intro. I will talk about the traveling to/from in the next article

Enjoy!

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Arriving in Chiang Mai

We were all required to be in Chaing Mai by Sunday and the project started on Monday. Included in the program fee is transportation from their offices in the city up to the park, which is about an hour and a half north of Chiang Mai. ENP as of 11/1/17, raised their price, and we as an organization to continue to partner with ENP, have had to raise the price to $525.00USD for the total program fee. That includes food, lodging and transportation at the park.

Most of us stayed at Hotel M, a mid range price hotel in the heart of town for about $40-80 booked ahead of time online, comfy beds and moderate rooms. Others, myself included, stayed at the Sathu Boutique Guesthouse a few blocks away and I would NOT recommend it. The rooms were extremely small and the beds were sub-par. It was $28 a night and even by Thai standards was not worth it. The staff was extremely rude as well and wouldn’t let anyone, including myself on the property if we weren’t staying there which became troublesome with a group our size. We dealt with it being it was just for the night and we all knew we were heading for an amazing project.

The Sathu Boutique Guesthouse - beautiful property but rude staff

The Sathu Boutique Guesthouse – beautiful property but rude staff

Make sure to have extra Baht about 2500THB ($80USD) upon arriving at the park as they have a small concession stand with fresh coconuts, sodas, snacks and Chang beer, wine and liquor. They also have Thai massages in the evening for 150THB ($5USD). Yes, you are reading that right, $5 for an hour massage. There is now an ATM at the park (4/10/19) so if you need to pull out more cash you can.

The accommodations are a bit rustic. There are rooms with 2, 3, 4 and 5 beds to them. Each bed has mosquito netting over the whole thing. The walls are thin and you can hear people talking so make sure to bring earplugs from work and an eye mask as well. Bathrooms are dorm style and can be a little rough if you’re scared of bugs. There is WIFI in public areas but works intermittently, and doesn’t work at all if the day trips are here too. I recommend getting a data plan or a SIM card with unlimited data if you would like to Face Time or chat with your family and friends at home.

Standard room with mosquito net over bed

Standard room with mosquito net over bed

Day 1&2

We woke up at 545am and met for yoga in the morning. A nice peaceful way to start our morning with good energy and watching the sunrise over the mountains with elephant sounds in the background.

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Photo property of Talesfromtheflyingcircus

Breakfast is at 7am and is a buffet style; all vegan. There is a selection of toast and jams, fresh fruit, beans, egg substitute cooked in different ways, steamed veggies, coffee and tea. One of our favorite items was toast covered in almond butter with sliced bananas on top.

Work starts at 8am.

Everyone is split into groups of about 10-14, we had 33 in our AV group and then there were about 20 other people here from all over the world. So 5 different work groups. Each work group is given a different job depending on the day, and they rotate daily.

The first day our group was combined with 2 other groups to clean up poop and clean out the elephant shelters. For this job and since it was our first day we showed up in flip-flops and shorts. It wasn’t really a problem and wasn’t too uncomfortable, we weren’t overly dirty. Its not easy work, its hot and you are shoveling heavy mounds of dirt and bamboo into the back of trucks. With the 3 groups combined we had all the shelters and poop scooped up in about 2 hours. Water breaks are a must and sunscreen. There is quite a bit of downtime in between finishing work and meals and it’s a great time to grab a snack or a drink from the snack stand and observe the elephants.

Kristen scooping poop!

Kristen scooping poop!

Lunch is between 1115 and 1145 and is another amazing colorful selection of rice, noodles, tofu, veggies and a salad bar in every style you can imagine. All the food comes from local farms and is vegan organic. Did not have a bad meal there and every thing was amazing. (And healthy.)

Work starts again at 1p most days, but day one we had a welcome talk about rules and expectations and how to act around the elephants. Very educational. I wasn’t really sure what to expect while we were here. I had no idea that riding, and touching the elephants are actually a harmful tourist attraction and ENP is in the process of trying to change that. I will get back to that a little later.

Digging holes to plant trees

Digging holes to plant trees

We had free time after that and spent some time bonding as a group then every week with each group of volunteers, the local village shaman comes up to bless the week and volunteers. It was beautiful. He chants and blesses the groups with holy water and gives each a wish bracelet and when it falls off you are supposed to hang it on a tree branch for good intention. The entire ceremony was about 45 minutes and a very nice way to end the evening. We grabbed some beers as a group then headed to bed early.

Welcome blessing ceremony

Welcome blessing ceremony

Day 3

CORN DAY!

Mo hauling corn

Mo hauling corn

So the morning started with breakfast again with a divine assortment of fruits and veggies and the norm. Then we broke off into work groups again. Some were doing poo again and some were cleaning the park. We headed an hour north in an open work trunk while sitting in the bed, to a field owned by a local farmer. ENP outsources their crops and brings jobs and money into the local economy into surrounding villages. Once we arrived at the cornfield, we were each given a scythe to cut the corn by hand and harvest it. It was hard, long, sweaty work (sexual innuendo intended) but it was fun. We would cut down 20 stalks and pile them for loading into truck. (Update as of April 2019, we haven’t had a corn day at the park since 2015, it’s just based on need and projects. We have also done a few other off site special projects in the past.)

Riding home on the beer truck, Chang included

Riding home on the beer truck, Chang included

Keep a positive attitude and everything will be ok! They provided a yummy lunch for us at the field.  We had to ride back on top of the corn for an hour drive back. According to our VC (volunteer coordinator) no one has been hurt yet! Our group did an amazing job and got to go tubing down the river upon our return. For this project, we needed pants, a long sleeve shirt, a hat, gloves, close toe shoes, sunscreen and water.

After the tubing we came back to shower. Showering here can be a bit of an adventure. There are about 7 showers and everyone, especially in a group our size, is fighting for first dibs. The water tends to be cold and water pressure doesn’t really exist. The showers are outside and open to the bugs, I had to keep one eye on the spider on the wall that was the size of a small cat.

This picture doesn't do this spider justice

This picture doesn’t do this spider justice

Peter and I found that the “community shower” in the main area has hot water and water pressure, the only catch is that you then have to walk back through the entire park in your towel if you forgot to bring clean clothes with you, like I did.

Looks like another SWA over-night. (photo courtesy of Wayne Tipton)

Looks like another SWA over-night. (photo courtesy of Wayne Tipton)

We spent the rest of the night mingling with other volunteer and having a few beers outside. We had brought some card games to pass the downtime that were a great icebreaker. Notice the trend of beers in the evening.

Day 4

Wednesday we were assigned park clean up which meant walking around the different areas of the park and collecting bamboo piles and elephant poo that’s out in the field. Each project takes about 3 hours and then breaks for lunch. By this day people are starting to fall into the routine of how our days will be.

Afternoon activities included an “elephant walk”.  It was about a two-hour walk around the whole park meeting the different elephants. It was extremely hot so don’t forget to fill your water with ice before you leave.

She had purple medicine on her feet

She had purple medicine on her feet

The sanctuary is also home to a dog and cat rescue. ENP is home to more than 400 dogs that are looking for their forever home. Volunteers can work specifically in just the dog volunteer program or swap out a day at the Elephant park for a day walking the dogs and playing with them. Many volunteers go up to the dog park after lunch in between activities to walk the dogs as well. ENP is always looking for people to escort dogs all around the world on their flights. Something to consider for next years group. Or you can always adopt if you fall in love with one of them!

Memphis was a good dog. He slept outside our rooms at night and would follow us to our job sites.

Memphis was a good dog. He slept outside our rooms at night and would follow us to our job sites.

That night there was an hour video detailing the elephant tourist industry and the atrocities that face the elephants in South East Asia. It was graphic, but something I feel we all needed to see to truly understand what is happening with the elephants you see carrying tourist and begging for food in the street. I will get more into that later.

Day 5

Breakfast was the norm and we were on elephant food duty, where we unloaded trucks of watermelon and pumpkin.  This might sound easy but it was a lot of work.  The trucks come in with hundreds of melons and it was easiest, and fun to make a production line.  You toss the melons down the line until they are in their respective places. A blast! We had music going, team cheers, and whenever someone would drop a melon the whole camp would shout! Got some serious bruises from being pegged in different places on my body with 3+ pound watermelons. After the trucks are unloaded, we needed to clean the melons by scrubbing them in a trough of water.  Once they are cleaned they are ready to be fed to the elephant.

Washing pumpkins

Washing pumpkins

We then got to make the elephant treats! Nasty work. For me at least. I would rather scoop poop everyday than be covered in sticky honey textured tamarind. Anxiety much? There’s not a whole lot i’ll actually say, “no.” to but I wasn’t going to do this. I was on DJ duty. The group sat in a circle around a tub of tamarind and formed sticky sweet elephant treats. Guess they really go nuts over tamarind, salt and sugar balls. The treats are then given to the elephant mahouts (the people who watch over the elephants) who give to elephants for positive reinforcement. It’s also a great way for staff to hide medicine for the elephants, kind of like giving your dog a treat with a pill inside.

Nasty sticky balls

Nasty sticky balls

That afternoon, it was time to plant grass. We went out to one of the main fields and starting pulling up the roots of some of the Bermuda grass that has taken over that field. After we collected 5-6 baskets full of roots they bussed us up to another area of the park to start planting. Let’s be honest, we just weeded a field for them to play soccer on. JK. Planting consisted of hoeing a small hole about 2-5 inches deep and burying 2-3 lines of the Bermuda grass root. It started pouring rain, but the scenery was quite spectacular with the green glistening around us. This took about 2 hours, but there were about 20 volunteers helping so it went by pretty quick when everyone was working. In between the root pulling and truck up to the planting site, I had to take care of some administrative work. I ended up getting separated from my group. I ran into Teri and Jay who were just getting back from their corn day. Teri bought me a beer and insisted I go tubing with them. As much as I would have Luved to do that, as a group leader I knew I needed to show up to my planting site. So why not with a beer in hand? Way easier to plant grass with a beer.

Yea we weeded this field, then replanted the roots.

Yea we weeded this field, then replanted the roots.

In the evening we headed up to the conference room to have a Q&A with a park trainer about positive reinforcement training. Chrissy, a former orca trainer at Busch Gardens in Florida, discussed how the elephants, although not in a captive environment anymore, still need some form of training to receive medical attention and care from their mahout and staff at ENP. Instead of violent training methods, ENP hired on Chrissy to bring “Positive Reinforcement Training” to the park. She will reward the elephant, and discipline in a non-violent manner to get the elephant the proper care needed. She was very transparent and real about her approach to training and the park in general. Some examples she included were about an elephant that would get extremely food aggressive when at the platform. Instead of the “normal” Thai way of using force and a bull-hook, she used a squirt gun with water to let the elephant know when they needed to calm down. Also she uses her training for medical assistance. Other elephants she would reward with a tamarind ball if they didn’t lash out during routine checkups and vaccinations. Her goals for the park were very straightforward and positive. Ideally she would like to see the park not have the feeding platform at all (Where day trip tourist feed the elephants) and also see the park not have an “elephant bathing” session everyday. (Where park guest can throw buckets of water on the elephants and help bathe them) She continued that both these activities aren’t necessary for the park to continue to be profitable, but it is a bit of a vicious circle. Bottom line, tourists like doing these things. It’s not really harming the elephants, however it’s also a bit contradictory to the entire goal of a completely free-range park. An extremely interesting conversation and good insight to what park goals are. (Update from April 2019, Chrissy is no longer at the park)

"Bathing" the elephants

“Bathing” the elephants

Take advantage of the massages offered every night between 3-9pm. Also, there are laundry services provided.  The services arrives at the park about 3pm every day and leave at 5:30pm.  You can drop off any clothes you want washed and they return them back to the park the next day between the same times. It is very cheap and super efficient to use so all your clothes are clean for you to head home. ENP will take any and all donations you have. I left over half my bag with them. Clothes, shoes, work boots, gloves, these are all things the park really needs and you don’t want to haul home with you anyway, It also cleared up my bag for shopping back in Chiang Mai.

Day 6

Melon stacking

Melon stacking

Today is the last day of work!!!!! Almost done. We scooped poop again in the morning and then went to help unload all the food trucks.  The afternoon is a rest day before leaving in the morning. Lek, The founder of ENP, spoke to us about where she started, how she got involved and what we can do to help. This woman is a true inspiration.

From Save Elephant Foundation

Sangduen “Lek” Chailert was born in 1962 in the small hill tribe village of Baan Lao, two hours north of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Her love for elephants began when her grandfather, a traditional healer, received a baby elephant as payment for saving a mans life. Lek would spend many hours with her newfound friend, named Tongkum (Golden One), resulting in a passion that would shape the rest of her life, as well as the lives of others.

With a love and respect for her country’s national symbol, and the knowledge that they were becoming endangered, Lek began advocating for the rights and welfare of the Asian elephants in Thailand. In an industry steeped in tradition, advocating for positive change in the ways domestic and wild Asian elephants are treated has not been an easy battle. However, with hard work and determination her voice is now internationally recognized. In addition to several documentaries produced by National Geographic, Discovery, Animal Planet and the BBC, Lek has also won many honorary awards.

Lek’s mission continues to affect others as her voice is heard throughout the world. Her story and voice have made an impact in the minds of all who give their lives to animal welfare and conservation. Lek’s mission to save the Asian elephants continues to expand. She has formed the Save Elephant Foundation and a dedicated team works tirelessly by her side to protect the Asian elephant.

Today, Lek continues to be at the forefront of elephant (and other animal rights causes), raising international awareness and encouraging other countries in the region to follow her lead, as well as helping provide sustainable alternatives to local villages. At the same time, she maintains special relationships with the animals she rescues. Most days, she can be found at Elephant Nature Park spending time with the rescued herd.

After her speech, all of us were visibly moved, and many including myself in tears. You can hear her passion and determination in her voice. She spoke about every elephant as if the elephant was a close friend. I gave her a hug and introduced myself and my goals for my non-profit and how we would like to continue working hand in hand with this incredible foundation.

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Day 7

By the end of the week, let’s be honest, everyone has checked out.

To my group’s credit, they all headed to the food truck to help unload and scrub pumpkins and watermelons after breakfast. Awesome job guys! After about 2 hours of work everyone went back to their rooms to pack up and make a pile of donations. We said goodbye to the friends we had made at the park as well as the friends we had made in our group. Many of us continued traveling on after and the others headed back to the states. We arrived back in Chiang Mai at about 1p Sunday. Every Sunday in Chiang Mai they hold the Sunday Night Market. Amazing and super cheap shopping. I managed to finish all my Christmas shopping for about $100. I have 7 siblings so to get all my shopping done before Halloween and for $100?! Yea I’m impressed too. Art, jewelry, crafts, decor, you name it and you can find something unique at the market. We learned the hard way this is NOT the market for counterfeit goods. I was a little disappointed. I had a long list from my parents wanting fake bags and electronics. Every other market I have ever been to in SE Asia has these things but after talking to a few locals the government cracked down on this in this particular market. If you want these things, get them in Hong Kong or Cambodia.

The Chiang Mai Boutique Hotel, best bang for your buck at $28/night for a double room

The Chiang Mai Boutique Hotel, best bang for your buck at $28/night for a double room

In closing this trip was life changing. It was a beautiful experience and so educational. I got so much out of this physically and emotionally I’m having a hard time putting it into words. I can only hope that everyone who visits falls in love the way I did. With the park, the people, the land, and the animals. Can’t wait to take you all there next year!

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Cheers!

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Bangkok, not Mexico

I started in the airline industry at 18. Dropped out of college in Denver, packed up my cat and moved to Phoenix. Starry eyed and bushy tailed, I craved the glamorous life of a flight attendant. I stumbled upon a regional carrier called Mesa Air. They just changed the legal age for flight attendants from 18 to 21, but took me on as a Customer Service agent. We made $7.25/hour and looking back I have no idea how I ate every night, much less likely traveled.

I was dating a ramper (the guys that throw the bags into the plane) and he made the same I did. A whirlwind relationship, and a story for another day. About 6 months into my career, I got the itch. We talked about Europe, Mexico, some islands, and couldn’t really afford any of them even though we fly for free. Another agent, who at that point had over 50 counties under his belt at 25, said go to Thailand. Just go. Take what ever money you have and go. I was on a plane the next day with $400 to my name and a napkin with an address scribbled on it. I was terrified. It was my first big international trip by myself, and The Ramper hadn’t been farther than Mexico either. We ended up staying for 2 weeks and came home with change from that $400.

Young dumb and ready to take over the world

Young dumb and ready to take over the world

Arriving at Bangkok International is like walking into the mall Christmas Eve and going into the Apple Store. It’s just not pleasant for anyone. I made it through customs and pulled out the napkin and showed it to a few people who pointed me in the direction of an express bus to downtown. Most international flights arrive in BKK after midnight and into the early hours of the morning. The bus had stopped running and our only other option was to take a cab.

Thailand tip – use the meter on cab fares. Any price you decide on, even though you think it’s cheap, is going to be double what it would be with the meter running. Not to mention your cabby will probably take you to a guesthouse or tailor where he’s getting a kick back.

Not knowing this, $30 downtown and then he took us to his buddies hotel in the red light district. In retrospect I’m glad for the experience. Thailands famous ladyboys on every corner was a bit eye opening. Crowded sex clubs, “massage parlors” and ping-pong shows, was enough to make me want to turn around and head right on back to the states.

Th Khao San

Once we finally made it down to Khao San Rd, and the address on my napkin, all fell into place quickly. Khao San is a main tourist and backpackers drag, where any time day or night you can find food, lodging and entertainment. We ended up at a guest house with a private bathroom for $5/night including breakfast.

I tell people when heading to BKK start in Khao San and start walking and you will find anything you need. Guest houses range from dorms to private hotel like rooms. It’s very transient and easy to meet other travelers while sitting outside having some street pad Thai and a beer. It’s centrally located as well so waking to The Grand Palace and the river didn’t take too long.

Beer and selfies for breakfast anyone?

Beer and selfies for breakfast anyone?

My time in BKK was spent waking up with a beer and a pack of reds, wondering back-alleys and smaller temples. The people are charming and the food is spectacular. I highly recommended eating all street food, from pad Thai to scorpion, Thailand is a culinary dream.

Remember to dress for what you are doing. It’s hot and as much as you want to wear a tank top and short shorts, you must be in at least short sleeves and pants or a skirt to enter temples. The bigger Wats (temples) will usually have skirts and pants you can rent for about $1 and they slip over your shorts. Also remember to remove your shoes at the door and no photos are usually allowed inside the temple unless posted otherwise.

Rented skirt at the Grand Palace, Bangkok

Rented skirt at the Grand Palace, Bangkok

Beware of illegal products. I remember walking through a street market and passing a full tiger skin. I started crying. I suppose it’s something you hear about and until you really see it and know that people are actually purchasing these things. Animal products from endangered species are everywhere. Tiger, panda, elephant ivory and rhino tusks. It’s illegal to buy these products and fuels poachers and continues to support a black market. Can’t imagine why you would but just don’t do it. Not to mention the problems with customs and the fines you would receive trying to bring them back into the states.

Tailors

My experience with a tailor in Bangkok was textbook. Literally out of Lonely Planet. Had I actually read my guidebook it probably wouldn’t have happened.

We hired a Tuk Tuk (rickshaw) for the day to give us a tour. He gave us a good price and at the end of the day took us to a tailor. The tailor paid the driver and in exchange we were told we must buy something from them. After an hour of them trying to get us to have a suit made (which we couldn’t afford if we wanted one) we bought some soaps and lotions for extortion worthy prices.

However, if you need/want a suit, Thailand is the place to have it done. For about $200 or less you can have a custom suit made in under a week. Thai silk is also quite exquisite and can be commissioned into just about anything you could think of. In fact I believe on my next trip there in October I’m going to have two dresses made.

Shopping

Southeast Asia shopping can’t be beat. From hand-painted canvas to fake anything; handbags, electronics, sunglasses everything dirt cheap. The legally responsible thing to tell you is not to buy counterfeit anything, however I do my Christmas shopping in Hong Kong and Bangkok and everyone is getting a Louie wallet and Beats. No one needs to know I spent $20 on them. Clothing too. The food and flower markets are a sight and smell unlike anything else in the world. And some of the best conversations I’ve had have been sitting at markets eating with locals. If you can stomach the smell of trash and meat sitting in the ever so hot, body to body, enclosed space it’s well worth it.

Flower market in Khao San district

Flower market in Khao San district

Southeast Asia wardrobe

Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, all Southeast Asia has this standard tourist uniform. If you’ve been you know what I’m talking about. It consist of man-bun hipster Australian backpackers that haven’t showered in weeks wearing Toms. MC hammer pants and edgy t-shirts that boast about what ever volunteer trip you did on your semester abroad. Ray bans and lots and lots of “wish bracelets” from all over the world, like an unspoken way of bragging about other places you’ve gone. I’m guilty of this too. In fact I have a Southeast Asia wardrobe that has become standard for traveling to Asia.

Basic Southeast-asian tourist. WE knew about Thailand before it was cool.

Make Art not War T Shirt, hammer pants, TOMS = Basic.  WE knew about Thailand before it was cool.

Photo actually from Cambodia but these types of bracelets are everywhere

Photo actually from Cambodia but these types of bracelets are everywhere copyright talesfromtheflyingcircus

Things to do in and around the Khao San neighborhood

  1. The Grand Palace
  2. River Boat tour
  3. Ping Pong show +18
  4. Night market
  5. Reclining Buddah

After a week and a few days we started making our way back home to the states. To put it bluntly we finally were almost out of money. Once we landed back in Arizona, The Rampers parents called and ripped him a new one. When he hung up I asked, “What the hell was that about?” He responded, “Oh I didn’t tell them we were going to Thailand. They thought I was in jail and had been calling resorts in every major city in Mexico.”

Another new look on the city when I return in the fall, also will be heading north to Chang Mai Provence. My heart is in Asia and I love any excuse to go back as often as possible.