Friday, April 7, 2017

Phuket Adventure, Part IV



  • I walked the two kilometers to the beach. I was disappointed in "the beach." It wasn't really any kind of beach you could walk on (and the tide was high). But, I enjoyed my walk down a local Thai road, and the little peeks into daily life that I got to see - the dog laying in the middle of the road, as one does, the old men riding around topless on their scooters, as one does), the little convenience stores, breakfast stands, shrines, and colorful homes.

Doesn't this look like a Car Rapide?

  • Went to 7-Eleven for iced coffees and Thai teas.
  • I sampled street food being sold outside the 7-Eleven - fried dough balls and barbecue meat of some kind. (I finally got the fouru-fouru-ni's I craved allllllllll Christmas break).
  • We were back to the elephant sanctuary by 9:00 - breakfast, rice & pellet balls, more shoveling sand, more cleaning up the pens, lunch (ah-mha-zing). 
View from the back of the truck. Photo credit: Tate

Such a lovely drive each day. Photo credit: Tate

Conquering our last pile of sand. Photo credit: Tate

  • After lunch, while we waited to be given a job, we played Nertz again (Tate won, again, but whatever). Lynn tried to teach us how to play Yuker, but it was complicated, and they called us over to feed the elephants their afternoon rice & pellet balls before we got the hang of it.

  • Our last job was planting grass along the stream bed and river with the workers at the sanctuary, including most of the mahouts. The men created little shelves for the grass, and then we placed thousands - almost 20,000, to be exact - stalks of grass on the little shelves and covered them with the dirt.
Photo credit: Tate

Photo credit: Tate

Photo credit: Tate
Photo Credit: Nong
After a hard day's work, Si and Niu took us to a waterfall at a Gibbon sanctuary, in the national park next door to the animal sanctuary. None of us brought our suits with us to the waterfall (except for Lynn), so we jumped in the pool in our dirty work clothes - which was one way to clean them up.

Photo credit: Tate

Some local kids joined in the photo. Photo credit: Tate

We had dinner at the same local restaurant, and talked late together about Myer's Brigg's personality traits (Michelle's favorite topic - I was much more interested in which fictional character matched up with our personality) while enjoying the free wifi and connection to the outside world. We became Facebook friends with each other and shared pictures of the week so far.

  • The last day for Michelle and I - so bittersweet. No really - so bittersweet. The elephants are wonderful, and the new human friends we made even more wonderful. You know me - I'm not sentimental, so they had to be pretty special for all this gushing. Geez. Get it together, Bowers.
Photo Credit: Si (the one hamming it up in the middle)
  • Street food and iced coffees again for breakfast.
  • Made rice and pellet balls again (are you sensing a theme?).
  • We all wore our Phuket Elephant Sanctuary shirts today, which meant the Day Trippers paid attention to us - one young woman asked us a lot of questions about the elephants, and we all answered them like we were the experts. Obviously, we were official as we sat around mashing bananas into pellets!

Blessed with an awesome volunteer group.

  • We had a good chat with Louise, the director of the sanctuary, about her vision and her story of working with elephants. She shared about their hope to help educate the local people, and the difficulties of doing something so counter-cultural. They have to be very careful of their own safety, and are quite conscious of how the local elephant camps - of which there are more than twenty on the island, with around 240 elephants total - see them as a threat. They are hoping to gradually change the mindset towards the elephant entertainment industry on the island, but it's a careful and slow process. 
  • She also shared that Leonardo DiCaprio had just recently visited the sanctuary.
  • I was extremely disappointed that I missed my chance to meet Leonardo DiCaprio.*
My heart will go on and on.
  • Louise told us that a private group was coming in this afternoon - and that they often host, for a premium, private parties who want a chance to observe the elephants without the other tourists day trippers around.
  • Before lunch, we cut fruit up for the first time - Michelle and Lynn cut watermelons and pineapples for days, Tate and I scrubbed pinapples and cut up payayas.
  • Ate another ah-mah-zing lunch. Okay, I'll stop raving about the lunches, mostly because it was the last lunch (for Michelle and I). It was pouring rain during lunch - a lovely, warm, tropical rain - the kind of warm, tropical rain I used to run around in when I was a child adult living in Mali and Senegal.
  • After lunch, we cleaned up the elephant pens, and loaded them up with fresh pineapple tops.
  • We headed back to the central pavilion, and noticed that the private group was there. We sat at the other end, and chatted quietly while Louise and Russell went over their information about the sanctuary. We watched the group - about fifteen people or so, head over to another part of the land to watch the elephants. I wondered how rich you had to be to arrange a private tour. I also wondered "How funny it would be if they were famous." We also took a lot of selfies. And by we, I mostly mean Si. 

Before leaving, we wanted a team photo with one of the elephants, and we were able to take a few shots with Gaew Ta (the blind elephant). Sadly, we weren't able to say a final goodbye to the other three, as they were off hanging out with the private fancy-pants rich tourists.

Because it was Michelle and my last night, Si, Nui, and Nong took us to a different local restaurant up the road. We enjoyed a scrumptious last meal together, and then it was time for Michelle and I to leave *insert sobbing emoji here!*  - we were going to a hotel for our last day in Phuket just to get a little beach and vacay time before heading back to reality *insert another sobbing emoji here.*

We arrived at our very swanky hotel - which is not too shabby for a somewhat last minute booking, and enjoyed the air-conditioning, furniture, and wifi. 

As I was scrolling through Facebook, a post from the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary caught my eye, and I nearly - I mean this quite literally - fell out of my seat. I think Michelle probably thought someone had died.

The fancy-pant super-duper-rich tourists touring the sanctuary?


Like, the band, Coldplay - was touring the Elephant Sanctuary.


I'm not a huge Coldplay fan, and I wouldn't have recognized them if I met them - which I didn't because they didn't want to see us (no really - they didn't want to see other people around - especially not smelly, sweaty volunteers with extremely frizzy hair), but still - pretty cool, eh? I mean, come-on - how often do you get to say you were ten meters away from Coldplay (other than really good tickets at a concert)?

Not as cool as Benedict Cumberbatch.

He's just so dreamy. *insert heart eyes emoji x3*

Oh, how did he slip in here? It's because he's always close to my heart.

More later on our swanky hotel and travels home (which hasn't happened yet).

*I'm not that big of a Leo fan, although he was my peer-pressure-everyone's-doing-it adolescent crush when Titanic came out. And he wasn't just a bad Jay Gatsby, either, if you go for fast cars and fancy parties, although I don't really want to date a guy who's hung up on a Daisy Buchanan. I would have been fangirling much more over Benedick Cumberbatch. I know, I know - he's taken. But a girl can still dream a little. 

Phuket Adventure, Part III


The next day, we headed to the sanctuary about 9:00. We met the two other volunteers for the week, Tate, and Lynn.

When we arrived, there was an elephant right there, munching on some grass beside the central pavilion. After much oohing and ahhing, we realized the other three were bathing in the pond beside the pavilion (more oohing and ahhing). We ate breakfast overlooking the pond, watching elephants take a morning swim.
This is Gaew Ta, the blind elephant.
The elephant sanctuary also does half-day tours, and so the first thing on our volunteering agenda was to participate in the tour. There were almost fifty people who showed up. First, we met the elephants and got to feed them a morning snack of fruit. Then, we were split into large groups, and followed the elephants around the grounds for several hours, learning about their stories, and watching them munch leaves, tear down bamboo, swim, and wander. The founders of the sanctuary stress that they want people to observe the elephants in their natural habitat - grazing, swimming, walking - and not doing any tricks or entertainment.

Feeding the elephants with the Day Trippers.

Headed out on their walk.

Getting into the pond very gingerly - you would, too, if you weighed 2 tons and were pushing 70.
There are four elephants, all rescued from either the entertainment business or the logging industry. Kannika is the youngest (thirty-three), but she is the boss. Dok Gaew, the “Grandmother” is sixty-eight; Madee is sixty. The fourth elephant, Gaew Ta, is blind, and Kannika does not let her join her, and the other two elephants, so she has to be led about on her own. All the elephants are led around by their Mahouts, who are like their nannies. The mahouts carry large bags of fruit (that each say "Ely Belly" on them!), guiding the elephants around from place to place.

Each elephant has their own personality – Kannika is sassy and does exactly what she wants to do (fortunately she has a mahout almost as sassy as she is). Dok Gaew is clearly very old, and takes all of her steps very gingerly. Madee is not quite as old as Dok Gaew, but still carries herself with the world-weary air of an elephant who has had a hard life. Both follow Kannika around from place to place – and Kannika takes care of them by tearing down the tender tops of bamboo shoots for everyone to enjoy a tasty snack. Gaew Ta is more cautious, understandably so because she is blind, but can find any outstretched banana quite well.

After an amazing lunch, we were given our first job: making rice and pellet balls. We were instructed to mash bananas, rice, mineral salt, and pumpkin together, and form them into balls. We then mashed bananas and some kind of pellet together, as well, also formed into balls. We became experts on this, as they had us do it every day. After making the balls, we were allowed to feed them to the elephants, who were in their enormous pens. It was phenomenal to be able to feed them without a huge crowd of tourists – or “daytrippers” as I started calling them – around. I fed Gaew Ta, the blind elephant, who still could find the handful of banana pellet balls that I held out to her. Her mahout stood by, keeping watch carefully as Gaew Ta is sometimes a bit fearful of humans, and sometimes in her efforts to locate food can swipe you with her trunk.

About to make the rice balls (this was on day three).

Nom noms...if you're an elephant or a toddler.

Rice Balls Team Photo. Photo Credit: Tate

Our next job was cleaning out the elephants’ pens. The elephants each have their own enormous pen, which needed some straightening up. The Mahouts took the elephants out for another walk – not before Kannika snuck up behind Tate when she was let out of her pen, and stole Dok Gaew’s last rice ball from the bucket. If you are asking yourself “How can a two-ton animal sneak up on someone?” the answer is: very stealthily indeed.

We raked up old pineapple tree-tops, and then replaced them with fresh pineapple tree-tops, which is part of their evening meal.

And we were done for the day. We headed back down to the central pavilion to wash up, and were driven back to the guesthouse for a quiet afternoon before dinner at a local restaurant with Si, and Niu

After dinner, Michelle bought six packs of cards at the 7-Eleven across the street, and we taught everyone how to play Nertz on the floor of Si’s bedroom, for lack of a table. Tate picked it up far too quickly and beat Michelle and I every time after the second round.

Not that I’m bitter about this or anything.

On Tuesday, it was the same as the first day – pick-up at 9:00 and breakfast. Our breakfast came with a bowl of rice, which told us we were probably going to be working harder.

And we did.

After the day trippers arrived, we made rice and pellet balls again, but saved them for later. Nong, the woman who gave us most of our tasks, led us to the elephant pens again. We were instructed to pile up the sand in the back of the pens as high as we could. Most of the elephants are very old, and they do not lay down to sleep, so they lean against the sand piles.

(What is it about making volunteers shovel sand? DA friends - remember the outreach to Thies back a thousand years ago [oh good grief - make that 17 years ago] where we moved a giant pile of sand?)

And so, we shoveled sand into higher piles all morning long. Our little group of volunteers ended up being a good combination – there was Lynn, an inquisitive Canadian woman spending three months in Southeast Asia, Tate, a thirty-something well-traveled American (he's even been to Hangzhou of all places!) who is spending the month in Thailand, Michelle, my friend and coworker who has never met a stranger, and of course, me – who admittedly takes a while to warm up to people, even if I instantly like them – but there’s nothing quite like shoveling sand in the hot, muggy sunshine to help shake a person’s reserve.

Shoveling in my chacos. 

Sandpile 4 of 5.

Little break.

Gaew Ta was brought back to her pen before the other elephants, and her mahout let us feed her a snack of bananas.

Our proudest work: this pile of sand was almost completely flattened.

It was hard work, but good work, and our lunch was well earned.

Oh – the lunches. They are amazing. The sanctuary prepares lunch for the “day trippers,” and as volunteers, it is part of the package. Imagine a delectable spread of Thai dishes – curries, vegetables, and fresh salads. Their slogan should be: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary: Come for the elephants – stay for the food.

After a leisurely lunch, we were tasked with feeding the elephants their afternoon rice pellets, and finishing up shoveling sand. We then helped clean up an area that had a lot of fallen bamboo (thanks to Kannika's handiwork) where Michelle's phone tragically fell into the stream. Fortunately, she was able to put it in rice almost immediately (however it won't charge at the moment). 

One thing I enjoyed about our volunteering is that though they do have work for us to do, and hard work, too, no one was a task-master, and we were given lots of time to sit, enjoy nature, enjoy the company, and enjoy the elephants.