When we first arrived at the Anantara 5 star hotel sweaty, dirty and exhausted from the travel and previous nights farewell party from Pai it's fair to say we felt a little out of place in this incredibly idyllic,serene, sweet smelling and clean hotel lobby.
To volunteer at GTAEF it is a basic requirement to be industry trained whether that be vet, zoo keeper or animal studies student.
Our volunteering work here has been pretty incredible and we have had the opportunity to meet some interesting people whilst we were here. Mornings begin the way every morning in life should begin...free reign over the hotel buffet breakfast!!! It's smoothies, fruits and banana bread were definitely a favourite of mine. We had one other volunteer with us, a beautiful little Rhode Island native Meg. Meg is teaching English in Thailand as part of a program called Fullbrite in a remote village and is here for the year.
Everyday is so vastly different here, as volunteers we are assisting in taking guests on elephant experiences whether it be Mahout training or walking with giants and generally a lot of ele Q & A and providing information on the foundation, how it works and what we do here. The genuine shock we received from a lot of guests just telling them we are volunteers was always fun, we met the guests and would take them down to the elephant camp and by the end our time here we were doing talks and presentations as well as giving the training on how exactly to train as a mahout and interact with the elephants.
Intro to Mahout:
To get up onto your elephant the command is 'Songsoum' which asks the elephant to lift their leg so you can climb up to the neck, then ask them to go you say 'Bai' and tap both ears with your feet. To turn, tap the opposite ear to the direction you want to go and say 'Ben'. To stop squeeze your knees together be say 'how'. There are two ways to hop down off an elephant, these are either to slide of the head in which case you put your feet over the forhead, tap and say 'Tak long' and the elephant will kneel down and you can slide off or jump back on from here. Instead to ask it to sit down tap on it's back and say 'Map long' and it will sit down for you. Predominantly as a mahout a female elephant is preferred as they generally have a much calmer nature and do not experience 'Musthe' which for bull elephants makes them unpredictable, hormonal and generally quite difficult and potentially dangerous which is somewhat reminiscent of a woman's 'time of the month' though Musthe can last for months not days so consider yourselves lucky fellas you only have to put up with our mood swings for a week at most!
A lot of the guests we met were loved up honeymooners that had us squirming with "awwwwww" way too often but it was always lovely. Some guests we met were just adventurous spirits enjoying their retirement and trying new things which was always fun. We heard some incredible travel stories from around the globe from Africa to yachting on a private vessel across the seas to exotic locations. Everyone we met was lovely and open and honest, each guest had a genuine interest in the foundation and what we were trying to achieve. It was really refreshing to have open and honest conversations with complete strangers who as I said in my previous blog understand there are two sides to elephant tourism, each with pros and cons.
One particular couple I will never forget. Ron and Joyce stayed for 6 days and we saw them nearly everyday, sometimes twice a day and they were without a doubt two of the coolest people I've ever met, from their incredible minds and intelligence to their downright amazing fashion sense! I will share the link below to the amazing blog post Joyce wrote and shared after they departed.
When you've been used to having rice and 'something' for a few days or weeks or months in Meg's case you find certain cravings start to appear...pretty much everything in Thailand contains sugar so when that sugar requirement isn't quite fulfilled, you've hit a wall or the high has worn off the cravings are SEVERE! We went to 7-eleven every other day and basically as an equivalent we could have bought a 1kg bag of sugar and called it a day. Snickers!!!! And general chocolate many different kinds of chips, Coke, juice, roll ups, cookies, noodles, cheese Ritz, Oreos, Ferrero Rocher and a whole other assortment of unidentified Thai treats. The other staple was fruit, a little lady in town was always part of our trip there and she had a little cart and we would buy green mangos and pineapple, because we visited so often she always threw in some extra papaya or watermelon which lasted us about two seconds before we had scoffed it down. Our other vice was definitely pizza.....Mekong Pizza to be precise. Without fail my mouth is watering just thinking about it....
CHEESE CHEESE AND MORE CHEESE!!!! We also had one incredible night of Italian food at the restaurant in Anantara where for the first time in a long time we tasted delicious wines, ravioli, lasagne, fresh breads, of course more pizza and desserts. I don't think I've ever been more elated throughout a meal or slept better than I did that night... Amazing!
Each of the elephants at GTAEF has a story some from street begging, some from circus or animal entertainment for tourists and others from illegal logging camps. Understanding where these animals come from and what they have been through to see how calm and accepting they have become after years of torment, stress and overworking reinforces in my mind that there is another way to have this industry exist in a world where the current likelihood of an end being put to elephant tourism as a whole does not look to be happening for many years. Though the attitudes of holiday makers are changing and many are making more informed decisions whilst they travel which is certainly a step in the right direction, a total boycott of all ele related activities means no money and no money means the elephants end up virtually jobless and have to find alternate incomes once again.
Ban Ta Klang is a village in Thailand famous for having elephants in backyards, this is the place out of work elephants end up. An industry dominated primarily by female elephants means there are many bulls young and old who have nowhere to go, so they end up here. And not just bulls but females, calves, elephants injured or too old to work end up here as well. The elephants here are supported by the government and other organisations to literally keep elephants off the streets though that doesn't mean its the best scenario for them. Often socially isolated or short chained for extended periods as they do not have work or are not able and may well never be required to work.
I can only imagine if I went there I'd walk away with a very heavy heart though is this the lesser of two evils? If the elephants cannot or will not be returned to the wild and are unable to be surrendered to a sanctuary they have one of two viable options; To live in Ban Ta Klang and be fed, watered and the mahouts/elephants needs paid by the government to keep them off the streets this then allowing the mahout to essentially earn money for nothing and thereby not be required to socialise or bond with their elephant or have far less interaction than the animal was previously used to which can cause the relationship built to potentially crumble though this is dependant on the mahout and their family. Or do the elephantsgo to a trekking camp (if a more ethical camp is not possible for both mahout and family) for 12 hours a day though have an opportunity to socialise, exercise and be with their kind even if it isn't the best of circumstances and not only this but the mahout/elephant relationship would remain stronger and allow for a better mental health of the elephant strange as that sounds though this is just my thought process.
Elephants are incredibly intelligent animals that have a self awareness similar to humans, when we look at ourselves in a mirror we know it's us...an elephant knows the same so it's difficult to picture multiple elephants being chained in Ban Ta Klang and not have a general purpose or opportunity to move around and meet their social needs.
Volunteering with Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation has opened my eyes to the possibilities in this industry and the realities of it's current situation. I will absolutely need to further my own research though everything I have found and seen so far has led me to believe that if more is done to create a better life for both elephants and mahouts the future can be brighter and hopefully more places catch on to this type of cooperation between meeting the needs and wellbeing of both human animal and this can only be achieved through organisations such as this one. That being said this is the first place where I have seen or heard of this type of cooperation and I can only hope the word spreads as it IS a positive contribution.
To end on a beautiful positive on our final day here we witnessed what that social bond between elephants truly looks and sounds like.
Ewong and Beau had been apart for two days as Ewong's mahout had been ill. As we were readying ourselves to leave we heard Beau with her ears flared out and her tail up in the air vocalising, she was rumbling, trumpeting, squeaking and trunk popping as loud as she could! Then in the distance an equal distant vocalisation returned her calls...it was Ewong, as she came into camp this 57 year old elephant starts 'running' making a thumping beeline towards Beau. What followed was an incredible elephant catch up with a lot of vocalising and affection using their trunks, checking each other literally from trunk to tail. A beautiful moment that showed just how intelligent and sentient these animals are, something I will never forget and feel honoured to have even had the opportunity to see with my own eyes.