Note: these were the routines and elephants at Elephants World when I was there in 2014 – it may be different now! 🙂 Photos marked ‘EW’ are from the Elephants World Facebook page, all other photos are my own.
I cannot recommend Elephants World enough, either to go as a visitor or a volunteer. It’s an experience you will never forget.
Visit http://www.elephantsworld.org/ or https://facebook.com/elephantsworld/
On the 9th of May 2014, I was picked up at my hostel in Kanchanburi and taken to Elephants World (EW), where I was about to live and work as a volunteer for the next month.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I’d never been up close to an elephant before, and I was well aware I’d be living in close quarters with other beasties too (give me elephants over flying ants any day).
My first memory of arriving at EW is of Tang-Mo, a particularly feisty elephant, who stuck her trunk into the truck because the visitor beside me had brought bananas and she could smell them. Not what I needed to calm me down. As you can see from the photo, she’s a big girl.
Before spending my first day as a visitor, I was shown to my room.
The volunteer hut consisted of 5 individual small huts joined together. Each individual hut had a bedroom and a small bathroom.
As well as our porch, we had a stunning area to hang out in, complete with hammocks, right outside our bedrooms.
The first two nights here were the worst, while I became accustomed to everything. We were in the middle of nowhere, 30km from the nearest town.
There was no electricity in the rooms, or in the reception after 6pm. The wooden slats that made up the floor weren’t completely joined together and you could easily see between them, looking down into the grass below – a big deal for someone as scared of bugs and creepy crawlies as I am. The bathroom was 3 walls with a thatched roof that didn’t quite meet, and the shower (basically a hose) only had cold water. No fans, definitely no air conditioning. Since I had arrived in the middle of May, at one of the hottest times of the year, I would be lying if I said the first few days weren’t difficult.
However, by the end of the first week I imagined myself living there permanently.
Some things never changed. Just like the first few days, every night of my month stay I checked my room for bugs or animals, jumped (quite literally) into bed and meticulously tucked in my mosquito net. I’d then set my alarm bright and early for the day’s work, and plug myself into my iPod. Norah Jones was my saviour that month, my way of coping with a ridiculous phobia, for a place with an abundance of insects and animals creates a lot of noise at night. With music to make me forget what I was surrounded by, and a solid day of work behind me, I was always sleeping within minutes.
The music also helped to drown out Tungan’s barking. Elephants World look after many different animals on top of their elephants: water buffalo, goats, sheep.. and especially dogs. With around 11 or 12 dogs when I was there, it only took Tungan – who would bark at his own shadow – to set all the others off.
This is him waiting for/ trying to steal a banana. We were all convinced he thought he was an elephant. The number of times he got kicked trying to play with them in the water, it’s no wonder he was a bit of a sandwich short of a picnic.
The other things just took a few days to become accustomed to. The heat, for example, we solved by buying talc powder and covering ourselves before we slept. I’m not sure how the science works, or if it’s simply an old wives tale, but the psychology worked and we felt just slightly cooler as we went to bed.
But the life you lead and the people you meet and work with are what makes this place so appealing. You learn, you laugh (a lot) and the feeling of doing something genuinely good is unbeatable. Those little home comforts that you miss in the first few days are very quickly and easily replaced with great company and incredible experiences. It was a ‘job’ that I grew to love very quickly.
Our daily routine started at 8am, when the majority of the volunteers would wander up to the reception area from the huts alongside the elephants. We’d start in the fruit shop, the hut where we kept, you guessed it, a huge amount of fruit. Each elephant received a basket of fruit in the morning, and with 11 elephants to feed the volunteers got to work disinfecting, washing and preparing the fruit. We stored a huge selection, from watermelon to bananas to papaya and everything in between. In the fruit shop was a board with each elephant and what could be put in it: sometimes for diet and often for likes/dislikes. Watermelon and larger fruits would be chopped into pieces with a large cleaver, bananas and smaller fruits eaten whole with skins on.
At 9am, already sweating from the heat and work, we’d sit down to breakfast. It varied occasionally, but usually we’d have bread and jam, fruit and fried eggs. Until the day nutella and peanut butter arrived on the table. At that moment, you’d have thought that we hadn’t eaten in weeks – which was far from true!
Around 10am the visitors would arrive. We’d give them an introduction including some elephant facts, a background of the organisation and the safety procedures and rules. Afterwards, the elephants would receive their first basket of fruit of the day. The elephants are fed by hand by the visitors and volunteers by placing the food at the tip of their trunks, which is always a great activity to start the day with as you can get up close and personal to these amazing animals in a safe environment.
Songkran, the elephant below who died in 2015, was a bit of a diva (more on her later) and preferred to be fed directly to her mouth.
The next stop for the visitors was the river, where we’d watch the elephants bathing from the comfort of the bridge.
The men sitting on the elephants in the second picture are the mahouts, or elephant caretakers. Each elephant has their own mahout who looks after them, and the bond that is created between them is very obvious to see. The mahouts live in a separate village on the EW grounds, where they have their homes and a private area to live with their families. Everyone has a place at EW. The men care for the elephants, the women cook the fantastic Thai food for the visitors and volunteers, and the children go to local schools and spend time playing on the grounds by themselves or with us.
Although the mahouts are usually men, because of the tone of voice normally required to give commands, this wonderful lady was the mahout of a blind elephant called Lam Duan. After being a banker for many years in the states, she gave it up and left one day to come to Thailand and be with these amazing animals. The pair were inseparable, and the genuine care she showed for her elephant was beautiful to see.
There were also younger guys learning to be mahouts, a family business if you will. Like Turtle, who took a particular liking to me..
At this point in the day, while we were watching them in the river, we’d talk about Songkran (mentioned earlier) and her success story. At 76 years old, she was the second-oldest elephant at EW (2014). She arrived severely overworked and underweight after a hard life, and in her 6 years spent at EW before she died in 2015 she made a miraculous recovery. Having worked with her myself, I would never have believed that such a strong and spirited elephant could have been so weak and timid just 5 years before. I’m so happy that she got to spend her last few years relaxing and being looked after, after such a difficult life.
This cartoon of Songkran was drawn by Gaby, a talented artist and fellow volunteer.
The final stop before lunch was to the sticky rice hut, to prepare another snack for the elephants.
Each morning, one volunteer would come to set up the ingredients and soak the rice in preparation for this part of the day.
The week where it was my turn to prepare the sticky rice in the morning was particularly eventful. Every morning I’d open the door and be confronted with several hens, who liked to sneak in through a hole in the roof and nest in the baskets. I could only go so far into the hut before they’d fly at me, wings flapping furiously, and I’d run from the hut hoping that nobody saw (or heard me screaming). There was the morning that Laura came to help me and I laughed at her when a mouse gave her a fright.. at which point I lifted a container and no less than ten mice ran from under it, right over my bare feet. Then there was the morning I had this guy for company:
It’s a little blurry but you get the idea.
And last but not least, the morning I had my run-in with Kammoon, a 3.5 tonne elephant with a notorious reputation for eating. This particular morning, the sticky rice ingredients needed to be refilled, which involved carrying large packages from the store at reception level down to the hut, as well as the normal large basket of washed pumpkins. The packages of vitamin pellets, calcium powder and rice weighed 30-50kg each, and I’m only wee. I eventually got the packages into the wheelbarrow, with the help of some other volunteers, and I was off.
I got as far as the river, about halfway to the hut, when Kammoon spotted me. We often get asked if she’s pregnant, because of the size of her, but it’s purely down to the amount she eats on a daily basis. We considered the possibility that she might have been starved in her working life, and she now tries to make sure it never happens again by continuously eating whenever she can.
Not only had she spotted me, but she could also smell the pumpkins in my wheelbarrow. Before I could get away, she’d come charging up to me and stuck her trunk into the wheelbarrow trying to get to the pumpkins, which subsequently turned the wheelbarrow over. I was left with scattered bits of pumpkin, a split bag which was now pouring powder all over the grass (much to Kammoon’s delight) and a 50kg bag of rice on the ground. She lost interest eventually and left, leaving me struggling to get everything back into the wheelbarrow. Every time I got one package in, it would collapse again trying to get the next in. I was ready to cry with frustration by the time one of the mahouts arrived and helped me. Looking back, I imagine watching it all happen would have been like watching a slapstick comedy.
With the visitors, we’d cut the pumpkins and add them to the huge pans of soaked sticky rice, which the mahouts would then cook over the fires. Once cooked, they’d be left to cool to complete the last part of the process later on in the day.
The sticky rice hut area was also where Bow resided, a new and very weak elephant who had just recently arrived (2014). We would take the visitors over to her in small groups, to feed her and brush her.
As the weaker elephant, we were always very careful to keep her separated from the other elephants, until her strength improved. In the wild, elephants live in family herds where weaklings are not tolerated. At EW, the elephants are generally not related and come from different backgrounds, so introducing new ones into the group can be difficult. I remember one morning having breakfast and hearing a commotion by the feeding area. When we ran over, Wasana (a small but strong female elephant) had pushed Bow onto the ground. When we found her, Bow was lying on her side and too weak to pull herself back up onto her feet. We ran to her side and pushed, until eventually we got her back onto her feet. Having Bow separated with an individual food supply became more important than ever after that.
After lunch, it was time for the visitors to visit the mud bath.
Then it would be time for the visitors to get their hands dirty. The most common activity was to go bana grass cutting on the grounds, which required wearing huge thick gloves if you didn’t want to look like you’d been arm-wrestling with Edward Scissorhands. We’d also take trips outside of the grounds to cut banana trees, often arriving at people’s homes where they would have unwanted trees growing in their gardens. The small amount of trees on these trips gave the visitors an idea of what we’d do in the evenings as volunteers, without giving them too much hard work.
One tree-cutting night with the volunteers will live with me forever. It was my first evening cutting excursion, so all I had experienced until then was the tamer easier visitor version. The first surprise was the vehicle we travelled in. With the tourists, we’d take a vehicle with seats, the same one used to collect them from their guesthouses in the mornings. With the volunteers, we just took the banana truck. We’d climb up the outside of the cage and jump in, which was difficult for someone as uncoordinated as me. But once you were in, you were safe enough.
When we arrived in the field, we all got to work. The mahouts would use their knives to chop the trees at the roots, and the volunteers would work two to a tree, to carry them back to the truck. This was fine – until the rain started. And with the rain came the spiders and the red ants.
We continued until the truck was completely full. And that’s when I realised where we were gonna have to sit on the journey home.
The other volunteers climbed up and sat on top of all the trees, but as I was wearing flip-flops and it had been raining (and the fact that I’m naturally clumsy) I, very elegantly, put one foot up, slipped and faceplanted into the mud. With a little help from another volunteer, I got to the top and sat down on the trees. The cage was completely full, and so there was no space at the top to be actually inside the truck – we were just ‘chilling’ (at least, everyone else was while I held on with white knuckles) on top of wet slippery trees, occasionally being nibbled by curious ants as the truck hurtled down the road at 70mph. One of the volunteers has a photo of us back at EW that night, covered head to toe in mud, and I’m hoping that one day our paths will cross and I’ll get to see that photo again.
After tree-cutting with the volunteers in the afternoon, we’d head back to the sticky rice hut to roll the cooled rice into balls. The elephants knew their routine and would hang around the hut impatiently for a while, occasionally sneaking a trunk into the rice baskets to grab a ball before we’d finished.
Then came the best part of the day: getting into the water with the elephants.
I believe this has changed now, but in 2014 we allowed the visitors to sit on a few of the elephants’ backs – there were five or six elephants who were strong and healthy enough to allow this to be done safely. This is not a stressful experience for the elephant when there is one or two people on their necks and upper back and without a heavy chair.
For the newer weaker elephants, like Bow, we’d spend time scrubbing and washing her instead.
This would be the time of day when the mahouts would show off their incredible acrobatic skills on the rope:
I always envied them, because I spent about an hour one night grasping the rope and willing myself to jump off the (not even that high) bridge, just to do a basic rope swing, to no avail..
And after drying off a little, we’d take the visitors back to the reception to give the elephants another basket of fruit. You’ve probably realised that a day with an elephant mostly revolves around food.
After the visitors had gone around 4pm, we’d head down to the river to swim and wash – the water was perfectly clean and the same stuff running through our hoses into our bathrooms. Once dried and changed, we’d meet in the reception area for a Thai buffet dinner and the evening’s entertainment.
The entertainment varied from night to night. The first time I went to EW, half of us hadn’t seen Game of Thrones, and so we started watching it from the very beginning. We had no electricity except lights so we would charge someone’s laptop during the day, giving us enough battery to watch two or three episodes in the evening. We’d set the laptop up on one of the tables and pull our chairs round, sharing out any food packages we’d been sent or any snacks we’d picked up on the last market run. For me, it was always a glass of coca cola. Every single night.
On these nights the mahouts would generally do their own thing, as we’d watch Game of Thrones in English. However, they’d quickly come and join in if they heard a sex scene.
Other nights we’d all, mahouts and volunteers, sit around with the guitars out, singing songs and drinking Thai rum and beer.
Maria (on the left) was our supervisor, and I will always think of her when I hear Zombie by The Cranberries. She had a lovely voice and would regularly treat us to renditions of her favourite songs.
Of course, it only took a few beers for me to get involved (I can’t sit still when there are musical instruments present). Like here, when he held a party for Tom’s birthday:
There were also nights where we got out of Elephants World for a few hours – a change of scenery was sometimes needed.
There was one night where Agnes, the owner, treated us all to a Korean barbeque on a beach as a thank you for our work. Then there were the weekly market runs on a Sunday, where we’d head into a small nearby town to collect anything we needed for the coming week.
Then there was the night where the initial plan was Laura and I going into Kanchanaburi for a night in a guesthouse, air conditioning, the opportunity to Skype my parents, eat something other than rice and go for a pint..
.. that escalated into a whole volunteer night out.
Highlight of this night being Stefan’s ‘I have never’ revelations. Cough, prostitutes.
Another volunteer worth mentioning was Reis from Buffalo, New York. Reis brought a very, ahem, unique sense of humour to Elephants World. I wish I could have heard his classic song ‘Take Me to Kanchanaburi’ for myself but the recorded version was definitely better than nothing. There were the suggestions of nudist days to tackle the problem of decreasing numbers of visitors, and an electricity plant powered by elephant poo. You can’t make this stuff up.
Then came the inappropriate jokes. “Tom, would you like a hand with that?” and comparing Richard and Chad to Slumdog Millionaire and a lumberjack, to name only a few. However, with these jokes came some innocent revenge from the boys. There were many, but the best were convincing Reis that he had been smoking elephant poo and not weed with the mahouts, and that breathing in the air from McDonalds makes you gain weight. There was never a dull moment, that’s for sure.
But it wasn’t just great people and majestic elephants I shared my month with. Oh no.
When working in the fruit shop we often encountered unwanted ‘visitors’. Snakes were the most common, but we also had one tourist who reached into the back of a lower shelf to grab a watermelon and came out with a scorpion dangling from her fringe. What’s worse, this particular scorpion was a mummy scorpion, with lots of little baby scorpions on her back. I’ve never ever seen someone so calm as they casually mentioned that they’d been stung. On the head. By a freaking scorpion.
There was the night we witnessed a normally calm and collected volunteer scream and leap about 6 feet into the air as she had spotted a centipede crawling along the floor while having her dinner. This particular kind are poisonous, and one of the mahouts practically jumped across the table to deal with it. At least we knew we were in safe hands.
There was Frog Patrol, where I’d go into Laura’s room before she went to bed to catch and free any frogs lurking in her bathroom, so that we wouldn’t be woken up in the middle of the night by her screaming at the frog jumping on her bed. Frogs and toads never bothered me so I was always happy to do it.. they never bothered me, that is, until I left my toiletries bag on the bedroom floor one morning and when I returned in the evening to get some mosquito repellent I rooted around until I saw two eyes peering back at me from the depths of the bag. Cheeky wee bugger had climbed in and got comfy while I was out guiding. I got a fright, screamed, he jumped out, I screamed some more. Needless to say, I was always a little more jumpy with the frogs after that.
It wasn’t just frogs in the bathrooms. Tom’s bathroom was on the end of the block, separated from the others, and so he often got the weirdest and most wonderful of the creatures. Generally it was geckos, huge with bright colours, like this guy that lived in my bathroom:
But I will never forget the night where we went to check what animals had made themselves at home in his bathroom, and finding a spider bigger than his hand chilling behind the mirror. I still don’t know how he got to sleep that night.
And last but not least, the night where Laura and I went for an evening swim and found ourselves cornered in the river as a herd of water buffalo decided to join us. Luckily they got deep enough that they had to focus on keeping their heads above water and we managed to slip out undetected.
When I think back to the bugs and animals I encountered, I wonder if I really did it all. It seems very surreal, a person like me living there and loving it as much as I did. But I did, I’ll be forever proud of myself and I will forever wish I could be back there. Working with those amazing volunteers and hilarious mahouts, caring for those elephants and having the time of my life. Creepy crawlies and all.