The last few weeks has been so full on I’ve struggled to keep up with the blog and I’m well behind on my videos but before I tell you more about my last two weeks in Borneo I thought it was best to update everyone on my first Christmas abroad.For this part of the trip my travel buddy (a.k.a. My boyfriend, Joey) would be joining me for three weeks. . We met in Bangkok and planned to spend our first week in Chiang Mai at The Elephant Nature Park volunteering with elephants before heading South for the islands.
Day 68 – Today was a travel day. I left Borneo and the friends I had made on my recent Great Projects tour behind and spent the journey buzzing with excitement to finally see Joey again. When you’ve been away for so long any piece of home is the best thing ever so you can imagine how much I was looking forward to seeing him. Even though he set off the day before me I would still arrive in Bangkok an hour or so before his flight, so I headed over to the meeting point (there’s actually a designated meeting spot which is really useful if you’re trying to find someone in the airport) and took out my little sign for him. When he touched down we managed to message over wifi for a while. He was just waiting for his bag, he was so close, just down the hall from me and then… my wifi cut out. I tried to reconnect but was worried I would miss him if I was distracted so I gripped my sign tightly and waited. Eventually I saw him strolling through the crowds. I couldn’t stop smiling and the second he saw me with my sign a massive grin spread across his face too. Once we had finally untangled ourselves from our bags and each other, we headed off to our hotel for some much needed rest after a long day of travelling.
Day 69 – Unfortunatly we had tried but failed to extend our booking for our hotel so we were turfed out and spent the morning moving to the hotel next door and doing washing so I had something to wear other than smelly jungle clothes. Since Joey was still pretty jet lagged and we’d had a rushed morning we decided to have a slow paced day exploring the surrounding area. We stayed the next street over from Koh San Road and as we sat and ate pad Thai and green curry by the roadside,venders trying to sell us wooden croaking frogs and scewered scorpions, it was nice to see the famous road changing as the evening went on. Tourists haggled for elephant tops and gypsy pants at the roadside stalls, carts of fried grass hoppers, spiders and all manner of creepy crawlies appeared and music blared from the many roadside bars. My favourite part of the day though was tracking down The Fabulous Dessert Cafe where teddy bears sat at the tables and we ate waffles and rainbow crepe cake. We washed this down with some drinks at one of the pop up bars made from an old VW mini bus near our hotel.
Day 70 – We decided some culture was in order before flying to Chiang Mai that afternoon so we headed to the Royal Palace. After much difficulties with the tuk tuk drivers who try to scam you into doing a full day tour including a stop at one of their sponsors, we walked there. The roads were heaving with people dressed in black and filtering through check points. They were mourners, making their way to the Palace as well to pay ther respects to the king. Apparently this will continue for a full year after his death. Because of this the majority of the Royal Palace was closed off but what we did see was spectacular. Everything glitters and sparkles. The temples and pyramid shaped buildings are covered in thousands of gold tiles. Where there is no gold there are intricate paintings or mosaics and shiny statues standing guard. I don’t think I’ve ever visited such a bejeweled place before.
After exploring the Royal Palace we still had some time left so we walked down the road to. Wat Pho, temple of the recline in Buddha. This temple complex was equally impressive, especially the main attraction. The golden Buddha seemed even more massive crammed into a long room no much bigger than itsel and encased in pillars as if he were reclining in the middle of a forest. Behind the statue was a row of pots and you can change a 20 Baht note to drop one coin in the 108 bronze pots and make a wish in each. It is an interesting experience because I found I quickly ran out o things to wish for and had to hint hard about what I really wanted. Too soon we were running out of time and had to make our way to the airport for our flight to Chiang Mai.
We had booked a cheap hostel in a rush the day before and it was a decision we would live to regret. The second we stepped out of the taxi the owner began asking me questions about when we would check out the next day and why hadn’t i read his email about the front desk closing at 8pm and they had been waiting for us. All the while the taxi driver was asking for his money and Joey was trying to juggle the situation. When eventually everyone was paid and happy we got to see our room.. We ere greeted by a rock hard bed (I mean seriously the floor was softer) and a toilet that not only could you not throw toilet paper down but also needed to be flushed with a bucket of water. This is what £2.50 pp accomodation will get you. Safe to say we were eager to get out and explore the night market. We met up with Ell, a friend from back home who happened to not only be in Thailand at the same time ass us but had just finished the same elephant volunteering week we were about to start. As the hustle and bustle of the night market surrouned us and we followed the flow of people down the street, peering at hand made souvineers, sandals and elephant carvings galore, she told us what we had in store for the next week. If possible it made me even more excited.
Day 71– Our volunteering week began! In the morning we went to the Elephant Nature Park Office to be transferred to the park. On the way we watched a couple of documentaries about the torture these poor animals go through before working in the tourist industry. Young elephants are taken and put into crushes where their legs, neck and body are restrained with tight ropes between a small wooden structure. They are not allowed to move or even lie down. “Mahouts” then beat them using a hook, often fiercely jabbing it into the elephants ears and head. This is designed to break their spirit so that they will fear and obey the mahouts, who will continue to beat or threaten the elephants if they don’t comply.
It was a depressing start but something we all needed to know and it made seeing the elephants for the first time that much more poignant. We also got to meet some other residents of Elephant Nature Park when we took a stroll to cat corner. Alongside elephants they have rescued hundreds of dogs and cats, starting with those left homeless by the tsunami. Our welcome day ended with a blessing by a shaman, which involved little string bracelets tied round our wrists for luck and holy water being sprinkled on us.
Day 72 – The real work began and we kicked off our volunteer week with possibly the best job… scooping up elephant poo! It actually wasn’t as bad as it sounds and best of all it meant we got to be out in the park with the elephants. We even took a break halfway through just to watch these magnificent creatures enjoying their freedom. These rescued animals get to roam the park and do what they like, their mahouts (not like the cruel ones from the crushes but men who care deeply for their charges) watching over them, feeding them and guiding them back to their shelters at night. Currently there are a few older elephants you can stroke, and we were also lucky enough to bathe them, but the park is soon to start a “hands off” policy so that the elephants can have even more freedom and be one step closer to their wild selves. In the meantime though we enjoyed meeting Mae Jan Peng, an old elephant, her eyesight damaged by constant camera flashes of tourists, and stroked her leathery skin. It’s strange that you can actually feel how saggy it is on them, almost hollow and yet at the same time thick. Their skin is covered in coarse hairs and for some elephants this is quite thick and on others it is more sparse. It was incredible! A lifelong dream come true!
Day 73 – Food day today! We spent the morning passing tiny watermelons down a line of people to be scrubbed and prepped for the elephants. The older ones who have no teeth get the rind taken off for them too because they can no longer digest it. We also made rice balls by compacting rice with oats, banana and coconut in so they can pick it up with their trunks to eat it. Later we provided them with some enrichment by stacking corn stalks around their night shelters. In the evening we got a lesson in Thai culture and language and even learnt a Thai song about elephants. I confess I can’t remember the rest but I still have the first bit of “chang Chang Chang” in my head, meaning “elephant, elephant, elephant”. If I can I will try to remember all the lyrics and write them down here though.
Day 74 – More poo! Our group, A Team, seemed to have drawn the short straw when it came to the poo task but we made the best of it, hitching rides on the truck and working together to get it done quickly. Our team was mostly the group of us who had travelled to the park on the mini bus together; we got on so well we requested to be put together. A bunch of us even went to a cooking class together in the evening. Our kind host, Pookie, had tiny gas stoves set up on her patio outside and together we learnt to make some Thai classics: Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai, green and red curry and (our new favourite dessert) mango sticky rice – which you should not knock until you try! At the end Pookie and her assistant showed us a traditional way of making sticky rice in a bamboo, making it slightly caramelised around the edges and even sweeter.
Day 75 – We finished our food task early today so that we could visit a local school. Many of the mahouts children go to this school and it is one of the perks of their job that their children are provided with a good education. It was great to see the project supporting not just animals but the local community too. As soon as we arrived I was accosted by a gang of girls who led me round, showing me the bracelets and candles the students make and sell, not to mention quickly getting their hands on my camera and becoming little photographers. One in particular was a professional in the making, getting me and the other girls to pose for her. I’m even a little jealous of some of the shots she got!
Day 76 – Christmas Eve! At home maybe this would have been an easy day of chilling out and getting ready for Christmas Day, maybe seeing friends and having a few drinks but no such luck at Elephant Nature Park as elephants are hungry even on Christmas Eve! This was possibly our hardest day as we had to travel outside the park in the back of a truck and spend the day hacking down tall, prickly grass in the hot sun. We were rewarded with a party in the evening though and a couple of members of A Team, Leon and Erin, even played Santa Clause and Mrs Clause in handing out presents to all the staff and the mahouts. There were lots of performances too and we got to see some traditional dances as well as ones other volunteers had come up with themselves. It was an unusual Christmas Eve but nice to finally be getting in the spirit of christmas!
Day 77 – Christmas Day! So elephants still eat on Christmas Eve and apparently they still shit on Christmas Day. It seemed only itting to end our time at elephant nature park as it began – scooping poo! This time it was done with some Christmas cheer though…
Once our final task was done and we had said our last goodbyes to the elephants we waited for our transfer to the lovely Eco Resort where we would be spending Christmas. I was chatting away to A Team and scratching absent minded lay at my arm. No matter how much I itched it wouldn’t seem to stop and when I looked down I had massive red welts on my arm. I was covered in little spots in other places but where i had scratched was the worse! It was unbelievable how itchy it was! I had to sit on y hands to control myself. Sleeping on the journey back was the only thing that calmed it, that and some natural bite cream we managed to get at the eco resort, but by then Joey was starting to notice little red marks too and getting just as itchy.
As if this wasn’t bad enough I had been suffering with a bladder infection for the last week so when our Christmas Day would have involved swimming in the pool and tracking down a nice place to eat it actually ended with us sat in hospital so I could get some antibiotics and something for our bites, which we still have no idea whether they were down to bed bugs or heat rash but whatever it was I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Not an ideal Christmas to say the least but all that faded to insignificance when we Skype our families. It has been my first Christmas away from home and so hard not to spend it with my mum. Yet even miles away, across the ocean and in a different time zone she is still looking out for me. I got to open a little hand made stocking full of goodies and travel supplies. I honestly have the best mum ever! As for me and Joey getting presents for each other we headed to Chiang Mai night market again and spent an enjoyable evening scouring the stalls for souvineers for each other. I ended up with some beautiful rings and I got Joey some sunglasses (genuine rayban I was assured). In short, Christmas didn’t go quite as planned, but it didn’t matter, not one bit. Not when I was spending it with someone special and not when I knew my mum was back one with family having a lovely time too.
My first week with Joey at Elephant Nature Park was amazing. I met some great people and got to be up close to an animal I have admired for years and even based my novel on. It was the best way to start our time together and made us even more excited for our New Years celebrations in the South of Thailand.