Why did you decide to volunteer with GVI in Thailand?
Rachel I had always wanted to volunteer overseas, and being an animal lover I naturally wanted to do something animal related. When my sister heard about GVI through uni, we started searching programs and came across the GVI That Elephants project. I've always admired elephants, but this wasn't the only aspect of the project that appealed to me. I liked the idea of living in a homestay in a hill tribe village, and of being able to get involved in the community. Also, with Thailand being quite close to Australia and fairly affordable, it seemed an obvious choice for me.
GVI had several good reviews and sounded like a very well-organised group to volunteer through. It definitely lived up to this reputation.
Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.
Rachel: Each day in Huay Pakoot (the village where the project was located) was a combination of elephants and village activities. We started the day with an early breakfast at "base hut". On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings after breakfast, we would join the mahouts (elephant carers) and hike with the elephants through the forest surrounding the village. We would take turns observing the elephant that we had been assigned when we arrived on the project, and recording what they were eating, who they were socialising with and other behaviors such as nursing. This was all in order to understand how the elephants were adapting to their new life, since they had all spent their previous years working in camps and performing for tourists. It was really amazing to be able to see the elephants in a herd and living semi-wild in the forest like they should be. Lunch, which was prepared by our homestay families, was usually eaten on these hikes.
On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, we would perform general health checks on our elephant. We'd check their skin, feet, eyes, ears and mouth to ensure they were in good health. I really enjoyed these because it meant being able to get up close and bond with my elephant, Thong Dee.
There were also a variety of other activities we could get involved in day to day, such as teaching English, running events at the school, grass-cutting for the elephants, and taking cooking and basket-weaving classes. I also really enjoyed spending time with my home stay family, getting to know the villagers and trying to learn the local language.
Evenings consisted of delicious dinners at our homestays, and hanging out at base hut doing various activities, having Friday night parties or simply chilling out. Weekends provided the opportunity to take optional trips out of the village, or alternatively you could stay put and enjoy everything that Huay Pakoot had to offer.
What made this volunteer experience unique and special?
Rachel: I think the main aspect of this volunteering experience that made is so unique was the variety of activities that volunteers could get involved with. Unlike so many other volunteering projects, it wasn't purely about helping animals and it wasn't purely about helping a community - it was the best of both worlds. This project had so much to offer, and as a volunteer you can get involved with as little or as much as you'd like. While I absolutely loved spending time with the elephants, I equally enjoyed the time I spent with the people in the village. I valued every minute of my time there and I would definitely recommend the project to everyone!
How has this experience impacted your future?
Rachel: Participating in this project was a life-changing experience. Living in the hill tribe village, without first world luxuries such as Internet and running hot water, made me appreciate the things that really matter in life. It made me realise that I don't need these to be happy, and as such I feel as though I now have a very different outlook on life.
Also, though I already loved elephants before my time on the project, I now have a new respect for these magnificent creatures. I am currently studying to be a veterinarian and I will definitely be considering ways in which I can work with and help elephants in a veterinary context in the future.
Having spent four amazing weeks on the project, leaving was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do, so I am sure that I will return again to Huay Pakoot as soon as I get the chance.