Postcard from…. Chiang Rai

Continuing our series of Postcards from the projects, Globalteer’s Development Director Simon Hare paid a visit to our latest partner project in December – The Northern Thailand Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Rai. If you are thinking about heading to Thailand to work at this inspirational project and rub shoulders with the amazing elephants, then don’t miss Simon’s heart-warming account of his time there…

December is the season of mists in Northern Thailand. Mornings are chilly and the tropical sun takes a couple of hours to burn through the hazy shroud that blankets the town and blurs the surrounding countryside. On one of these typically misty December mornings I set off excitedly for my first visit to our newest volunteer programme - The Northern Thailand Elephant Sanctuary. 

Just a fifteen minute drive from my city centre hotel, buildings and traffic have all but disappeared and I find myself at the gates of the Elephant Sanctuary. Surrounded by soaring, red-dusted trees, swaying grasses and gentle birdsong as my early morning soundtrack, it is hard to believe that I am so close to the city. As I walk towards the mist-shrouded buildings at the centre of the sanctuary, dark looming shapes come gradually into focus as four elephants approach, guided slowly through the undergrowth by their trusted mahouts.
I have to admit to being more than a little bit thrilled at my first close encounter with an elephant since I was a terrified three year old at Windsor Safari Park. Just Wow.

From Chicken Farm to Elephant Heaven

The elephants are taken for a wash down whilst I am shown the rest of the sanctuary. Just a few months ago this was an abandoned and derelict chicken farm. The transformation is nothing short of an extreme makeover. Gravelly flower-edged paths criss-cross the area set aside for human use. Wooden planters made from the recycled chicken cages sit on top of white painted kerbstones that were once the concrete pillars supporting the old farm’s 11 raised chicken sheds.

The neat pathways connect the main building which houses the project’s offices, kitchen and toilets with various outbuildings – breezy chill-out areas for volunteers to sit or swing in a hammock, and a large covered dining area for volunteer lunches, complete with pool table overlooking the expansive grounds. There are birds, flowers and colourful butterflies everywhere. I already love this project – elephants and humans are equally well looked after, and as a bit of a softie, that suits me very well!

The “human” zone is separated from the elephants’ area by the project’s very own design of elephant-proof fence – which is so far unbreached by the resident elephants. This much larger area where the elephants roam freely or accompanied by their mahouts is an haven of shady trees, towering bamboo and a variety of lush, sweet grasses.

Breakfast's Up!

It is here that I get to see the elephants again close-up. By now the sun is melting away the mist, the trees and grasses are swaying gently and the sun on my skin is warm and welcome.

The near silence is broken by a loud crack, and another, and the whole forest canopy seems to quiver as one of the huge bamboos is felled, crashing to the ground under the force of nothing but a mighty trunk – a tasty meal for one of the four elephants that currently enjoy life here on the sanctuary. They range in age from 8 to around 45 years and although not actually related they behave just like a family. 36 year old Maddy has adopted Lou, the ‘baby’ of the group at just 8 years old, mothering her cheeky young charge, trying to keep her in line.

There is exciting news too. Project staff have just found out that 12 year old Jay is expecting a calf and all going well, in something less than 22 months – yes that’s the gestation period for an elephant – four will become five!

I can hardly imagine there’s a better “family” or a lovelier environment for the young calf to be born into. Here the elephants are allowed to just be elephants. There is limited human contact, they are not forced to perform “tricks” and the only people permitted to ride them are their own, permanent mahouts. Volunteers come here to serve the elephants and help give them the best life possible. The elephants are definitely not here to serve we humans. The mahouts themselves were born to look after elephants, hailing from the Karen Hill tribes of Northern Thailand, where elephant care is second nature.  And it shows.

TLC for the Elephants

I spend some more time watching the mahouts working with their elephants – cleaning and disinfecting their feet to prevent infections and applying moisturiser to sooth their dry and cracking skin after a long and hot dry season.  All the elephants here have regular medical checks and I am delighted to hear that unlike many captive elephants in Thailand – and at other less well run sanctuaries – they are all in fine health. Their life here is certainly very different from what they had sadly grown used to - working in the logging industry - chained in harnesses, dragging and heaving hundreds of tonnes of wood every day, year round, up and down muddy monsoon-soaked slopes. They are very lucky to be here now.  Although I have to admit that I am feeling pretty lucky too. 

Later, I watch the elephants spraying themselves with trademark jets of water, snaffling down bunches of bananas and I lean against the elephant-proof fence as they head ‘home’ for a final feed and bed. The sky is reddening and the shadows of the trees gradually lengthen and stretch out across the grassy field.  The sun has lost its sting and it won’t be long before the chill returns to the air, ready for another morning frost. It is so peaceful and I am so relaxed that I wish I could stay longer, but sadly my day here is over.

It has been a privilege spending time here with the project staff and of course the elephants. But I have only scratched the surface of what volunteers normally get up to. I may have to come back, just for the sake of research, of course. Oh, and to get to know the little calf we’re expecting.
Check out some of our other Postcards here!

A Postcard from the rubbish dump: Globalteer reports on the students lives' who attend our community school next to the biggest dump in Siem Reap, just a few miles away from tourist mecca Angkor Wat.

A Postcard from the Amazon: A Trip to the Peru Rainforest Wildlife Sanctuary

A Postcard from Colombia: Visiting the Colombia Kid's project and finding out what Colombia really is famous for.

A Postcard from the Cambodia Bear Project: What a Globalteer volunteer can expect from this wonderful project