Thailand Week 1 – Elephants, A Team and Bed Bugs on Christmas

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.


 

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Why I Love This Photo

At first glance all you can see in this photo is an orangutan trapped behind bars looking miserable. His hands grasp the bars and his face, so human in its expressions, tells of an animal who is fed up and depressed. These things are true to a certain degree but although a picture speaks a thousand words, they might not be the words you were first expecting. 
This is George, a rescued orangutan at Matang Wildlife Centre in Kuching, Borneo and he is sulking because his neighbour, Peter, has received an enrichment toy and is happily peeling apart a coconut with his teeth as if it were a banana while George goes without. He will get his turn but he doesn’t know that yet; the point is that when it comes to wildlife conservation there is more to the picture than meets the eye.

I spent two weeks on a volunteering tour with The Great Projects that began with a short stay at Matang. Straight away it was a real eye opener. One of the permanent volunteers working there told us frankly that what we would see at the centre we woudn’t be happy with and neither were they. The fact is the place is underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded. Animals are in enclosures too small for them or share them with too many other animals but the fact is, these animals are still in much better conditions than they were when they were rescued. On our first day we were taken on a tour around the centre and saw a crane who was tied to the same spot on someone’s front lawn as an ornament. Many other animals, from clouded leopards to song birds, were kept as exotic trophy animals, abused and mistreated by owners who didn’t know how to look after them and didn’t care.

This poor guy was tied in one spot on someone front lawn as nothing more than a live ornament

Orangutans are no exception either. They are tied to porches, kept in tiny cages with little food and made to dress up and take photos with tourists or perform in shows. Yet many at Matang will never be released into the wild again, either because of the red tape the government puts up when finding a suitable place to release them, or because there is little suitable habitat left or even because they have become too damaged, too habituated to humans to ever survive in the wild again. As saddened as we were to see that such incredible creatures kept in such small encloures, we knew that they were better off at Matang than anywhere else.
We were there to help though and eager to know how to do that. To begin with we felt like we were getting an easy ride on the volunteering front. We got to relax on the beach, drink too much rice whiskey with locals in their bamboo longhouse and raft down the river on their bamboo rafts, yet what we were doing all the time was gathering an awareness about the situation in Borneo. 
From the beginning we knew that there would be no touching or holding of the orangutans even though several centres in Borneo still offer this but it was only after we arrived at Matang that it was fully explained why this doesn’t happen. For starters a staggering amount of baby orangutans will die from exposure to human diseases. It might seem cute to have those long arms wrapped around your neck but while you are back home showing off your pictures to friends and family that baby could be dying from a disease you inadvertently gave to them. Apes and humans have a lot in common and unfortunatly that includes some of the same health risks. Sometimes it is impossible to release an orangutan (the same applies to many other animals too) into the wild because they have become too habituated to humans, relying on them for food meaning they can’t take care of themselves in the wild. With this in mind you’ve got to remember that the aim for these babies is to release them into the wild and the less human contact they have the better.

Aman wants us to get his best side of him in his leaf hat

It has definitely made me question every animal experience I have had; even my recent experience swimming with whale sharks in Oslob, Philippines. Online there are people clammering to find oppportunities to do volunteer projects that will allow them to hold orangutans and the majority of these people are clearly animal lovers and only wanting to do the best or a species they feel passionate about, but the best thing you can do if this is true is to educate yourself. Question whether what you are doing is actually what is best for the animal rather than what is best for your instagram account. I would recommend swimming with whale sharks because being so close to these huge gentle creatures was incredible but would I recommend swimming with them in Oslob? No. Half an hour in water crowded with other tourists where the whale sharks are encouraged to stay in the area rather than follow their natural migration patterns was not worth it. There are tours where you spend half a day tracking down whale sharks in the wild and swimming besides them for as long as they will allow. To me, that sounds like a much more authentic experience and I wish I had done it on this trip but unfortunatly I fell into the trap of doing what was easiest for me not what benefitted the whale sharks the most.

 The same desire for an authentic experience applies to my time with The Great Projects. At the end of the two weeks we spent several days in Batang Ai national park, a place where orangutans still roam free. It is rare to get the opportunity to see them though and permanant volunteers told us they had either never seen one in the wild or it had taken months or years to get the chance. We kept our expectations low and reminded ourselves that we would certainly see evidence of them, that seeing their nests and food they had eaten would be enough, just to know that they are out there, enjoying their freedom. On the first day we saw these signs and our guide, Alvin, told us there was likely a mother and a baby in the area but she was obviously being cautious and staying out of sight. The second day we began our trek, enjoying clambering over tree roots and through dense foliage, keeping our eyes peeled for movement but not expecting much. We stopped to take a break and Alex, a woman on the tour, noticed the distinctive swaying of an orangutan swinging from tree to tree, rather than branch to branch like other monkeys. We all gathered around and then we saw her silhouette amongst the branches, pulling leaves down to eat, seemingly unaware of us looking on.

Then she moved. We followed her up and down through the jungle and finally perched on a hill to watch her. We could only catch glimpses of her through the trees but there was one magical moment when she looked directly at us, her baby close to her side. A wild animal watching us, watching them. 

You might not be able to see the orangutan in this picture but its perfect just the way it is as its the moment we first saw mother and baby in the wild

This is why you should volunteer, to capture these rare moments and know that the process is slow and hard but worth it for every animal that makes it back or remains in the wild. It is why I love this photo; it is a reminder that wildlife conservation isn’t how it should be but that there is still hope. There are people at Matang (the “hippies” as Alvin would call them) who are working tirelessly, giving up months and years of their lives to work for free because they believe in the cause. They are up against a lot, from the government to oil palm industries, the exotic pet trade to killings for nonsense medicinal remedies, habitat destruction and more. The list goes on. But they won’t give up and neither should you.

Alvin giving us one of his informative lectures on wildlife conservation

Supporting causes, especially small locally run ones like The Great Projects offer, is a very real way you can help. Taking the information they give you and using it to educate others is important too. We should all be asking questions about animal encounters, even if they are difficult questions to ask. We should all begin to trust our gut instinct when we feel that something is wrong. Don’t think about how many likes your photo will get on facebook, think about what that animal has been through to get there beside you. Think about George and how he might be happily tearing into his enrichment toy, living a much better life at Matang than he was before, but also how he shouldn’t be there in the first place. It might be too late for George, but I love this photo because maybe, with people like the volunteers I met on my Great Projects tour, it might not be too late for others.

It’s ok George, you’ll get your coconut soon!

5 Reasons Why I Want to Volunteer Abroad

One of the parts of my South East Asia trip I’m most excited about is my week in Chang Mai working with elephants. Elephants are and always have been my favourite animal. I mean, these are animals who can communicate with each other over staggering distances, they mourn the deaths of loved ones and they remember and greet old friends with affection. Their intelligence and empathy has always astounded me so I look forward to being up close to these amazing animals. I’ll also be working with Orangutans in Borneo, another exciting aspect of my trip and a chance to learn more about this endangered species. These aren’t the only reasons I chose to do these volunteering experiences or why I think it’s important to volunteer abroad in the first place, in fact, here’s my top 5 reasons why I want to volunteer abroad, not just on this trip but hopefully on future trips too…

  1. To Make a Difference
    Of course I wouldn’t volunteer if I didn’t believe in the cause I was supporting. Helping people, animals or the environment is the best part of volunteering; it’s knowing that one small part of the world is different because you helped in some way. A couple of years ago I got the opportunity to visit Teenage Cancer Trust’s new specialised unit at the Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre and the best part was speaking to people who have been affected by cancer, who knew just how big an impact this would have on the patients wellbeing. Every little donation added up to this amazing unit that will help countless people and that kind of impact, big or small, is worth volunteering for, especially in countries in need of that impact.

 

  • To Gain New Experiences
    Because when else am I going to get to splash about in a river with an elephant? Volunteering abroad offers you experiences you might otherwise never get. It’s also a chance to meet like-minded people and when you’re working together so closely, you’re bound to make new friends.

 

 

  • To Work Hard
    This might seem a strange thing to want from volunteering abroad but to be honest I like to keep busy. Doing a bit of hard grafting will make me appreciate the times when I get to chill out and do absolutely nothing even more. Plus it’s always a great thing to add on your CV!

 

 

  • To Learn About Different Cultures
    Taking part in a volunteer project abroad can be a great way to break down boundaries and throw you into the thick of a new culture. Often projects abroad mean meeting the locals and eating traditional foods so what could be a better way to get to know a place?

 

 

  • To Learn More About Myself
    Volunteering should challenge you as a person. Helping others, meeting new people, gaining new experiences, working hard and learning about other cultures will change you in a positive way. Volunteering in the UK has made me a more confident, motivated and, hopefully, kinder person so I can only imagine what volunteering abroad, throwing myself out of my comfort zone and into new situations, will teach me about myself. The question is, what will volunteering abroad do for you?

 

Welcome to the Blog

Hello and welcome to Jess’ Journal of Joy! As the name of the blog suggests, I am Jess, and this will be my journal for all my travel adventures. You can learn more about me on my about page but to really understand why I’m starting this blog I thought I’d start by telling you what it’s all going to be about, my three main passions in life: Travel, writing and charity.

 

Travel

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to go to some amazing places, from visiting family friends in South Africa to backpacking (minus the backpack…but that’s another story) around Australia and New Zealand. I’ve swum with dolphins, ridden camels, done the Nevis swing, got my PADI Open Water certificate and have so far seen 3 of the 7 Wonders of the World but I’m still greedy for more. Travel is addictive, the more you see the more you want to see and I’m an addict.

Every step of the way I’ve kept journals of my travels and now this blog is my journal. It’s my way of sharing my adventures with friends and family. It’s something cool to look back on for me. And if you’re a fellow travel addict then maybe you’ll find some useful tips and inspiration for your own travels! This is the section where I’ll tell you all about the places I’ve been, let you know my travel preparations for the future and keep you updated while I’m on the road.
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Swim-throughs in Cozumel

 

Writing

For as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a writer. It’s only been through studying Creative Writing over the past four years that I have come to realise I don’t want to be a writer – I am one and I always have been.

Whether it has been writing my travel journal, scribbling poems, trying my hand at novels, telling stories or  creating imaginary worlds I am never happier than when a pen is in my hand.

I love it because I love sharing stories. I am in awe of how words can change a person. It can be as simple as reading a line that makes you laugh or cry, or as epic as reading a book that changes your life. I can’t claim that this blog will change anyone’s life but it is a chance to share my stories, so I hope you enjoy!

 

Charity

In my second year at university I started writing for my friend’s online magazine, Pie Magazine and in 2014 he asked me if I would be interested in managing the charity section, Give Pie. I’d always wanted to do some charity work but had never known how to get started and thought this was the perfect opportunity. What I didn’t realise is that it would open up a whole new passion I didn’t know I had.

Now I’ve worked with Teenage Cancer Trust and continue to work with Macmillan, both charities I have huge respect and admiration for. I’ve also entered a swimathon for Sport Relief twice and donned a fake moustache for Movember, raising awareness and money for Prostate Cancer UK.

The charities I’ve supported and continue to support are amazing at what they do. The funds I’ve helped raise will make a difference in people’s lives. They were fun! But best of all, each of these experiences challenged me as a person. I think an important and frequently overlooked part of charity work and volunteering is how it can make you grow, teach you to push your limits and discover new aspects of yourself.

I’ll continue to do charity work in the UK but I hope that with my travels I can take these experiences global, sharing them with you here, and maybe inspiring you to get involved and volunteer too.

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Team Pie about to run the Glow in the Park 5k for Teenage Cancer Trust
Jar of Joy

The Jar of Joy is something I started at the beginning of 2016 after a really tough year (you can read the full story here). I needed to change my outlook on life and bring back my positive view of the world. I’m a big believer that positive thinking can have a huge effect on your emotional wellbeing and so far this year my Jar of Joy has made a big difference.

Of course keeping a jar full of good memories is not the only way to be happy in this complicated and messy world so this is a little extra section of my blog where I hope to share my thoughts on mental and emotional wellbeing.

So that’s my journal and why I’ve started it! Stay tuned for some posts about my past travels and my plans for the future and finally I hope this journal lives up to it’s name!