Tossing and turning against the stifling heat, I rolled over on the thin mat, trying to make myself comfortable in the raised bamboo hut. Tired and hot as I was, I couldn’t help but smile as I listened to the muffled squeaks and rumbles below.
The beautiful, majestic creatures that had fascinated me since childhood, of whom I had seen countless documentaries of their incredible memories, near-human emotional intelligence and fascinating beauty…
And here I was, living amongst them.
The Surin Project in an Asian elephant conservation project located in Baan Tha Klang in northeast Thailand (near the Cambodian border), and managed by the Save Elephant Foundation (SEF), the same NGO that runs the world famous Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.
The Surin Project is dedicated to protecting Asian elephants in the Surin province and taking steps toward enabling captive elephants to thrive and enjoy a more natural lifestyle.
I spent two months living in Baan Tha Klang, and it is an experience that will forever be etched into my heart. Walking amongst these gentle giants, splashing around with them in the river and simply witnessing them be are just a few of the incredible aspects of the Surin Project, a truly unforgettable encounter.
Seven Unforgettable Experiences
Volunteering at the
Surin Elephant Project
1. Thai Blessing Ceremony
Upon arrival at the Surin Project, we gathered into the outdoor terrace that overlooks the elephant “playground” – an area reserved for the elles to interact freely together, complete with trees to shade them from the scorching Surin sun and mud pools to splash, play and cool their majestic bodies.
The mahouts (elephant caretakers, whose role is passed down from father to son) and their families were present, as was the village holy man. The sun was just setting, the sky alight with orange and pink flashes crowning the forest in the distance. We sat together in a circle, legs crossed and palms together as the holy man recited a blessing, welcoming us to the village and wishing us peace and safety during our stay.
Sai sin sacred threads were blessed and individually tied around each of our wrists to protect us during our stay in Baan Tha Klang. Fragrant leaves and holy water were sprinkled upon us by the local children and holy man, and a tall glass of strong, Thai whiskey was passed around to seal the ceremony.
Surin is far off the beaten path for most people travelling in Thailand, and this beautiful ceremony is just one glimpse into the cultural immersion we experienced during our stay.
2. Sunrise & Drowsy Elephant Sighs
There are nearly 200 elephants in Surin Village, and they surround you from every direction. You drift off to sleep with the rumble of their enormous bodies settling in for a nights’ rest, and their deep exhalations as they find the sweet spot to lay their heavy heads for the evening.
In the morning, Surin wakes up early and as the sun begins to peak through the bamboo slats, the rumbles below bring you back to reality. Each morning I would spring to the little window in my humble room and rub my sleepy eyes in awe of the incredible creatures all around me.
Elephants, as far as the eye can see having their breakfast of cucumbers and sugar cane, or being given a quick morning bath by their mahouts to loosen the red earth from the deep lines and folds of their skin.
Climbing down the ladder to the shaded area beneath the raised hut, my host mother would prepare strong, black coffee to start the day, always with enough sugar to make me wince on my first sip – as is the taste in sweet-toothed Thailand.
Sipping my gafae beneath that bamboo hut as the morning sun baked the village around me, watching these majestic creatures splash the morning sleep from their sage eyes is a memory that will forever live within me.
3. Walking Amongst Giants
Each day, we’d join the elephants and their mahouts on long, leisurely walks through the surrounding forests. Side by side strolling along under the shade of the trees, our meager bodies overshadowed by the powerful creatures lumbering beside us.
Their interactions here were evidence of the elephant’s keen emotional intelligence, considered to be the closest to humans of all earth’s beings. Some were inseparable, shuffling along side by side or in a line “holding hands” from trunk to tail. It was clear which elephants were friends, which weren’t, and which were fiercely independent.
Tangmo, the most independent of the group, would trot off happily at the first sight of water, crashing clumsily into the river as her mahout followed along, resigned to her antics and lazily trying to coax her back into the pachyderm parade.
Walking side by side along the elephants of the Surin Project can be likened only to walking through a dream, a truly ethereal experience.
4. Bathing Beauties
As we reached the river after a long wander, the elephants would eagerly edge toward the water, excited to refresh their enormous bodies in the cool river and to wash the red dirt of Surin from their deep lines and cervices.
Woke up to some amazing news this morning… TripAdvisor is halting ticket sales for #elephant rides, selfies with tigers and other "entertainment" deemed cruel to animals!! These #gentlegiants are some of the most emotionally intelligent animals on #motherearth and deserve a life of freedom. The time I spent volunteering with the #surinproject was truly humbling for me, and I'm so happy to see steps heading in the right direction. Thank you @tripadvisor ! 🐘🌍🐘🌍🐘
Each of the volunteers would be loaded with a giant bag of cucumbers (a favorite among the elles) coaxing them deeper into the water with a bath time snack. They hungrily grabbed the cucumbers from our hands, their strong, skillful trunks stuffing 1, 2, 3 cucumbers into their mouths at a time as they wiggled themselves ever deeper beneath the surface of the water into the cool mud below.
Following the lead of the mahouts, we helped to bathe the beauties, scrubbing behind their ears and hard-to-reach-places as they wriggled and squirmed with delight. Standing so closely beside their magnificent frames, both of us submerged in water, I felt at once defenseless beside the magnitude of the creature beside me, yet at the same time at complete peace and utter joy at the proximity.
Once their bodies were cleaned, they were left a while to play together, splashing and blowing bubbles like children in the sea, as we looked on in amazement.
5. Observing Love in the Air
When we think of the sound an elephant makes, me often recall the thunderous trumpeting we’ve seen time and again in films. In reality, happy elephants rarely make this sound, their soft and playful personalities opting for a softer, sweeter vocalization.
On my first morning at the Surin project, I watched as two young elephants trotted toward one another, squeaking and cooing, wearing an expression that can only be described as smiling. They caressed one another, intertwining their strong trunks and nuzzling in delight. These elephants, we were told, were best friends and though they saw one another every day, this was always their reaction.
Later on, we noticed Nonglek, WongDuean and Warin playing together in the elephant enclosure. They meandered from one part of the enclosure to the next, always side by side like a group of gossiping grannies, linking trunks rather than arms. We soon learned that this was nothing new for these three inseparable friends, who always walked shoulder to shoulder or trunk to tail, rarely breaking the trifecta.
Elephants are known for their incredible levels of emotional intelligence, and witnessing the friendships formed within this small subgroup was not only fascinating, but made me fall even more deeply in love with the gentle beasts.
6. Mahout Olympics & Camping
On my final evening at the Surin Project, we packed our tents and headed out of the village and along the river – an afternoon stroll with the elephants and their mahouts.
This day and night were meant to be a celebration, a farewell and a final opportunity to enjoy each other’s company before we said goodbye to our little piece of elephant paradise.
After bathing the gentle giants in the river to cool off from the long walk, tents were pitched and the “Mahout Olympics” were launched – a series of challenges based off of traditional Thai games and competitions, like Mak Meb (a game that involves tossing and catching pebbles with one hand), shooting a slingshot, and shaping hats and shoes from banana leaves.
Mahouts and barangs (foreigners, in Thai) teamed up and we spent the afternoon laughing and playing in the red dirt of Surin until the winners were determined and the losers faced their fate – doused in flour and forced to sing and dance for us beneath the setting sun.
As twilight neared, campfires were built, dinner was grilled, and bottles of Chang beer and Hong Thong Thai whiskey were popped. “Chon gâew!” (Cheers!) we clinked cups in celebration of the incredible time we’d spent in Surin, and talked and laughed beneath the stars until the wee hours of the morning.
All the while, the twelve gentle giants sponsored by the Surin Project enjoyed their own pachyderm pajama party, snuggling together and snoozing beside the river just outside of our campsite. If that’s not what dreams are made of, I’m not sure what it.
7. A Rude Awakening
Not everything in Surin Village is an elephant fairy tale. In fact, one of the things that sets the Surin Project apart from elephant sanctuaries like the world renowned Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Chiang Mai is that in Surin, you’re forced to see what happens to the elephants who aren’t lucky enough to have been saved from a life of labor.
The Surin Project is housed within Baan Tha Klang, an area with over 180 registered elephants – most of whom are forced to perform in the local circus and/or used to give elephant rides to tourists who (assumingly) are uneducated about the torture and anguish that goes into these practices. These images of abused elephants surround you every day, forcing you to see why the work of the Save Elephant Foundation (SEF) is so imperative, and giving you deeper understanding of why this work is so important.
I’ll never forget the image of an elephant being beaten by a bull hook before my eyes, or the look of exhausted desperation in the eyes of a small elephant carrying a family of oversized tourists on his back under the sweltering Surin sun.
It’s not a fairy tale, and it can be painful to witness. But these sights are seared into my memory like a scar, and it is because of these blemishes that I remain steadfastly passionate about the importance of protecting these gentle, graceful giants.
Asian Elephant Conservation:
Surin Project Official Website: Here you can find full details and information about how to sign up for 1 – 8 weeks at the Surin Elephant Project.
Book Your Stay at the Surin Project: Click here for full details about what’s included for volunteers and how to book and prepare for your stay at the Surin Elephant Project.
Save Elephant Foundation (SEF): Founded by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, the elephant whisperer herself, this Thai-based NGO is dedicating to protecting Asian elephants. SEF has flagship projects in Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia.
Elephant Nature Park Official Website: Here you can find information about ENP in Chiang Mai. ENP is a sister project run by the same NGO and is a convenient alternative for those travelling in Chiang Mai with limited time. Volunteers at ENP can choose to visit for one day or longer.
Have You Worked in
Have you ever volunteered at an animal conservation project that you loved? Or one that left you disapointed?
I’m passionate about animal conservation and I would love to help spread the word about recommendable programs, and those to steer clear of. Please comment with you experiences below!
Peace & ElephLove,
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