Day 3 – February 3, 2014
Baan Tha Klang, Thailand
Surin Project Homestay
Up early this morning we bade farewell to Bangkok and started the 7 hour journey to the Surin Province where we’ll be spending the next week. The Surin Project is part of the Save Elephant Foundation, which works with the local government to improve the living conditions of captive elephants and provide their owners (mahouts) with alternative forms of work. It is not a sanctuary, it is a small organization set up in the middle of a government run project. The Project does not own any of the elephants, they simply recruit mahouts to be part of the project, providing opportunities for their elephants to be off the chains for periods during the day and paying the mahouts to not participate in circuses or trekking.
We met Ocho at the Mo Chit North bus terminal, as well as a mother and daughter team who were also heading to the project. Ocho had already bought our bus tickets and as we boarded we were pleasantly surprised to find that not only did the seats recline, but they also were massaging. The AC blasted the whole way and we even got snacks, a vegetarian lunch and a bottle of water.
Six hours away from Bangkok we switched transport to a truck that took us to a local market where we bought bags and bags of cucumbers for the elephants.
As we entered the project area the reality of the situation started to sink in. Everywhere we looked there were elephants on chains, mostly by their two front feet, with babies being chained by only one front foot. We had been warned that this was the situation but I didn’t realize just how hard it would be to see them standing there. The mahouts involved with the project are not allowed to use elephant hooks, but out of 150 elephants in the village only 12 are with the project so the majority of mahouts carry the hook.
We were shown where we’ll be spending the week, a small raised home with two bedrooms and a fridge to keep water cool.
Beside us is Mai and her family who own our structure and there’s a small room at the back of the lot with a toilet and bucket shower.
It’s rustic but comfortable and will more than do for our time here. The hardest part are the two elephants chained right beside our bedrooms. They are not part of the project and spend pretty much every hour of every day on chains.
After settling in we made our way to the welcoming ceremony that the Surin Project does every week. Because we are guests in the village it is important to respect local customs and embrace the community. We also met the other volunteers on the Project this week. In addition to myself, Ashley and the mother/daughter team from the bus, there are 12 university aged students here as part of a longer trip. The ceremony starts with a shaman blessing the area and encircling the whole group with a piece of string, he lights incense, recites prayers and blesses us all with water.
Then he, and every mahout on the project, ties some string around everyone’s wrist to bring good luck.
They are not to be removed for at least three days and when they do come off they are to be placed somewhere high, never on the floor or in the garbage.
During dinner we got a safely talk regarding the village and elephants as well as a heartbreaking history of how elephants in Thailand generally make a living for their mahouts; through begging, circuses and giving rides on their back. Thailand has been trying to change this but the international demand is so high and the mahouts can make so much money at it that it’s hard to convince them that there are other ways.
In total darkness we walked back to our rooms for the night. We can just make out the silhouette of the elephants in the dark, but you can hear their rumbling voices and shuffling feet. I recognize the sounds they make from my time in Africa, but it’s so difficult to see them chained in the middle of civilization after seeing them free in the wild. It feels so helpless.
To learn more about the Surin Elephant Project please visit their website.