A trip to a Thai elementary school: a photo essay

Most of the time at Elephant Nature Park is spent at the park, caring for elephants and helping maintain the facilities. However, our calendar of volunteer activities clearly shows that on Thursday, we are heading out of the park to do some volunteer work at the village elementary school with the kids.

I love my elephants, but the idea of getting out and into a Thai village really excites me. I know I’m falling in love with the country, so spending time seeing how people live in the small villages rather than the cities really fascinates me.

So, on our fourth day at the park, we board our two white vans with the ENP  logo on the side, and head off to the local elementary school.

Muangkud School takes only a few minutes to get to from the park. When we arrive, the students, all in uniforms, are either in their class rooms or outside, playing.

Unlike the elementary school I went to, this school is one floor and very basic. It is a U-shape, with classrooms opening into a large courtyard.

That’s it.

The principal of the school comes up to us and begins to tell us about what we are doing.

“You can teach them English or play with them over there,” he says, gesturing to two of the rooms. “Over there, you can learn how to  weave jewelry, bake sesame balls or get a massage from the students who are training.”

The children take to us immediately. I head over to a mat to meet with a 12-year-old girl who shows me how to weave a beautiful bracelet.

While I sit there, younger kids come up to me, handing me pieces of paper. I look at the paper — on it are volunteers names with the places they are from. I am handed sheet after sheet and write the same thing over and over: I am Diana. I am from America.

One little boy sits with me as I write, placing his tiny hand on my leg and looking over my hand as I scratch out the words in pencil.

Pam and Steve are covered with kids when I arrive to the classroom of little ones. Pam, laying on the floor, is balancing kids on her legs, extended in the air. Another volunteer, Sonja, is walking around with two girls attached to her hip, one on each side.

I sit down on the floor and am swarmed. The kids are in love with my digital camera. We don’t speak the same language, but it’s obvious what they want: photos.

Of course, I oblige.

There is one little boy who can’t get enough posing. He stands there, flashing the peace sign, looking gangsta, whatever he feels in the moment, and looks at me anxiously, waiting for me to snap his photo. After each photo, he rushes up to me and stands next to me, looking at the image on the tiny screen.


He’s not the only one who hams it up for the camera. The boys are far more intrigued by seeing their photos than the girls. The girls are being carried around the room or juggled on Pam’s legs.

I stay with the younger kids for a little longer, letting them take my camera and take their own photos, then I head over to the food area and grab some sesame balls and a “milk shake” which is really powder milk with some generic Oreos and ice blended together. And, it’s damn tasty.

Drink in hand, I split off from the group and wander a little down the road from the school. There’s not much around it … just wooden houses and jungle. But, it’s charming and peaceful in it’s own right.

After two hours at the school, Jack and Chai gather us back into the vans and we return to the park. When we get back to the main compound, I am thrilled to see the founder of the park, Lek, sitting at one of the wooden tables and benches.

I’ve been wanting to meet her for days, and now I have a chance.

Asia Blog Thailand

Knee-deep in mud: the planting grass adventure

Photo: K. Atkinson Jones

Thank goodness I am wearing boots, because otherwise, when I am knee-deep in the thick, gloppy mud in the humid and overcast afternoon, my foot would come shooting out and cause me to face plant it into the neat little rows of grass we are planting.

Our afternoon volunteer activity is another labor-intensive experience. This time, we have are split into two groups: grass planters and sugar-cane choppers. I’ve had my fill for life of machetes, so I opt to spend time hunched over a mud field, shoving little grass bulbs into holes.

As we walk to the field, Jack points out spots of interest, namely the moon bear Lek’s husband has rescued. This little, fluffy guy was having his bile harvested when he was rescued. I squint my eyes to a platform in a large, fenced off area and see the bear, a roly poly fella, hanging out, draping his head off of a platform, looking at the world upside down.

We finally arrive to our field, nearby Lilly’s grave. It’s roped off with stakes and string. And, it’s pretty big. Jack hands us each bundles of grass to plant, explaining he will come by and poke a hole in the ground where the grass goes, to put one piece in, then cover it up with more dirt. Then, when the row is done, we move back a fraction of an inch (not literally, but it seems like it), and do it all over again.

With 10 of us, we each cover about 10 holes in the ground before we retreat a row back.

Only, Lucy, Katy and I have it a bit harder. We’re off to one side of the field … pockmarked with huge puddles.

We’re filthy in seconds.

Photo: K. Atkinson Jones

First, it’s Jack who comes up to me, hand covered in mud, and runs his finger down both cheeks and my chin, leaving me with swipes of mud that look like I’m at some ancient tribal ritual.

Then, as we move further and further into the puddles, my hands, then arms, become covered in it. We don’t even need to poke holes in the earth anymore. I simply jab my finger into the ground, shove a piece of grass, then slosh some water and dirt over it, hoping the grass doesn’t get up and float away.

We get into a good routine. Grass in one hand. Popping our fingers down into the mud, shoving a piece in, covering it. Repeating down the line until we reach our neighbor’s planted grass. Then, step back a foot into more mud, and do it all over again.

“We should sing!” Lucy suggests. When there is no audible groan from the volunteers, she launches into song. Then, we begin to throw out suggestions.

“How about some New Kids on the Block?” I ask after they run through some songs from the early 90s. Lucy and Katy pause mid-plant and look at me.

“Who?” Lucy asks.

Oh my god. They don’t know New Kids on the Block.

“Ya know … Hanging Tough … Step by Step, oooh baby,” I sing.

They stare at me, blankly.

Then it hits me, I am old. Well, not old. But, significantly older than the two girls who are standing next to me.

Turns out, Katy isn’t even 20, and Lucy is in her early 20s. And, me? Well, I’ve got a good decade on Katy.

“The New Kids, for your information, were the first boy band in my time,” I explain, trying to salvage the situation. “They were popular when I was in elementary school. The first time they came to town and I wasn’t allowed to go to their concert, I threw myself on the floor of my bedroom and cried as I listened to Joey-Joe sing in his pre-pubescent girlie voice ‘Please Don’t Go Girl.'”

Instead, we sing Backstreet Boys. Well, they do. I don’t know enough of the words. Oh, beautiful generation gap.

From time to time, one of the three of us has a near splash in the mud. Our gumboots become firmly entrenched. No one notices until one of us — the stuck one — squeals and tries desperately to not land on all fours in the huge puddles. We wave our hands, lurched over and teetering, attempting to regain our balance. Sometimes, our feet actually become dislodged within the boot and creep dangerously close to falling out.

Fortunately, we always recover, getting our foot back into the foot portion of our boot.

When we run out of grass to plant, I’m actually kind of bummed, although I am thankful I won’t be having ants creep out of the strands and crawl up my arms anymore.

The three of us actually make it out of planting grass without landing in the mud.

Until Jack notices.

He gets Lucy and Katy first. I smugly step aside, avoiding the throw down. But then, as I walk towards the solid land, he tackles me, sending my entire right side plummeting into a huge mud puddle.

I can’t help but laugh and be giddy.

Being caked in mud doesn’t even bother me because we’re having so much fun.

As we walk back, Lucy, Katy and I link arms, giggling about our afternoon as our feet squish into the ground, I realize I like planting grass. I like this entire experience so far.

But still, nothing can surpass the shoveling.

Asia Blog Thailand

An inside look at Elephant Nature Park

The expansive park is set among lush mountains and mist.

Chai hands us each a huge bundle of bananas as we suit up in our rain gear.

“For our walk,” he explains.

I pull on my gum boots (with socks this time) and pull my poncho over my head, tucking my camera under it securely so it won’t get rained on.

The clouds have been threatening all morning, and now, after our filling lunch, rain begins to spill from them. Big, fat drops of rain that hit our eyelashes and make us blink back the water so our view of the park isn’t obstructed.

The volunteers are split in half for this walk through the park — something every visitor to the park gets, whether they are volunteers or tourists up for a day or two. It doesn’t cover the entire 20 acres, but it gives us an idea of what goes on at the park, and a briefing on the elephants who live here and the programs the park is instituting to show tourists and locals there are other ways to earn a living from elephants that doesn’t cause them further harm after the brutal crush.

An elephant stands alone on our walk.

We start with the two girls I met the first day — Mae Tee and Mae Kham Geao — the chatty best friends. Then, we head over to a shelter where we shoveled earlier in the day and meet some elephants over there. I get distracted when I look to my right and see an elephant being trained with a clicker and bananas. She stands behind a wooden frame with beams at different levels. When the clicker goes off, she puts her foot where the noise comes from, and is then rewarded with food.

The positive training method being taught. A method that does not involve pain or suffering.

We then head over to her and give her even more bananas before we walk by a giant mound of earth, sprouting fresh grass and new trees.

“This is Lilly’s grave,” says Chai. “She died here a little while ago. We buried her near her best friend, Mae Keow’s, shelter and planted grass and trees.” He tells us of Lilly’s struggle in her last days and her best friend’s unwavering support and reassurance as Mae Keow stayed by her side to comfort her.

I can’t help it, I get emotional just looking at the giant grave rising above the long blades of grass below. I can almost tell there is an elephant buried there, the way the mound is shaped.

“Her best friend was very sad when she died,” he explains.

I get even sadder when I realize how similar elephants are to us.

They can feel the way we feel. They can experience grief and loss. Holy shit.

We continue our walk, past huts of staff members, through enormous puddles, stomping through foot prints of elephants who have walked on the same path we have.

It beings to boggle my mind as we walk deeper into the habitat of these creatures.

Along the way, Chai stops us at different elephants, telling us their stories. They are all similar and all heart-wrenching. Illegal logging. Fed methamphetamine to keep them working. Forced breeding. Street begging. Trekking at camps. Each situation is gut-wrenching, painful to hear.

I can’t believe these animals have been treated this way, and people like me unknowingly send the message to the industry that it is OK by riding them, going to circuses, buying elephant paintings.

Elephants are a playful bunch. This one entertains herself with a tire.

Then, I look around. We’re not the only group on this tour today. In fact, there are quite a few groups touring the park and learning what we are learning. After they are done, they will watch the same DVD we watched the day before, and their eyes will be opened.

As we head back to the compound, I shake off the sadness and am comforted when I see Jokia, the elephant who lost her baby and while she was mourning, had her eyes shout out by slingshots by her mahout because she refused to work. I see her and her best friend, Mae Perm, gently touching her trunk to let her know she is by her side.

And, that makes me feel good. It reminds me that despite the abusive and awful pasts these elephants have endured, here, on these lush 20-acres with loving people watching over them, they are safe. And won’t have to go through anything like this again.

This is their sanctuary, and I am so fortunate to have been let inside to experience these creatures for myself.

Asia Blog Responsible Tourism Thailand

They gave me a machete: a true story of corn-cutting

Imagine 10 of us standing in the back, en route to cutting corn.

Our group of 10 piles into the back of a pickup truck at 8 a.m. We’re covered head-to-toe, largely to avoid ants crawling down our clothing and nipping us.

I’ve got on a hat with fabric flaps, a long-sleeved shirt, a T-shirt, leggings, gum boots, and a pair of gloves. And, I’m not as covered up as others.

There are no seats in the back of the truck, so the group of us stands, grabbing on to the thick white metal bars that remind me of a cage, to keep us all from flying out of the back.

We drive for miles, down the road we came in, past the elephants carrying passengers. When we drive past them, I get angry. A part of me wants to stop the truck, jump off and explain to the people on their backs about what these elephants have endured. But really, I want to kidnap the elephants and guide them on the quick walk up the road to safety at Elephant Nature Park. But, I do nothing. Instead, I turn to my fellow volunteer with simply a look of disgust.

That’s all we need to convey how we feel about what we see on that road.

We bop along, heading out onto the highway for a few minutes, holding tight to the bars. Then, we arrive to a little plot of land down a small road. In front of us is a field of corn that needs to be chopped, bundled, loaded back into the truck, and taken back to the park to feed the elephants today.

Jack unloads a bag of machetes.

I hate knives. I hate blades. I don’t like anything that has the ability to cut a finger or other body part clean off, so when he drops them on the earth, I feel the back of my knees tingle. I watch as everyone’s eyes light up.


One by one, they grab them and begin to chop at the thick stocks of corn. I’m a little more apprehensive. But, finally, I go and grab one.

It’s heavy in my gloved hand, and when I make my first swing, I realize I need to be a little more forceful than that if I want to make a dent in this field of corn. So, I swing again. This time, the corn falls to the ground.

Ha. Take that corn.

Since the pieces need to be roughly the same size, I pick it up and slice it in half again.

Within minutes, gloves are soaked with sweat. Dripping with sweat. I’ve sweat through nearly everything, actually. The sun may not be out, but the humidity and the heat are making the corn cutting exhausting.

I try to carve out a row, whacking and thwacking corn in my path. I try to be all Jungle D and, in one foul swoop, knock the corn to the ground. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. More often than not, I am standing there, at a stalk of corn, for a good minute, holding the top of it tight as I hack at the thick bottom part. Then, sometimes, if the middle part is too thin and I fear I may machete right through the stalk and into me, I just bend it over my knee and break it/rip it apart.

As the volunteers throw corn to the ground in piles, villagers who have come along with us, rope bundles together.

In an hour, we have hacked the entire field.

Next, we have to haul the bundles into the truck.

After the field has been cleared, it's time to haul the bundles. Photo: Sarah Bird

There is no graceful way to do this. At first, I try to be ambitious, grabbing two bundles — each hand grasping the twine — and teetering back to the truck. It doesn’t work well. At all.

So, the next round, I fling the bundle over my shoulders, draping my arms around it. This time, I am able to make it back a little easier. Granted, it’s not comfortable, and my mind keeps going back to the previous day’s conversation with Adele who got accosted by ants that trailed down her shirt when she did the same, but I manage.

I don’t get too many bundles to the truck before we are done. I’m half way back into the cleared field when I ask Pam if there are any more left. She shakes her head “no.”

I’m hit with a huge feeling of accomplishment. We started with an entire field to cut down, bundle and haul to the truck. Within 90 minutes, our little group has cleared the field and loaded the truck. I’ve never been witness to such teamwork before, and when we get back in the van (yes, the van instead of the pickup) to ride back to the park, I feel a rush of satisfaction and pride to be a part of such an amazing group of people.

We aren’t doing this for us. We’re doing it for the elephants. And, that feels awesome.


Asia Blog Thailand

Speaking for the Elephants … in memory of Mae Sai Roong

Yesterday morning, when I turned on my computer after a night of restlessness, my heart sank.

There, on the screen, were two Facebook status updates. One from the Elephant Nature Park & Foundation page stating Mae Sai Roong, an elephant our volunteer group had taken care of when she fell ill on Sept. 10, had taken a turn for the worst. Then, an update time stamped about five hours later from one of the staff with the words that made my cry aloud — “Dear Sai Roong, RIP.”

No. Nonononono.

Mae Sai Roong had only been at the park for a little more than four months. An older girl, she spent her life in the logging and trekking industries, for the most part at elephant camps treating passengers to tick marks on their bucket lists by taking them for treks on her back. She was sold to people in Chiang Mai who had her go to a big elephant camp, and, a little while later, was transferred to smaller elephant camp near the park. Her owner was not happy with the way she was treated at the park, and decided to transfer her — yet again — to another park. However, her feet barely wanted to move after a live of giving rides, so the decision was made. It was time for Mae Sai Roong to retire.  The owner, along with members of Elephant Nature Park,walked her the short distance from her current camp to her new home, the park. The walk took her three hours because, after years of trekking for tourists, her movements were so labored.

I had wanted to wait to talk about Sai Roong and Elephant Nature Park. And, I still plan to fill readers in on my time volunteering at the park in the coming weeks.

But, for now, to honor her life, I wanted to post a few photos of her. And, talk candidly with my readers.

These photos were taken the day she was so ill, she had no strength to do anything but lay down, and the following day, when she stood up. The day she laid down was one of the saddest of my life as I, along with all of the other volunteers, some of the staff and the vets, rushed to fill sand bags and shovel dirt to create a bed for her. We watched as a harness wrapped around her saggy belly was hooked to a crane that tried, in vain, to get her to stand. We watched as she would get tiny bursts of life, sit up, look around at everyone, and then give up and allow herself to simply lay, nearly lifeless on the mound we had quickly created on the hot and humid September afternoon in the jungle.

Two volunteers sit with Mae Sai Roong the day she lays down, Sept. 10, 2011. Photo: Julie-Ann O’Neill

We didn’t think she would last the night. She did. The next morning, when a few girls went to see her, we didn’t think she’d last past breakfast. She did. A couple of hours after their early morning vist, we were informed that, somehow, Sai Roong, had found the strength and the will to live. After laying down for more than an entire day, the elephant had stood up.

Overjoyed, we walked down to where she was being treated a few times on our last day. We spent time feeding her, talking to her, giving her the love that she had been so deprived of in her trekking days.

Surprising everyone, Mae Sai Roong stood up less than 24 hours after her bleak prognosis. Photo: Julie-Ann O’Neill

On September 27, 2011, Mae Sai Roong, “Rainbow,” was finally able to rest, free after nearly a lifetime of suffering due to people supporting the abusive practices of the elephant tourism industry.

She had no elephant friends, but I am sure she was surrounded by a group of volunteers like the ones I spent my time with. Hopefully they were rubbing dirt on her, scratching her back and singing lullabies softly to her.

I had wanted to wait to start talking about this … to first share my stories of the elephants and the park, which was one of the most fulfilling and heart-warming experiences of my life.

But, then Sai Roong passed away. And her death shouldn’t go unnoticed. Instead of just posting that I am sad about her death, I am going to explain to you why, ultimately, she died.

Sai Roong, like most elephants that “work” in Thailand have to go through the a ritual called phajaan, or “crush.” It begins with the baby elephants (usually three to four years old) being taken from their mothers and placed in a small, wooden pen. To get them securely in the pen, these babies are beaten with bamboo, sticks with nails attached to the tip and bull hooks. Once in place, the crush lasts for roughly a week. During this time, they are beaten, bludgeoned, have hooks attached to their sensitive ears, and are deprived of food and water, all in the name of breaking ties with their mothers and becoming domesticated. While in the crush, through the infliction of pain, they learn how to accept riders, do circus tricks and paint. The end result –to crush the elephant’s spirit and deem them domesticated.

And, once they have their souls stomped out, they are simply vessels entertaining people. They are chained. They don’t eat enough. Like humans, elephants have the capability to form relationships and have emotions. But, not the elephants working for the tourists.

People who visit Thailand — and other countries with elephant tourism — don’t realize the damage they cause these elephants when they support trekking camps, go to circuses or buy the paintings done by these creatures. Without knowing, they send a clear message to the elephant tourism industry that shows they support the torture these animals go through early in their life, as well as the horrific conditions they live in as cogs in the tourism wheel.

It’s not my goal to upset readers. What I want, on the day after World Tourism Day, is for readers to KNOW what goes on behind-the-scenes.

Lek Chailert and the Elephant Nature Foundation, work tirelessly to show elephant owners there are other options to training elephants that doesn’t involve abuse. And, they have programs, like the Surin Project, that works with mahouts (ele owners) who had used their animals for street begging and circuses, and shows them there are alternatives for these elephants. The foundation also operates the Jumbo Express, which provides medicinal care and educational assistance for people and elephants in tribes. There’s even more, and a visit to the Web site can fill you in on all the good they do.

She, and the foundation are trying to make an impact on the elephant tourism industry.

You can make an impact, too.

For those who have ridden on elephants, I don’t judge you. I bet you didn’t know what the elephants are subjected to. Now, you do. So go … tell someone else who is going to Thailand (or any other country where eles are part of tourism, because there are far more places that abuse these animals in the name of a dollar than don’t) what I’ve just told you. Then, maybe they will tell someone else. Who will tell someone else.

One day, the message will be loud and clear to the elephant tourism industry: There are ways to train elephants without torture. And ways to make money from elephants without subjecting them to cruel living conditions. Change. Your. Practices. And we, as tourists, will support you.

If you really want to see for yourself the crush, here is a video you can watch. I warn you — it is disturbing and contains VERY graphic images of elephant abuse. But, sometimes people need to see it to believe it.

Asia Blog Responsible Tourism Thailand Travel

An introduction to Valdelavilla

I was early to the tapas reception at El Bajo, of course. The pull-down metal gates had not even be lifted yet, so I walked around the Bilboa Metro area for about 30 minutes.

It was my first full day in Madrid and I had explored the city center for a few hours, wandering nearby my hostel and the Anton Martin Metro stop. After taking an hour or so back in my room, I figured it was time to head over to the Vaughan Systems reception for the people who were going to help native Spanish speakers improve their English by talking talking talking for six straight days.

Once the gates were lifted, I headed over to the bar. It was empty, save for one woman going over name tags.

This was it. And I was the first.

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