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Published: March 17th 2007
Right then. I realise we have said practically nowt about what we're up to for ages, but I'll try and keep this blog away from epic War and Peace style proportions. There's lots of nice pics so just enjoy them if you like...
Anyway, here we go....
Our major news is that we are no longer monkey watching. Our extremely short career in primatology ended while we were still in Pattaya working on the promotion of the project. Basically, a more urgent cause arose and there wasn't enough money to go round them all from the organisation we're working with (Eco Explorer). The new cause was that of a failing elephant camp on the outskirts of Pattaya.
I think I mentioned in a previous blog that the place we are staying in Pattaya (which is home to the Eco Explorer office) is connected to an elephant camp that runs elephant rides as well as volunteer programmes where people can stay and learn how to take care of elephants and learn to be a fully fledged mahout for 1 - 4 weeks at a time (the Volunteer Mahout Programme). So Eco Explorer and its staff -
The giant gold Buddha that looks over Forever Elephant camp
and Kris trying to outstare the 8 year old "baby" elephant.
particularly Ahnon, our main contact, who has his own elephant - have a strong link with big grey animals with long noses. Anyway, while we were researching monkey marketting in Pattaya, Ahnon became aware of another camp, further out of the city, that was struggling to survive. With both elephants and mahouts threatened with unemployment and potential begging, we agreed to shift our attention from monkeys to elephants and help him save the camp. As such, with the camp in a state of emergency, the dusky langur project is currently hibernating until more funds are available. Funny how things turn out eh? From working in the jungle studying monkeys to living in sex-town pattaya and working with elephants. It's never boring....!
There's an awful lot of elephants in Siam
Okay, brief heart-warming thingy on elephants...
Thailand has a lot of elephants - most of them domestic - and in the past they were used majorly in the logging industry. They were looked after by mahouts who worked with the same elephant potentially for the entire of either's life. Which was nice. Until 1989 when the government banned commercial logging. Now clearly this isn't a bad thing, given all those
Forever Elephant Camp
The mahout's huts are in the distance. Please note the sign - posts sanded and stained by Kris
beautiful forests out there, but it did mean that lots of elephants and there owners effectively became unemployed. This is a massive problem because, well, elephants are harder to care for than a pet gerbil or something. They eat a lot, poo a lot, take up a lot of space and can be extremely dangerous if they get in a bad mood. Plus they live such a looooong time. Ahnon's elephant, Sandcum, is allegedly 85 years old, give or take 10 years or so. A lot of these unemployed duos have ended up either begging on the streets of cities or working in horrible camps performing for tourists and kept in bad conditions.
But all is not lost! Although in an ideal world unemployed domestic elephants would be released into a lush, green sanctuary to live out the rest of their days in natural bliss...there just isn't enough money and too many elephants. Some elephants still have to work for their living but what camps can do is keep them under good conditions and make sure they're well treated. Well that's the aim of Eco Explorer and a big part of Ahnon's dream.
There are a lot of
New Forever Elephant camp sign
painted by Steph our volunteer, went up this week. The day it went up the number of tourists at the camp went up from 2 per day to a hell of alot more
elephant camps in Thailand and most of them involve a group of mahouts living in a little village where they all care for their elephants and earn their daily crust by giving rides to tourists. A bit like donkeys on the beach in Scarborough I guess. The standard of these camps varies from good, were elephants are well kept, fed, watered and not overworked, to bad, where elephnts are overworked, mistreated and underfed.
Eco Explorer's plan and Ahnon's dream is that all elephants are well kept and the quality of life of mahouts is enhanced, so when he found out about this fialing elephant-riding camp, where mahouts were leaving daily, and taking their elephants to seek work else - or potentially to beg on city streets - he really wanted to help. We realised the dusky langur project was becoming a bit of a distraction and eventually told him we would help with the elephants. He was very pleased!
Elephant Lovers in Pattaya...?
When we first visited the camp we were shocked to find that it had a fantastic location - it's directly opposite a massive golden Buddha etched into a cliff face in pure gold! Miles from
Washing an elephant at home
This is outside the Green Jomtien Studios where we live. The elephant camp next door ran out of water so they washed the elephants from our hosepipe. An extrodinary sight when you are eating your breakfast.
the hustle and bustle of Pattaya and right by a new experimental Thai Vineyard (watch out for Thai wine in Tesco...). Surely they'd get loads of visitors right...? Well maybe, if they actually had a sign.....or any elephants that could be seen from the road....or if you even knew it was there at all. We walked from the road past a little cafe and over some hard baked earth to a little village of huts in the distance. That was the mahout village. A street of ramshackle bamboo huts where a small group of mahouts and their families spent their days waiting for work to arrive.
One of the 1st things to do was to show something was being done before more mahouts jumped ship, so Ahnon and loads of Eco Explorer as well as the token foreigners (Dr Kiss and Dr Kit - as we're affectionately termed) and some other volunteers, had a tour of the camp and a meeting with the manager. 1st on the agenda was coming up with an inspiring name. Ahnon's suggestion was - "Elephant Lovers' Camp". Now anywhere else, this would have been entirely acceptable - but having spent so much time in
Kris, Emma (stood up), Cherry and Kop moving a bamboo house from the hotel at Green Jomtien to Forever Elephant Camp in the back of a pick up
the sleaze of pattaya, a few too many of us, the most outspoken of which was Kate - read into that conotations of bestiality. Trying the explain "bestiality" to Thai people in pidgen English is an interesting experience and not one I wish to repeat. But the eventual look of horror on Ahnon's face was worth the initial discomfort. Then Donna, a recently arrived trainee mahout from Guernsey came up with the saving name in a second, as inspired by the rolling countryside going on in every direction - "Forever Elephant Camp"!!! Much more appealling! It was much more acceptible and actually quite lovely so we all agreed on it and we were ready to start work........
The following day to the camp visit we descended on the camp to start work. Me, Donna, Ahnon, Ao (Ahnon's brother) Kop (guy from the langur project, now recruited to elephants like us) and Ho (Ahnon's elephant's mahout). Kate stayed in the office to help out with the English e-mails that keep stubbornly arriving. The plan was to rennovate recently vacated mahout huts. Initially to provide an office and centre for the project and later to develop places for volunteer
Does my bum look big in this.
mahouts to stay in order to have the full mahout experience (future plan to help the camp!).
The huts were pretty run down, so we were handed nails and a hammer and some bamboo matting to make them more shipshape. Now....be honest. How many of you reading this has ever rennovated a bamboo hut? For some reason me and Donna were put together to work on one of the houses in the baking heat. We knocked in a lot of nails, sweated a lot of sweat and stuck lots of stuff to the walls (leaf matts for waterproofing) and hoped for the best. Until a particularly mouthy mahout appeared (later know as Shouty Mahout) and yelled "No no no!!!". We pulled it down and were shown how to do it all again. This sort of thing happened several times on various other bamboo house related jobs...until we were relegated to relaxing in the shade while everyone else worked. Result. They really had no idea why we didn't know how to make a jungle hut. I mean, what do they teach these westerners in their fancy schools...?
The next task was transporting Ahnon's elephant, Sancum, from the
Sancom in her removal truck.
Sancom the elephant packed her trunk and said goodbye to Thaitong elephant camp. Off she went with a trumperty trump, trump, trump, trump.
old elephant camp to the newly named Forever Elephant camp. We were told that if she walked it, it would take several days (it's a 20-30 minute journey by car) so a truck was hired. An elephant clearly isn't a perculiar thing to tranport in Thailand and a truck duly turned up on the morning in question and Sandcum was directed aboard. We stood at a safe distance to watch the proceedings but were amazed to find that she didn't really care about being in a vehicle. It was probably a relief to be enjoying a ride herself rather than having someone hanging round her neck. We (minus Kate who stayed in the office) jumped in the back of a pick-up and followed behind.
It seems the arrival of an elephant to a new camp is a particularly importnat occasion and we had to carry out a long PraKram ceremony. This is basically a ritual performed to the spirits of ancestoral mahouts with offering of booze and meat to wish good luck to everyone involved. Trainee mahouts do a similar ceremony at the beginning an end of their training (see previous blog!). Once the ceremony was over, Ahnon explained
Tucking into pigs face and chicken
at the camp after the Prakam ceremony. Yum.
to me that it was importnat for the new people and resident mahouts of the camp had to eat and drink together, so by 10 in the morning I was sat under the shelter of a bamboo hut passing round a bottle of Thai whisky.
Then the food came. It turned out that the food on offer was the same items we had been offering to the spirits during the Pra Kram....which included a chicken (including head and feet) and, more stomach churningly still, a pigs head. The pigs head was cut into strips and fried and served in a big bowl and everyone sat around and tucked in. As the token foreigner everone was very keen I ate my fill. I was shoved towards the bowls and given a glass of beer. I selected the least hairy bit of pig face, dipped it in chillies and chewed on it for the next 30 minutes. For some reason, to be polite I exclaimed, from my limited Thai vocabulary - "Aroy!". That means delicious. They all concurred and continued eating. I feel I may be offered a lot more chopped pig face before I leave....
Saved from DIY
Dancing at Donna and Claudia's leaving party
Ao and Kop doing some interesting dance moves and Donna looking on, puzzled. I think you have to be able to hear the music to work out what's exactly going on in this picture...
on this day I was rescued from doing anymore Thai bamboo DIY by the arrival of two new Eco Explorer workers who were much better at it than me. Embarressingly they came in the form of two young, petite female Thai girls on work experience from a university. So while we lazed on the hut porches drinking beer and chewing pig (not just me - all the men! This seems very Thai!!)....they laboured away building doors and flooring. How strange. I soon got into the swing of it though.
They're called Sherry and Emma by the way and are staying several months.
Brief note on the work experiencers
Sherry and Emma can speak English so it can help us a lot. They are very friendly but sort of obsessed with us being a little bit feeble because we're from the West. They won't let us get anywhere near even the mildest spice in our food cos I think they think we'll implode or something. If we spend 5 seconds in the sun - even wearing suncream - they are insistent that we should lie down in a darkened room and rest. They continually ask if we're tired (actually "trierred")
Crossing cultural boundaries
Mr Tong, elephant mahout from Thailand and Donna, ex-bank worker from Guernsey. With not a common language between them, here they manage to hammer out the details of 3rd world debt and the war on terror. Maybe.
and instruct us to sleep. They are also seemingly obsessed with our mental well-being and demand to know if we're happy several times a day. Other than that, they're pretty hilarious. They spontaneously burst into song all the time. It's bizarre. Not long ago I was treated to a recital of "Wait a minute Mr. Postman". They stood feet away from me singing loudly and staring at me for about 5 minutes. That's a long time for such spontaneous, unprovoked behaviour. But I continued smiling politely, though I didn't join in... Kate
Im an elephant mahout, get me out of here
At the end of February, Donna and Claudia, two of our elephant mahout trainees left us - Donna for Australia for some more travelling and Claudia back to her North Californian home. So we held a little leaving party for them at the hotel. We decided it would be good to introduce our Thai friends to some Western food, as they feed us many Thai delights daily. We thought about Yorkshire puds, or apple crumble, or pork pie..all of which you can get in the expat land that is Pattaya. However, we thought we'd start them small with
Elephant mahout Mr Shweng
tucking into bread and cheese...
some loaves of french bread and some cheeses. So we all sat down to some bottles of Chang beer, three french sticks, some butter, a tub of Laughing Cow cheese spread and a block of old english cheddar. You would have thought we had tried to make them eat elephant poo for the reactions they gave. Ahnon said he only liked Thai food and hid in the office so we didnt make him try it. Kop tried some cheese on bread, chewed for what seemed like an age, and then washed it down with some beer, pulling faces as he drank. Ao got into it, he quite liked the laughing cow cheese, but I dont know how much he was just being polite. One by one the mahouts came out of the elephant camp next door to try our delights, with varying successes. We realised that with Thai food there is little chewing involved. Everything is cut up small and easy to swallow, and bread seemed like a huge amount of exercise to chew!
Forever Elephant Camp
At the beginning of March, Ecoexplorer's Volunteer Mahout Project moved to the Forever Elephant Camp. Three new volunteers arrived to be our
The Forever Elephant Camp is next to the new Silverlake vineyard, with lovely lake, vineyards and lovely gardens
guinea pigs, and all in all it has been very successful. The change in the camp since they started has been amazing. The mahouts seem to love working with the volunteers and are really enthusiastic every day. There has been a hive of activity: a new shelter has gone up for the elephants so they can be seen from the road, a mahout's wife has a stall selling bananas for the elephants and most importantly there are now some signs created by Kop and the volunteers, advertising the camp. There is still alot of work to do but it is great to see what can be achieved by some enthusiasm, hard work and some volunteers who are rubbish at DIY.
We are planning to stay working with the Forever Elephant Camp until April. We have had some financial problems ourselves and had realised that the only way we can stay in Thailand is if we start to earn some money. So we have signed up to do a TEFL (teaching english as a foreign language) course. The course is at a language school in Ban Phe, which is about 1/2 hour from Pattaya (so we can keep
Vineyards at Silverlake
They are experimenting with Thai wine, to see if you can grow decent wine grapes in Thailand. The wine isnt ready yet, they just sell a variety of grape products...biscuits, jelly, juice....we will let you know what the wine is like when they make it.
in touch with our friends and the project here). It will take 4 weeks to complete, and at the end of it we will have a qualification that will allow us to teach english to non-english speakers anywhere in the world. The programme we have signed up to is giving us this for a very small fee, alot less than it would usually be, on the agreement that we teach english in a Thai government school for at least 4 months after the course. We will get free accommodation for this, and get paid more than enough to live on in Thailand. So it seems like a good idea all round. We know its very differently to researching monkeys, what we originally came here to do, but we're t will be no less interesting and fun. Its all an amazing experience that we are loving, we love the country and the people and the livestyle, not to mention the weather, and are very happy for this to continue. Happy Birthday Beth, and Happy Mothers day to Mum Lloyd and Mam Kirby. Love you all x
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