I am a very outgoing, personable and charismatic individual who loves being immersed in new and exciting cultures, and so embarking on a month-long trip to Lampang, Thailand to work directly with elephants was right up my alley! Landing in Bangkok after about 20+ hours in the air, and ready to board another plane for another unnecessary amount of hours up North to Lampang, I was immediately greeted with "Sawat dee, and welcome to Thailand" by the Thai staff leading my community service trip (The Thai Elephant Conservation Project). I was relieved at the sound of those words, and started to immerse myself in my new surroundings: the intoxicating smell of pad Thai and cashew chicken, the alluring sights of the natives and buildings, the familiar sounds of old Michael Jackson songs and plethora of 90’s music, and the overall sense that I was in an unquestionably beautiful and foreign country fully engrossed me. In every direction there was the perfect postcard and a smiling Thai: it was full of arrays of songbirds, stray cats and the occasional elephant, monks of various ages in their fluorescent orange robes roaming the streets, nestles of intertwining rivers and endless streets of temples. I wished that I could live there! The “Sensual City” and “Land of Smiles” far surpassed its reputations.
Throughout the extent of the trip, the weather fluctuated between beautiful and bright, sunny days to muggy and miserable days, and finally to days that were sweltering and difficult to bear. In Thailand, I would sweat my body weight on a daily basis. As the evenings progressed, the temperature became cooler, but the air was constantly fogged with mosquitoes. Spraying OFF! insect repellent and lighting citronella candles proved futile: I came home with countless bug bites from my legs down. (Note to self and to future travelers to Thailand: Bring bug spray.)
Though I began most days waking up to nice and sunny, yet humid, ninety-five degree weather, the most memorable was only a few days into our journey. It was the first day completely full of exploring and the first day I felt completely independent from everything. After our lavish brunch, costing about seventy baht per person (a mere two dollars), and with my adrenaline rush still in effect, we encountered a radiant, natural waterfall in the heart of the northern Thai jungle. The sun brightly shined through the clumps of trees, illuminating the water, which looked incandescent, as if it was untouched and preserved for hundreds of years. Meeting atop the waterfall with the rest of my friends, we stood by the edge and enjoyed unbelievable views of the entire base, as well as miles upon miles of tree branches encircling the area. The pulsating sounds of the water against the rocks along the base of the falls mixed with frog calls, cricket chirps, and sporadic song bird tweets were serene and the only sounds in the distance. I had no intention of leaving.
Later that night, the staff arranged “interesting” transportation for us to a night bazaar, the epitome of Thai nightlife—elephants. Standing eleven feet tall and weighing over four tons of solid muscle, See dor Satit (“Demonstration”), as my elephant was called, reigned supreme. Embarking on this trek from the middle of the jungle and on elephant, highly respected and sacred in Thai culture, was absolutely exhilarating. Traveling with a group of mahouts (elephant caretakers), I observed firsthand the intense and almost spiritual relationship exhibited between them. To me, it felt as if they were one person: they knew each other’s thoughts almost. It was entrancing. And they were extremely friendly and more than willing to teach us their very respected craft. After one month of living and working with my mahout, Sak, I am happy to call him my friend.
What made that particular night memorable was that it started to torrentially rain while I was on my elephant: no surprise to me as it was the rainy season. (I learned before this trip that Thailand experiences only two seasons: the dry season and the rainy season. I travelled during July, which is part of the rainy season so I was relieved to have packed a sturdy umbrella). Like at the top of the waterfall, I felt as if I was the king of the world while I was riding my elephant. I experienced this exact feeling every time I rode See dor Satit at the elephant conservatory I volunteered at for one month.
At the conservatory, I began each day waking up a 6AM, cutting down an entire branch of sugar cane along with a small batch of bananas and walking with Sak (also my mentor) about a mile from my hut, which I shared with one other person, to where my elephant was relaxing in the forest. I took care of this elephant with two other people, and the first task to complete each day with See dor Satit was to ride him down to the local lake,and to bathe him. We practiced the Thai commands our mahout had taught us, and it resulted in See dor Satit standing on his two back legs and knocking us all off his back into the warm water where we later encountered some “gifts” he and the other elephants had left us. We did our best to wash the parts of his back and head that he didn’t submerge into the water, and by the time we had finished, it was almost impossible to hoist ourselves back onto his back to exit the lake and return to our campsite.
Our next order of business was to feed them again, and clean up the feces they produced shortly after, which required that we use a large shovel and a wheelbarrow to carry it off! Then we trained with our elephant, which entailed each of us mounting our elephant in a kind of leapfrog approach, and then going to an obstacle course. After each of us completed the course, we took a 3-hour break to visit the infirmary and nursery on the premises. There we helped clean the buildings, we played with the younger elephants (under 1 years old) and then we met with the veterinarians on duty who elaborated on the injuries which some of their patients had experienced recently. We learned about an older, wild elephant, which was brought to the conservatory after receiving numerous bullet wounds to its legs. She was recovering by the time we met her. After this, we made a quick stop to another section of the conservatory where we helped produce elephant dung paper products! My friends and parents were not surprised when I brought sample products and souvenirs back home with me. After this outing, which we perform most days, we returned to the campsite to ride our elephants back to their respected places in the jungle and made the return trek back to our huts on foot. Performing this routine daily for 1 month seemed like it could be hard to maintain, but I loved every minute of it! It was even enjoyable when the weather was torrential downpours. In fact, riding our elephants in that weather was exhilarating!
Thailand is absolutely breathtaking—everywhere I looked there was such vivacity: the hustle and bustle of the armada of swerving motorcycles that took place in the streets, the liveliness of the street vendors and passersby, and the warped symphonies of music and conversation. The "Land of Smiles" seemed like a completely different world; I found every building, ancient ruin, and person there to be uniquely alluring.
I feel that this experience has made me a more worldly, erudite, and responsible person. I crossed many borders and survived without things at home that I took for granted, from toilet access to a bed not made of rock and television to those I left behind: my parents, my brother, and my three cats. I lived an extremely rustic lifestyle for thirty days, living in remote villages just as some of the natives do: waking up each day with a purpose and working in order to provide myself with both necessities and luxuries. This was the greatest, most rewarding, and most memorable experience of my life and, despite the awful jetlag, I am forever grateful for Rustic Pathways offering this trip.