In the Footsteps of Elephants

Day 4 – February 4, 2014
Baan Tha Klang, Thailand
Surin Project Homestay

Today was a full one, our large group was split into four smaller groups and each given a task for the morning. Our group was assigned to cutting sugar cane so we piled into the back of a truck and drove to a small sugar cane field where we were handed machetes. Hacking away at the sugar cane was tough work, rewarded by having to then drag the bushel to the truck and start all over again.

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Luckily it was short work and we got to taste the fruits of our labour.

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Yesterday we had bought piles and piles of cucumbers and today we got to grab a few large baskets and feed them to the elephants. The elephants crowded the platform and reached their trunks out, grasping for the treats they knew we had.

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One particular elephant was not happy with one cucumber at a time and insisted on taking however many I was holding at the moment. When I refused she reached into the basket herself and came up with a trunkful. Cheeky.

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When the cucumbers were gone, and it didn’t take long for that to happen, we took a walk through the forest with the elephants and stopped at an elephant graveyard.

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When an elephant dies they are buried for four or five years. After that time they are dug up and a few of their bones are removed and placed in a large stone urn in the graveyard.

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Written on the front of the monument is their name and the age which they died. Some poor elephants were only in their twenties when they passed, we saw one grave as young as four and one as old as 80.

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Following the elephant graveyard was a tour of a paper factory made from the poop of the elephants in the village. Our guide went through each step, including mashing, boiling and straining the fibres to eventually end up with paper. It’s just another way this village tries to sustain itself by not using elephants for exploitation.

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Walking beside the elephants, free from their chains, was awesome.

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You’d think a massive beast like an elephant would make a lot of noise but they are actually quite quiet and it’s easy for them to sneak up on you. You don’t even notice them until you’re in their shadow and then it’s time to get out of the way.

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Out of the 12 ele’s in the project there are certain group dynamics. There’s a group of three that are friends and a group of two that are friends and the rest just coexist mostly peacefully. We were given a slip of paper with each elephant’s name, a description of their markings and their mahout’s name, but I’m absolutely terrible at names so it’s hard to keep them all straight.

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We had a lot of free time in the afternoon to relax and wander around the village. There’s an elephant circus right next to the project and you can hear the music from our meeting spot. I wandered by and saw the crowds filled with school aged children and their teachers. Backstage the music was incredibly loud and I can only imagine how disorienting it must be for the elephants. After the circus the crowds lined up for a ride on an elephants back in huge heavy baskets that dug into their sides. I walked by an elephant with riders on top and blood dripping down its face, a victim of the hook.

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

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