Monthly Archives: February 2014

Swim with the Fishes

Days 15 and 16 – February 15, 2014
Koh Tao, Thailand
Seashell Resort

With our time on Koh Samui at and end we moved over to the even smaller (and much more picturesque) island of Koh Tao.

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Koh Tao is known for awesome snorkelling so we took a day trip that hit three different snorkelling spots as well as a stop at a private island.

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The snorkelling was pretty good, we got to see a lot of neat fish and some cool coral.

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The private island was what you would imagine as an island paradise. Clear, aqua water, white sand and totally relaxing. We snorkelled a bit at the island then took a rickety wooden plank path out to a lookout point.

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On our last night on the island we decided it was time to tick off a couple things on our “must do in Thailand” list. First up was to let little fish eat the dead skin off our feet, specifically “doctor fish”.

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It was ticklish at first, a bit uncomfortable, and definitely the weirdest sensation ive ever felt on my feet. Afterwards I checked my soles and they did feel a bit smoother, but I’m not entirely convinced about the effectiveness of the treatment.

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With clean(er) feet we decided it was time for a bit of entertainment and headed into one of the infamous lady boy shows that are so popular in Thailand.

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The show was pretty great, some acts were better than others but everyone looked great and it was an awesome way to cap off our time in Thailand!

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Island Time

Days 13 and 14 – February 13, 2014
Koh Samui, Thailand
Lamai Buri Resort

We left the mainland behind this morning and took the ferry to Koh Samui, a small island off the east coast of Thailand. After checking in we immediately headed to the beach for a quick swim in the ocean and happy hour with our toes in the sand.

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In the evening we went to a local night market which was again, mostly touristy crap with a taser or two thrown in for good measure. I’m not really one to buy souvenirs so I just wandered around until it was time to go to the bar.

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We ended up at Swing Bar, so named because the seating around the bar is swings, suspended from the ceiling by thick ropes. After ordering drinks we headed to the beach for a nightly fire show that got a little close for comfort, but was still pretty neat.

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The next day was spent by the pool and the evening was spent dancing the night away at Ark Bar at Chaweng Beach. After doing so much with the elephants and exploring in Bangkok over the last couple weeks we knew that our time in the islands would be taken at a much slower pace.

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Into the Woods

Day 12 – February 12, 2014
Surat Thani, Thailand
Khao Sok Rainforest Resort

Because we slept on the overnight train from Bangkok we were a little worse for wear when we arrived this morning at 5am. We had breakfast at a small cafe at the train station and then took a bus to Khao Sok National Park. The bus was a brightly painted school bus that was only slightly terrifying as it careened down the narrow roadways.

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The place we stayed at was pretty nice and had a small river running behind it that called my name.

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We decided to take a hike in the National Park in the afternoon and then go for a swim before dinner.

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Khao Sok has a bunch of different waterfalls and we chose to hike out to Sip-ed-Chun, an 11-tiered waterfall that was supposed to be very pretty. It was a 4km hike that started fairly easily with a concrete path and steps which gave way to a dirt path after a few minutes.

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For the most part the path was easy to follow in that we could see the path, but the route was definitely not the most direct. At times we were pressed against the side of a hill with only a foot of path carved into the side, then we’d scramble over tree branches, under fallen bamboo shoots and jump across rocks to cross river after river.

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Though difficult, it was a beautiful hike that stretched out over four hours. We encountered only a few fellow hikers and often wondered if we had made a wrong turn only to find a small yellow arrow that pointed the way…or an elephant sign…or a creepy mask.

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But we did finally make it to Sip-ed-Chun and it was very pretty and a bit disappointing.

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It was starting to get dark so we only stayed long enough to dip our feet in the cold water and catch our breath. On our way to the waterfall we had commented on how eerily quiet the forest was, but as we started back we noticed that the forest was coming alive with sounds.

I was keeping my eye on the sun and was very conscious that the hike had lasted a couple hours longer than anticipated. I was hoping that we’d make it back before dark and luckily we found the concrete path and made our way out.

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Midnight Express

Day 11 – February 11, 2014
Bangkok, Thailand
Overnight Train

This morning we opted to go to the floating market about 85km away from Bangkok. There used to be a floating market right in the city, with merchants on small boats that floated up and down a canal, but it disbanded a few years ago. I had heard that the new floating market was very touristy, but we were getting a bit desperate to get out of Bangkok so we thought we’d give it a chance.

Once outside of Bangkok the roads opened up and we sped along. We arrived at a small dock and hired a long tail boat to take us through a small village to the market.

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The village was built along the waterway, usually half on land and half above the water, with greenery crowding around every chance it got.

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When we got to the market we disembarked and made our way on foot through the stalls and along the waterway. Some vendors were on boats, but most had stalls and almost all sold the same tourist trinkets at inflated prices.

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It was disappointing and only a couple things were worth haggling over. In all we spent more time getting to and from the market than actually at the market itself.

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In the evening we boarded our overnight train at Hua Lamphong train station, a beautiful building designed by an Italian architect.

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I wasn’t sure what to expect with an overnight train, but it turned out to not be so bad. We had been forewarned that the train food was horrendous so we already had provisions for the night. On each side of the aisle two seats faced each other that were mostly comfortable and roomy. There were luggage shelves to keep your belongings close and it was all pretty clean, even the toilet.

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At around 8pm one of the stewards came around to make up the beds, complete with sheets, blanket and pillow. There were even privacy curtains that were hung and much appreciated.

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To my surprise it was fairly quiet on the train, except for the train itself. I had expected loud chattering from fellow passengers but I guess everyone on our carriage was super tired because as soon as those beds were made it was quiet. I woke a few times in the night (as was expected) but was usually rocked back to sleep.

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Temple Stealth

Day 10 – February 10, 2014
Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok Centre Hotel

With no plans this morning we did what any weary traveller would do, we consulted a guidebook. Wat Traimit was within walking distance to our hotel so after a disappointing buffet breakfast we set out for about 30 minutes in the wrong direction. Eventually we did make it to the temple, a massive marble and gold ode to the Golden Buddha.

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My guidebooks and some websites said the temple was free so I was surprised to see a booth selling tickets when we got to the site. Curious I decided to climb the temple stairs and see if anyone was actually checking these tickets. There was one woman who seemed to check one person out of ten so I took my chances and walked past, saving myself a whole 40 baht in the process (about $1.30).

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Wat Traimit house the world’s largest solid gold Buddha, worth approximately $250 million. In the 1700s the Buddha was covered with plaster and decorated, possibly to keep it from being stolen. For 200 years the identity of the Buddha was forgotten until one day it was being moved and fell to the ground, breaking some of the plaster and revealing the gold shining beneath.

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In the evening we met up with the group we will be travelling south with, 13 new faces – Brits and Aussies all. We went out for dinner and then hit Khao San road, the famous backpacker mecca that is equal parts terrifying and fascinating. I’m pretty sure that anything you desire can be found on Khao San. We saw signs for the infamous ping pong shows, offers of laughing gas, stalls selling fake IDs, bars that don’t check IDs, skewers of scorpions and beetles, people falling down drunk and lots of money changing hands. We stayed out for a few drinks too many and then called it quits, ready for bed and not too anxious to see the sun rise.

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Fond Farewell

Day 9 – February 9, 2014
Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok Centre Hotel

At the beginning of the week I wasn’t sure how I was going to last being surrounded by so many elephants in such poor conditions, but now that our time here has come to an end I’m not ready to leave. There’s still so much work to be done, work that will take years, not weeks and it doesn’t feel quite so hopeless anymore. I can see all the work that the Project is doing, the progress they’ve made, the minds they’ve changed, but it’s an uphill battle that needs constant work and tending. The two volunteers we worked with this week, Wills and Kirsty, are tireless in their efforts and I applaud them for all they’ve done and continue to do. If you have any interest in elephants, animal rights, voluntourism or Thailand I highly recommend coming to the Project and spending a week or more to really try and make a difference in the lives of the elephants and the people in this area. They always need volunteers and they’d be more than happy to have you.

Our truck took us from the Project to the bus station this morning and we started our long trek back to the mega-city of Bangkok. I know I’m going to miss seeing the elephants every day and listening to them at night, but with plans to return I know it won’t be too long before I see them again.

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When we got to Bangkok we checked into our super fancy hotel for the next two nights, the Bangkok Centre Hotel. By normal standards it’s just a regular hotel, but after a week with a bucket shower it feels like we’ve landed in the lap of luxury. After checking in we headed to the Siam Centre and the Siam Paragon, one of the fanciest malls in Bangkok, think Armani, Hermes, etc…

On the way we passed through one of the major protest sites. There was a stage with lights and speakers, huge tents and vendors lining the road. It was as peaceful a protest as you can get and many tourists were mingling in the crowd. It’s amazing how many worlds away Bangkok is to the small elephant village we left this morning.

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To learn more about the Surin Elephant Project please. visit their website.

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Our Own Olympics

Day 8 – February 8, 2014
Baan Tha Klang, Thailand
Surin Project Homestay

Waking up with a bit of a sore back was worth it when I poked my head outside my tent and saw a group of elephants happily nuzzling each other and greeting the sun. First we had our simple breakfast then it was the elephants turn. The mahouts laid out piles and piles of sugar cane and then led the ele’s over to munch.

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We got to hang out and watch them eat, take advantage of a couple photo ops and (try) to talk to the mahouts, who are just the loveliest, funniest people.

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Then it was time to get serious for the Mahout Olympics. Five teams, four events, the chance for honour and the risk of embarrassment, the stakes were high. Each team had a mix off volunteers and mahouts so it was a great opportunity for them to teach us some skills before plunging into the games. First event is the slingshot, I had had a bit of practice earlier in the morning…

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(photo by the Surin Elephant Project)

…so I went in feeling confident and ended up missing every shot. The goal was to hit a suspended water bottle from either the farang line (for three points) or the mahout line (for five points). Some of the volunteers did really good but most of the mahouts really nailed it.

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Next was the ringtoss, simple in concept but the rings were so light it was hard to control them. Even the mahouts had trouble with this and I could see a few different strategies but none really payed off well.

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Their competitive sides started to show as they tried to distract each other and taunted from the sidelines.

Knuckle bones was the third event and one I had done really well with in practice. To play, you hold five stones in your hand, palm up. You gently toss the stones in the air, flip your hand and try to get as many as you can to lay on the back of your hand. Then you flip those up in the air and try to snatch them up. The skill comes in being gentle with your tosses and quick with your grabs.

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At this point in the Olympics our team was doing fairly well, much to the approval of our mahouts Dao and Edd. The last and final event was the three-legged race. This could make or break our chances at gold, or whatever the top prize was going to be. Our team practiced, we had it down, the rhythm, the walk, everything. Then the race started and we fell apart. The mahout I was paired with took off running with my leg strapped to his and I couldn’t keep up. We clumsily tripped our way through the course and hobbled to the finish line, placing fourth in the race.

The winners were announced and we placed third out of five which won us a delicious candy treat and saved us the embarrassment of a face full of baby powder and the chicken dance, reserved for the last place team.

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Win or lose, everyone enjoyed themselves and then it was time for a quick lunch while one of the mahouts gave me a new tattoo of the Buddhist path to enlightenment.

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Earlier in the week we had had the chance to go swimming with Fah Sai, the gentle giant who calmly laid in the water while we scrubbed her back and rinsed her off. Today we chose to swim with Khamkoon, one of the smallest and the youngest in the group.

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Where Fah Sai was still and calm, Khamkoon was a ball of energy, swimming this way and that. She rolled and splashed, stood up and rolled again. It paid off to pay attention to where he legs were to avoid being accidentally kicked by an excited baby elephant.

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We got her out of the water by luring her with cucumbers and she tried to stuff so many in her mouth she ended up spitting a couple back out.

After their swim the elephants started the long walk back to the Project where we waited for the truck to take us back. The head mahout Surat was taking his moped back and when he asked if anyone wanted a ride I jumped up and hopped on the back in shorts, flipflops and without a helmet. When in Thailand, right?

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A refreshing bucket shower rinsed off the river water and we packed up our backpacks for the night. Tomorrow we leave the Surin Project and head back to Bangkok for a couple nights before heading south.

To learn more about the Surin Elephant Project please visit their website.

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Elephant Sleepover

Day 7 – February 7, 2014
Baan Tha Klang, Thailand
Surin Project Homestay

After another delicious breakfast we all set about our morning jobs for the last time. Armed with rakes our group gathered up all the dried sugar cane from the elephant enclosure and piled it up for another group to take away.

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(photo by the Surin Elephant Project)

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Next up was poop. Specifically cleaning all the poop from the enclosure and depositing it in a giant poop bin. Today also happens to be Ashley’s birthday and I’m sure of all the things in the world she thought she’d be doing today she never imagined cleaning up giant piles of poop!

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(photo by the Surin Elephant Project)

One semi-permanent resident of the enclosure is the Old Lady. She’s a beauty at 80 years old and though she’s now blind she’s still in pretty good health and enjoys eating (with all her teeth) and swimming.

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There used to be five older elephants with the Project but the Old Lady is the only one that remains, which seems to suit her fine. We were told that even when all five were together they didn’t really socialize much and instead preferred to hang out by themselves, possibly due to the fact they had spent the majority of their lives alone and didn’t know how to make friends.

In the afternoon we enjoyed another lovely walk in the forest with the ele’s before being sent off to pack for our overnight camping trip. The Project provided tents and sleeping bags so we really only had to pack a pillow from our homestay and whatever clothes and snacks we wanted to bring. I’m a bit of a wimp so I also took the blanket from my homestay for a bit of extra padding.

After lunch we set out for the 45 minute hike to the campsite.

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The ele’s were in a bit of a playful mood and stopped often for snacks and splashes in the rice paddies.

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There’s no better sounds in the world than the squeaks of a happy elephant, their low rumble greeting and loud trumpet call. I could sit and listen to them talk to each other all day.

When we made it to the campsite some of the elephants wandered to the water to cool off and wash off after the dusty walk.

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Meanwhile, the rest of us set up our tents and got ready for dinner.

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A big blanket was set on the shore and a huge stack of firewood was piled high. We ate while the sun set with the sounds of happy elephants behind us. For safety reasons while camping the elephants are chained up, but their chains are quite long and they are chained within their friendship groups.

Because it was Ashley’s birthday the Project had a little surprise planned for her that I can take no credit for at all. Cakes are hard to come by so they presented her with a tray of desserts and lit candles while we all sang Happy Birthday and she blushed. The mahouts had all signed a card for her inside a little gift bag which of course had a picture of an elephant on the front. It was so sweet and unexpected and I know Ashley was touched by their thoughtfulness.

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(photo by the Surin Elephant Project)

In the evening we put on a very short farang (foreigner) show for the mahouts, like a talent show but we were distinctly lacking the talent part, and then the Project auctioned off some handmade pieces that the mahouts had donated. Up was four elephant footprints, four mahout memory books, a couple t-shirts, a traditional Gwi scarf and a machete. The money raised goes into a fund that the mahouts can borrow from instead of going to a bank and paying a high interest rate. It’s a great cause and through quick bidding we ended up raising over 15,000 baht (over $450).

After the auction the younger group of volunteers that was with the Project started drinking and carrying on so I headed to my tent which was a bit aways from the group and laid in the dark, listening to the rustling in the distance. It brought back memories of camping in Africa and falling asleep to the sounds of nature right outside my tent.

To learn more about the Surin Elephant Project please visit their website.

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Dirty Work

Day 6 – February 6, 2014
Baan Tha Klang, Thailand
Surin Project Homestay

Because I went to bed super early last night I woke up pretty refreshed and ready to tackle another day, which was a good thing because today was another packed one. Right after breakfast we started cleaning out the dried sugar cane from the various elephant shelters, raking it up and loading it into a small truck.

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(photo by the Surin Elephant Project)

We cleaned about a half dozen shelters and then climbed on top and road out to spread it over a fresh field to prep the soil before a new plant.

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(photo by the Surin Elephant Project)

Between raking, sweating and the mud we were dirty from head to toe before 10am, but still smiling.

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(photo by the Surin Elephant Project)

After a quick breather and some cold water it was time for a walk in the forest with the ele’s. It’s interesting to see the dynamics within the large group of elephants, some are friends and some are not. It’s lovely to watch them interact with their trunks and rub against each other.

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They can be so tender and gentle, but one swing of their trunk can be deadly powerful.

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We spent the afternoon breaking up elephant poop balls and making fertilizer with some of the mahouts. The Project then uses some of the fertilizer on their own crops, gives it to the Project mahouts and sells the rest. Breaking up poop sounds pretty gross but it actually doesn’t smell that bad and is mostly fibrous. Anything that the project can make or sell just goes right back to caring for the elephants and because elephants poop roughly one million times a day there’s always a hearty supply.

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Lunch at a local restaurant was great, fried rice with veg, and afterwards we played a game that tested our elephant knowledge and capped the day off with more bamboo watering. When we first arrived the Project seemed small but it’s actually just really spread out and there’s always work to be done. This week there are 16 volunteers so the work is divided up but some weeks they have as few as four so they must carry a bit of a harder workload. I know this type of work might not be everyone’s ideal “vacation” but the payoff is so huge and you really feel like you are making a difference, even if it’s just a small one.

To learn more about the Surin Elephant Project please visit their website.

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Rub a Dub

Day 5 – February 5, 2014
Baan Tha Klang, Thailand
Surin Project Homestay

Every morning everyone gathers and meets for breakfast to eat and learn about the ever changing daily schedule.

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This morning we were presented with a very full day. To start, our group was to water the bamboo plants all around the large elephant enclosure to help make sure that the ele’s always had something to eat.

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(photo by the Surin Elephant Project)

The enclosure is large but it didn’t take long and soon we were changing into already dirty clothes for a swim in the river and the chance to bathe an elephant. Fun fact: elephants are excellent swimmers.

As a large group we marched through a small local village and past fields and herds of buffalo grazing.

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The walk was long and hot but when you have the view of a dozen elephant butts its sort of worth it. When we got to the river each elephant and mahout was paired with two people for safety.

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Elephants move quickly in the water and like to roll around, I can imagine it’s hard to keep track of 12 elephants and 16 volunteers all at the same time. We were assigned Sah Fai who is my favourite ele, if I’m allowed to pick favourites. She’s the oldest of the group at 24 and also the biggest. She has gorgeous pink markings on her ears and trunk and a small pink ring around her back left leg. Her mahout is Thong Di, a small man with a mischievous streak who delighted in getting Fai Sah to spray us with her trunk.

After we had waded into the water with Thong Di and his massive elephant he got her to lay down and roll onto her side, submerging her whole body. He invited us to splash her with water and scrub her hard, rough skin to help get the dirt off.

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During our walks we had gotten close to the elephants, touching them a bit, but it had been nothing compared to this. Here, standing in the water looking up at her she was a wall of grey skin and tiny black hairs. You could see her sides heave with breath and her eyes look around curiously. Her ears flapped and she threw her trunk up with joy. For all the sadness and hardness in these elephants lives, this must be as close to heaven as they get.

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Looking around every elephant seemed to be experiencing the exact same thing and every volunteer was loving it. It was everything I had been looking forward to and fulfilled all those crazy fantasies I had when we had started planning this trip so many months ago. One by one the ele’s finished their baths and lumbered out of the water with us following behind, everyone chattering excitedly about the experience.

When we returned to camp we had just enough time for a bucket shower to rinse off the river water before visiting a local noodle shop for lunch and then starting our next job for the afternoon. Our group had selected planting so off we went by truck to water corn fields and plant watermelon seeds. By this time in the day the sun was high and hot and the earth we were digging into felt like clay. It didn’t take long before our river swim had become just a memory and the hard work made us sweat. The mahouts were there to help and after an hour or so we packed it in and climbed back onto the truck.

In the evening we visited a local market that happens every Wednesday and is a big draw for the local community. Visiting markets is one of my favourite things to do while travelling because it really gives you a taste of local flavour.

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This market was small but packed with people and vendors selling everything from household goods to clothing (new and used), electronics and of course food.

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There was fresh produce and meat, a man with tiny peppers in a huge bowl, cooks manning hot grills and a small dessert section we visited twice.

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Back at the Project I took an early night and skipped dinner. My eyelids were so heavy and despite my best efforts I was asleep by 7pm, exhausted by a hard days work and dreams come true.

To learn more about the Surin Elephant Project please visit their website.

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