elephant conservation thailand

Elephant Nature Park – Animal Conservation in Thailand

elephant conservation thailand

One of the elephants with a permanently dislocated hip, rescued from forced breeding programme

Our Elephant Nature Park visit definitely deserved a post of its own, especially as a follow-on from the post about Thai wildlife. Although the elephants in the park are not ‘wild’, they’re as wild as they’re ever going to be due to their prior circumstances.

Because most of these creatures went through the awful ‘breaking’ process during training, and have always been under the violent control of people, releasing them into the wild would be impossible. They have no natural social cues and so wild elephants would either see them as weak or a threat – and so they would end up killed.

Our role in the park was to help unload fruit trucks, clean and prepare elephant food, shovel elephant poo, bathe elephants, shovel more elephant poo, plant trees, weed and manure trees, and to also help walk the many shelter dogs (rescued from floods, abuse and the illegal meat trade) on a daily basis.

There was a good balance between helping out and getting to watch the elephants (as well as cattle and water buffalo herds) from various viewing platforms, and there were also talks and walks amongst the elephants in their grounds. We also got to interact with the local village shamans and school children, taking part in ceremonies and special Khantoke dinners, so we really did get to see a slice of life in that part of the country.

Considering the situation they are faced with, the Elephant Nature Park is doing an incredible job of rehabilitating these physically and mentally abused elephants through positive reinforcement. They are faced with a bit of a conundrum, however, which some people found a little difficult to get their head around.

elephant nature park thailand

Water buffalo, crossing the river

Lek (founder of ENP) and her staff want the elephants to live as normal lives as possible, making their own friendship and family groups and being allowed to roam the grounds on their terms, but they also have to bring in money for the park to keep it open and to be able to rescue more elephants. This means they have to let people get close to the elephants by feeding them, bathing them etc – which keeps the element of human interaction high.

Although some people feel this is going against the park’s original ethos, I disagree. It is clear that the elephants that interact with visitors will never be able to be released into the wild, and the interaction they now receive is wholly positive – no riding, no bull hooks, no violence.

I don’t think they could do the amazing job they’re doing any other way – and I truly believe that if it is possible, Lek, will find a way. Her love for the animals is bottomless, and the way she interacts with them has to be seen to be believed – if there is such a thing as an elephant whisperer, then that’s her.

elephants, thailand

Viewing posts make the best scratch pads!

There are a couple of exceptions among the elephants that are worth noting – two fully grown bulls that were orphaned. These animals were not exposed to the ‘breaking’ cruelty as they were rescued and raised by Lek at a young age. They have never witnessed violence and do not see humans as their superiors or friends – in fact, one is known for throwing logs and rocks at any humans that come near. These wild instincts means there is hope that these animals may be released into their natural habitat; I’m certainly interested to see what happens.

This was the most expensive part of our trip, but I felt like every penny was worth it. The experience we had, as well as knowing that every single penny went into the ENP, was exactly what we had hoped for – and like many of the volunteers there, we would like to return one day to see what further improvements have been made.

There is so much more I’d like to write about Thailand, but unfortunately, there just isn’t time. I’m currently completing my edits for my publisher, preparing for my Cambodia trip in January, and finishing up my freelance work before I head out to work with Singing Kites. I’m really excited about helping this charity, as I love their ethos of ‘a hand up, not a hand out’. I’m also looking forward to what the country and its people will show me.

I didn’t have my computer with me in Thailand but as Cambodia is a working holiday, I’ll be bringing it along, so I’ll be blogging about my time over there as often as I can. I hope to support the charity not just by physically being there, but by raising awareness of what they do.

I fly out on New Years Eve, landing on New Year’s Day in Phnom Penh – hopefully you’ll join me by helping to spread the word about the great work that’s going on over there?

thailand butterfly

Thailand wildlife: Scorpion Spiders, Bubble Crabs & Unexpected Visitors

thailand butterfly

Just one of the many beautiful butterflies

We’ve already established that when I’m travelling, food and local experiences like public transport and getting lost are part of the experience, but one of the main attractions is always the wildlife. As we travelled quite a bit within Thailand, we got to see plenty of wild creatures, starting with an unexpected sighting, on our first day in Bangkok, of a giant head sticking out of one of the canals.

We weren’t expecting to see much wildlife in the capital, but we could see this head quite clearly from the flyover we were stood on – and we were only stood there because we’d managed to get completely lost and were trying to figure out where we’d come from and how to get back there!

Our best guess was a giant rat, and we thought no more of it until the following day when we decided to have a breakfast picnic in Lumphini park and came across several giant swimming lizards. We soon discovered that these beasts are everywhere – and that while the monks feed them, many youngsters around the slum areas find sport in trying to kill them. But no one goes so far as to eat them (unlike the giant bugs that are attracted by lantern light and, therefore, are easy to hunt).

Our first real wildlife experience was a trip out to Khao Yai National Park, staying at Greenleaf Guesthouse (which I highly recommend) for a few days. The tours – which we usually avoid, but here they are necessary if you don’t have a car – were excellent because the guys knew exactly where to bring you to find the various creatures including gibbons, lizards, scorpion spiders, tarantulas, tree snakes, kingfishers, and giant centipedes which we took turns to hold.

We learned lots about the creatures, their habitats, their behaviour, and of course, got to take lots of photos of the creatures as well as the stunning scenery – but nothing can beat the memory of the gibbon families staking their territory with loud calls in the early morning.

In Khao Yai, we got to walk off the usual trails into the National Park, and saw all manner of strange insects, butterflies and bugs – some beautiful, like luminous blue crickets, and some to be avoided.

This is one of the few places to see wild elephants in Thailand; we weren’t that lucky, despite plenty of rigorous searching, but the following day’s group saw a herd of about fifteen. Note: the leech songs get itchy with grass seeds, but do wear them, even though you do get adept at flicking leeches off your leg quite quickly. You can actually see the leeches coming for you if you stop, so you can also try stepping out of the way. .

thailand butterflies

Another butterfly – with a ribbon-like tail. We also saw a fish that looked similar when we were snorkelling!

Another highlight was getting to see the pink dolphins in Khanom. We’d made the trip there especially for this reason, and I did a weird ‘judder dance’ the day I was on the beach and saw a pink dolphin passing in the ocean. Ridiculously excited, we booked a boat trip with a local guide, and we were really lucky; the weather was incredible (it was rainy season), the sea flat calm, and we saw around twenty pink dolphins.

We were also lucky because our guide refused to feed the dolphins to encourage them to come closer, because this alters their behaviour in the wild. Throwing fish to dolphins encourages them to trust boats – and as fishing is a massive industry here, this is not a good idea. In case you were wondering, all the babies are grey, because the pink colour is due to skin pigmentation, and the dolphins turn pinker as they get older. We didn’t get any photos because they moved too fast – but sometimes I think trying to get photos spoils the experience anyway.

Throughout Thailand we saw an array of gorgeous butterflies, so bright and beautiful they took your breath away. They were always easy to spot in garden and wooded areas, and the way they glided was incredible to see. But if you want to find butterflies in the cities or towns, have a look around any areas with bins – they like sweet foods, and that’s where they’re guaranteed an endless source.

We also saw some gorgeous, brightly plumed pheasants, a variety of squirrels that could traverse the electricity cables of Chiang Mai as easily as they could leap from tree to tree in Chumpon, and some magpie-type birds that glowed blue instead of white. The geckos and praying mantis were a never-ending source of amusement, and then there was the joy of the bubble crabs that created intricate patterns on the sand every morning and afternoon.

thailand snakes

The snake that kept trying to get in!

As for unexpected visitors, we regularly had a frog appear in the bathroom for a night’s kip, and there was a rather determined snake in Suphan Buri that seemed to want to inhabit our room (but thankfully failed each time). There was a similar incident in Koh Yao Noi, come to think of it; every morning, there would be a generous section of snakeskin somewhere in the room – on the bathroom shelf, on the mosquito net – so there was definitely an inquisitive fellow around somewhere.

The island of Koh Yao Noi in the south of Thailand held plenty of unexpected surprises; the hornbills were beautiful, and a pair visited a tree opposite our breakfast table every day. I was amazed that they were so graceful in flight because I expected them to be clumsy like the heron birds that frequent our Irish shores.

There were also lots of mangroves to visit, as well as a fruit bat colony hidden in a giant tree in the middle of a lagoon, and live sand dollars. I’ve only ever seen dead sand dollars before – as beautiful as they are – but to see them live, their purple bodies travelling along the surface of the shoreline, was incredible.

If you are a wildlife lover, then Thailand is a great destination. But make sure you don’t fall foul of the elephant rides or monkey schools (I don’t believe for one minute the claims that they’re chained all day and let free at night), the tiger temples, or even the seemingly harmless dolphin feeding – wildlife should be respected and kept wild, and my next and final post on Thailand will hopefully emphasise that idea further.

Thailand adventures – let’s start with the food in Bangkok!

Thai food, Khao Yai

Soup noodles anyone?

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to structure these blog posts about travelling in Thailand. My diaries are hardly insightful – they’re more like excessive to-do lists with descriptive snapshots – and I don’t really want to create a chronological account of what we did and why. Rather, I want to try and convey a feel for the country, as we encountered it.

So the obvious place for me to start is with the food. The first thing we noticed as we landed in Bangkok and hurtled towards our city apartment was that the pavements overflowed with food stalls. A moment’s wait at any traffic light and you’re either watching someone set up a stall, ogling someone’s tasty takeaway, or cringing as a food seller crosses the intersection on foot, laden with a food cart bulging with wares and apparently oblivious to the flow of traffic.

Step outside the car and the streets smell of a heady mix of food, litter and petrol fumes. We chose an apartment in the Lumphini Park area, and were amazed to see that even our small road turned into an incredible food street throughout day. There seems to be a system as certain stalls are there in the morning, then packed up and removed for the lunchtime sellers, which are likewise dismantled and replaced by the evening sellers. Very few stayed in one spot all day, which seemed like an awful lot of effort – but I guess that’s what’s required to feed millions of people around the clock.

The stalls are put up with ridiculous speed and ease. You can literally walk down a quiet street one minute, admiring the gnarled trees blessed with holy scarves, and walk back down it the next, unable to find the trees at all. Instead, you dodge queues of hungry workers, and buckets of water thrown over the plastic tables for cleaning (if nothing else, it’s a very efficient way of removing the cats).

In some areas of Bangkok, if you’re unlucky, the usual smells are joined by the odour of durian fruit. The stench is as bad as legend decrees, but we couldn’t resist trying it. We bought our durian freshly peeled from a stallholder in a random part of the city we stumbled upon by foot – and we were so excited, decided to keep it until we arrived home. Half an hour later and we’re being removed from the Metro station by security – on account of the smell – and we try our first bite of this foul-smelling fruit, leaning over a bin.

David Attenborough once described durian as ‘pretty good’ like ‘slimy caramel creme’. Well, he is either very taste bud challenged or he lied. It was like eating a fart. The durian was quickly binned and we spent the next ten minutes trying not to breathe too deeply on the other SkyTrain passengers (true story).

It’s easy to spot which stalls to eat at – you choose the busiest, or the ones that look most inviting. You choose the ones that cook the food from scratch (which is most). And you forget very quickly about the surroundings, and soon sit slurping Tom Yam Goong (spicy prawn soup) or munching on Tom Sam (papaya salad) by the traffic-clogged roadside, in car parks, under flyovers, next to rubbish tips. The food’s that good, you honestly don’t care. And you’d be surprised also how quickly you adapt to eating everything off a spoon.

Thai food travel adventure

Fresh, unripe papyaya for spicy salads

Breakfast is the one meal in Thailand that we struggled with as there is no specific breakfast food, and we spent a bit of time searching for something we enjoyed at that time of day. In the end, there were lots of roasted eggs and fruit involved, so we managed. And if you’re thinking – why didn’t you just make something at home? – the answer is, most apartments do not have kitchens. The food is so cheap that everyone eats out on the street.

When I say cheap, I mean on average €1 for a plate of Chicken and Prawn Pad Thai or Prawn Fried Rice. Whole barbecued squid and giant prawns came in at around €1.50 a plate, so you can feast on seafood, salads, noodles and rice for around €3-5 euro per night (for two people). But the cost in no way reflects the quality – everywhere we went, the food was incredible; tasty, healthy, and with well-balanced flavours. A pure delight.

I was surprised to see that many stalls used msg in their cooking, as I’d never equated that ingredient with Thai food. But the ones that didn’t use msg were easy to find, thanks to their huge signs. It’s also worth knowing that if you’re vegetarian, fish sauce is a staple ingredient in almost every meal. So you really need to learn how to say ‘no fish sauce’ in Thai – ‘mai sai nam phla’ if you don’t want it in your food. (Here’s a good page on useful Thai vocabulary for vegetarians).

Another useful phrase is ‘mai phet’ which means ‘not too spicy’. Personally, the hotter the better where I’m concerned, but my husband doesn’t quite like it as volcanic. We’d been warned that it would be way too spicy but we didn’t find that the case at all – and the cooks were always willing to tone it down. The most important thing to the vendor was that you enjoyed the food.

thai travel food

One of the spirit houses, complete with food & drink for the ancestors

From the very start, it was obvious that Thai people have a real respect for food that borders on reverence. Indeed, it is an important part of Buddhist worship. In mornings across the city, you see monks heading out with bowls, looking for alms. And in the temples, there are always food parcels left at the altar.

Food and drink is even provided for the ancestors on shrines and spirit houses. On the pavements you have to be careful where you step so you don’t upturn an open bottle of Fanta Orange or Yakult, complete with straw, that has been left out next to the shop shutters for good luck.

Food is also important to family and community life. The food business is definitely a family affair, and you often see several people and their wares bundled onto a single motorbike, or pick-up trucks piled to the last, with the kids and kittens wedged in, ready to set up for the night. The parents cook, the older siblings serve, and the younger children play on their iPhones or tablets in the driving seat, taking a snooze when needed.

Although we did see many sights in Bangkok (some of which will be covered in a later post), we found that the street food and was the real city experience. We spent our days walking and observing, jumping on local transport to see different areas, searching out recommended three-seat stalls and delicacies, and basically eating our way round the city.

It was very easy to see why Bangkok is dubbed the food capital of the world. The buzz, the noise, the smells – and of course, the taste – we loved it all. And it gave a wonderful introduction to Thai culture.

Thai travel street food

Another happy chef…

 

Thai night markets

Waiting for the night to end

And, we’re back!

For the last six weeks, the only thing I’ve eaten with a fork is some pineapple at breakfast. In Thailand, everything is eaten on a spoon, with the fork used merely for directing the food onto the spoon, ready for consumption. You also don’t mix your food; you have your plate of rice and take a small amount from one of the dishes on offer at a time, only choosing another option once your selection is eaten.

thailand travel tuk tuk

One of the many questionable modes of transport you forget to question after a while…

For the last six weeks, the temperature has stayed around 36 degrees, and even when thunder and lightning suddenly explodes onto the scene, it’s still hot and humid and I’ve been able to sit outside. Storms are beautiful to watch when your teeth aren’t chattering and it’s amazing what you can record when the ink is not running down the page (because you’re swaying in a covered hammock).

For the last six weeks, I’ve only used social media to upload photos on Facebook because our camera broke and my iPhone is nearly out of storage so it was the quickest way to record our holiday and not lose the images. And the only thing I’ve written is (a rather terrible) diary (more like a to-do list than a gripping read) – no short stories, no freelance articles, no novels.

Oh yes… and the dolphins were pink, it was perfectly acceptable to fit three adults and two rucksacks onto a motorbike (powered by a hairdryer motor) and call it a taxi ride, and I discovered that even when you’re surrounded by people who don’t speak the same language, Rod Stewart and Simon & Garfunkel become your best communication tools.

I’m dying to tell you more, but for now, I’m adjusting. I’m trying to fit back into my own life after living in another one for a while.

thailand travel hill tribe

Receiving a buddhist blessing from a hill tribe welcome ceremony (complete with local shaman).

I’ve lived in other countries and have travelled quite a bit (though, may I add, not enough – never enough!), so you’d think I’d be used to this bittersweet tug that I always experience after travel. But, it seems, I’m not – and it never gets easier!

Perhaps it’s my father’s Romany roots, or my love of stories that makes me crave different experiences? I don’t know. But I do know it’s not a bad thing – and I also know that it passes. Fades, is probably a better description. It never really leaves. I think my lovely friend, (and incredible writer) Kirstin Zhang, is the one person I know who would truly understand…

Please note: this is not a complaint. You only have to read my Twitter feed or blog posts to know how much I love this place. It’s great to be home. We’ve had the warmest of welcomes – from our friends, neighbours, the local community, and of course, our cats and Franklyn (who fell over with excitement).

There are some exciting changes and opportunities on the horizon, and stories to be shared about our recent adventure (I’ll blog about Thailand over the next few weeks). But, one step at a time…

For now, I’d simply like to say hello, I’m back… And how are you?