Before arriving at the Elephant Nature Park in Surin, Thailand, the most extraordinary experience I'd ever had- the one that truly shocked me out of my mind, made me grateful for this crazy life, and always stuck out as one of the highlights of all my travels combined- was camping out in the Sahara Desert of Morocco. For 3 days and 2 nights, a group of ceaselessly curious students slept under the stars, peed in sand dunes in the pitch black of night, and even endured a wicked sand storm. We rode unbearably long bus rides all the way south from the city of Sevilla, endured a nauseating ferry ride across the Straight of Gibraltar, rode more rickety buses and eventually hopped onto some sand buggies to drive straight into the middle of nowhere. With nothing around us but ever-shifting sand dunes, it was instantly frightening and calming at the same time. Waking up with the sunrise and peeking my head out of our bleakly-constructed tents (literally a few sticks holding up handmade rugs), I was in awe of the world.
But then, a new life experience wiped the Sahara out of the first place ranking. In January of this year, Taylor, Liz and I volunteered at an elephant conservation in a rural village of Thailand known as Surin. Upon arriving, it was a confusing campus of sorts. On one hand you still saw elephants chained up, a look of sadness in their beautiful orange hued eyes. On the other, there was a breeze of change in the air, and you could instinctively feel it. The Surin Project was created by Lek Chailert, a firecracker of a woman who for the past 10 years or so has been bulldozing her way through the elephant tourism industry of Thailand. What most people don’t understand is that industry is malevolent at best. It is a disgusting, torturous trade of commerce made up of businessmen and elephant owners who only see these animals as a method of profit. Long gone are the well-established social rankings of a mahout, proud caretakers of such majestic beasts.
Nowadays you’ll find caretakers who will do literally anything with their animals in order to reap a dollar- from street begging on the corners of Bangkok (now considered an illegal activity, though there are hardly any efforts made to enforce this law), to exploitation by tourist rides, to the brutal manipulation of circus acts. Fortunately, elephants as circus entertainment are more often frowned upon than enjoyed in modern times, yet these acts still exist all over the world. And while we Americans frown at the exploitation of such an animal in a circus atmosphere, I can guarantee at least one of you knows someone who recently posted a picture riding an elephant in a Southeast Asian country. We clap our hands at Barnum and Bailey ending their elephant routines, and yet we Instagram ourselves leisurely riding atop the same animal. PEOPLE. Get it together. How do you think that animal learned to balance a chair on top of its neck, casually allowing a heavy wooden structure to pierce it’s most sensitive pressure points? Why is it there is always a mahout around as you ride, almost never seen without some type of brutal poking stick? For your safety? So that the elephant doesn’t stampede off while you’re taking selfies 8 feet above ground? It’s because that gentle beast has been brutalized since it was a baby- beaten with bamboo sticks embellished with rusty nails, all the while trapped inside a cage the size of our closets. It’s a fact that emphasizes the true nature of the phrase “Ignorance is bliss”. Admittedly, I knew none of this before volunteering at the ele park. I simply thought we were off to hang out with the coolest creatures in Asia (yeah I said it, Pandas!).
To make me not seem like such a ele-obsessed girl watch the following (click Training Crush):
Then make a promise to the poor creatures that if you ever find yourself in Asia (or India), you won’t ride one just because it looks fun. And if you simply cannot live without doing so, the important part is to know the establishment you’re paying is legit, and you do NOT ride with a chair. Ride bareback my friends – you may be fat, but not as fat as a bulky wooden chair (I speak for the general population at least).
Alright spiel over. And in lighter news I just tried to spell that as shpeel. Niiiiice. Losing my English already!
Anyway, back to the actual experience. Surin is a smaller version of Lek’s main conservation in Chiang Mai- a paradise filled with 30+ eles roaming in their natural habitat. While there are only around 13 eles, it makes for a more intimate experience- both with the elephants as well as the volunteers (and the mahouts!). In just a week we were able to identify all the eles we were helping, name each mahout we were socializing with, andddd I can’t even complete the sentence because that was the greatest amount of rubbish I’ve ever attempted to write at once. I could only name one elephant by the end and that’s because she was the biggest and thereby my favorite (and the oldest. With the coolest name). Her name was Fah Sei, meaning Clear Skies in Thai and she was a 25 year old beaut! As for the mahouts, well they just had Thai names I couldn’t remember. With the exception of Singh, who never stopped singing one line to one song nobody else knew, “One way ticket”. Literally, all he would say, on repeat: “One way ticket…” It was bizarre and hilarious. Taylor and I even started accidentally singing it ourselves like mental patients.
While at the Surin Project, we stayed in huts right next to where the elephants were kept. They were previously the mahout’s actual homes, but with this new voluntourism trade, they gave up their houses in exchange for a commission gained monthly from the tourists. Waking up next to elephants is hands down the coolest sound ever, in history, ever. Think what it might sound like to wake up in Jurassic Park, autotune-in some roosters who sound like they’ve smoked cigs all their lives, get a couple dogs barking at each other for no reason, and you’ve got the soundtrack to an 6am wakeup call on an elephant park. The eles had a roar louder than any lion, their thundering call reverberating through the rickety walls of our little bamboo shack. Most people know I more than dislike waking up at sunrise, but this natural orchestra occurring outside my window didn’t bother me one bit. I found myself peering open my eyes with a geeky smile already on my face.
With the organic alarm clearly going off without any signs of snoozing, we would hop out of bed (or if you were me, first checking for giant tarantulas…and mini tarantulas), and head off to breakfast. After breakfast we were given team assignments, which ranged from chopping down sugar cane with badass handmade machetes with the mahouts (one of them watched me while laughing uncontrollably because I got so into it- I took out all my rage on those poor canes of sugar), cleaning the shelters (aka picking up dried out heaps of ele poo), and helping to build new houses (fortunately for every future participant staying here I was too sick the day I was assigned to this). As you can see, I had a certain favorite activity to partake in.
After the morning activities we would eat lunch at one of the mahouts’ wives’ restaurants- a little noodle shop where I had the best Tom Yom Gum to date. We would ride over on the back of a pickup truck, inhale our blistering hot meals in the blistering hot weather (enjoyably nonetheless!), ride back over and usually take a food-coma-induced nap. Then it was time for mahout socializing! An incredible part of the Surin Project’s goals is to not only inform everyone on the wrongdoings within the elephant tourism industry, but to also prove to the mahouts that they CAN make money in activities as simple as letting tourists see what they do on a daily basis, AND just hanging out with them! They were a rowdy group of Thai men but just as the saying of the country goes, they were never without smiles. They made up ridiculous games to pass the time, not excluding throwing balls of ele dung into a bucket and calling it Mahout Basketball. L.O.L. Needless to say, the mahouts were a riot.
On our final night at the park, we walked with the elephants about 2 miles away and set up camp. Right next to a small river in Southeast Thailand, I would camp out once again under the same stars I had years before in the desert, yet this time with elephants by my side. The mahouts built a ginormous fire nearby, and we spent almost the entire night keeping ourselves warm with a concoction of delicious Thai whiskey and our own good spirits.
"Nature's great masterpiece, an elephant;
the only harmless great thing."
- John Donne
For more information on Surin Project and volunteering with the Save Elephant Foundation, visit