Life in a Karen Village

I always wondered, how different can it really be? We’re all human after all, with the same wants and needs.

Adjusting to life in Huay Pakoot hasn’t been nearly as hard as I thought it would be. I expected a couple of “what have I done?!” moments but I haven’t had one yet (other than my stressful/exhausted airport experience) and other than Cadbury’s chocolate and normal crisp flavours (spicy lobster.. what!?) there aren’t many home comforts that I would say I truly miss. Other than my family, friends and pets of course.

The Village
Huay Pakoot is a small mountain village with a school, several shops, a coffee shop and a temple for the monks. The villagers consist of large families and everyone appears to know everyone else. 20160924_065129Other than the one leading to the village, there are no roads. The ground where you walk and drive is generally muddy, stony pathways interspersed with areas of cement. The preferred mode of transport is a motorbike, although many houses do have cars and trucks for transporting goods. There are no street lights, pavements or road signs. The paths are all pretty steep; it is built on the side of a mountain after all. Many houses are on stilts (it rains a lot) and most are made of wood, but a couple have bricks and a few huts are made of bamboo.

The Food20161013_175059
Rice is prominent throughout breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast is either fried rice or boiled/fried egg with bread. Lunch is almost always a tin of rice with a dish such as miscellaneous vegetables with scrambled egg, sometimes with a bit of meat mixed in, or pumpkin. Cabbage and rice noodles are also frequently served. You can buy chicken noodle soup or fried chicken from Weapon’s shop but on a lucky day I have been given it for lunch. Dinner is more varied, on the odd occasion I have been given spaghetti bolognese, but it is usually rice with veg/meat. Fried pumpkin or banana are favourites among the gollas (westerners) here. The food is not as spicy as I expected, but I think it has been toned down for my sake.

The people
Everyone here is very hardworking, getting up around 5am each day, but very kind and family orientated. Married couples live with the wife’s parents as one big family unit, which is lovely to see. 20161006_102239-1They’re also very welcoming, not only are you allowed to walk into someone’s house without an invitation (in fact you’d probably be welcomed with open arms) but it’s not often you’d find a village in the UK so willing to accept up to 30 foreigners into the village and into their homes, providing food, clean clothes and a place to sleep for up to 6 months at a time. We often eat at each other’s houses, collecting the food provided by our individual homestays along the way, arriving to a huge grin of the villager whose house we are eating at. My homestay has a nearly 3-year-old boy who they are very keen to get me to teach English. Currently his favourite words are elephant and bellybutton!

The Language
The language is Pakinyaw (not Thai), which is spoken only by the Karen people in this area. Some villagers can speak Thai, and even fewer can speak English, although we are teaching them and they teach us Pakinyaw in return. It is a tonal language, with many of the words and phrases sounding very similar, and it seems to me that they just use the same 5 words in a different order! I’m doing my best to learn it, and I can understand the odd word that my homestay family say to each other but I cannot (yet) have a full conversation.

The Bathroom
Toilets in the village are squat toilets. 20161010_112328.jpgThey are not difficult to use, you just have to remember not to flush toilet paper down the loo, and in order to flush them you have to throw water down them from a bucket. Showers are bucket showers. You wash with cold water from a bucket that is so cold you have to build up a bit of courage for the first load you chuck over your head. After hike though the freezing water is very refreshing and I look forward to it. I’m lucky enough to have a shower head attached to a hose, and despite the pressure being pretty rubbish it does make showering a little but easier (when the water is actually running).

My Room
My room is one half of a bamboo hut situated next to my homestay’s house. The second room appears to function as a store room/spare bedroom when needed. My room is small but perfectly sized for what I need. I have a mat to sleep on, a mosquito net and a set of 3 shelves where I put my clothes. I have a few nails in the walls where I hang towels, my bags and coats. I wove a basket in my first week here, which is where I keep my toiletries. I have a porch, which comes in handy to hang my clothes on the rail to dry.

The Wildlife
While Thailand boasts having a rich diversity of birds, they are not often seen or heard quite in the same way as back at home. The most common noises are of insects, cicadas and crickets performing the daily background music. We do see birds around, and I have had to learn 34 species as part of my internship, but more commonly you see butterflies and moths flying around. 14711572_10154099996589141_983325086149528880_o.jpgThese are brightly coloured and a lot bigger than any you’d find in the UK! Around the village the most common animals you will spot are dogs, cats, chickens, buffalo and pigs. Dogs are around because the villagers believe they keep away bad spirits, but they are not looked after like domestic dogs at home. This is something some people struggle to understand when they come here, as dogs as pets are a huge part of western culture. Oh and of course there are the elephants, not something you’d see everyday back in the UK.

So whilst living in Thailand does throw up a fair few differences from living back in the UK, it is a way of life that I am enjoying living. It is so relaxed, it is so beautiful and it is a life worth living. When you get to see a view like this every day, can you ask for much more?

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Chains

When I first arrived in Huay Pakoot and was given an introduction to the elephants they have here, one of the first things I was told was that the elephants are chained. This came as a shock and my first thoughts were whether I had come to a place where they treat the elephants in a way that I wanted to be involved in.

Common views of chains are as restraints: big, heavy, metal links that restrict movement, chafe the skin, cause sores and act as a burden. I quickly learned that here in Huay Pakoot this is not the case whatsoever.

Chains here are life savers.

All the elephants here have one chain around one foot. These chains do not rub their legs and are made to be a length and thickness corresponding to the elephant’s size and age, so they are not given anything they can’t cope with.

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The chain can be seen around Gureepo’s right front foot, but does not restrict her movements

The mahouts are with the elephants all day, from around 8:30 until it starts getting dark. During the day, the chains, whilst still attached to the elephants, are not attached to anything else and drag harmlessly behind them as they walk. They do not restrict movement, gliding smoothly through the undergrowth. If on the off-chance a chain does snag on a branch or a rock, the elephant’s mahout will always be nearby to release it. If the mahout cannot unsnag the chain, the chains break easily at the point where they attach to the foot. The chains are used to track the elephants during the day as they leave grooves in the ground easily recognisable to the mahouts. They’re also used for volunteer safety, to help the mahout control the elephant and avoid harm coming to any humans.

At night the elephants are chained for their own protection in areas where the mahouts have ensured there is enough food and water to see them through the night comfortably. The chains are long enough to allow movement and natural foraging even when attached to a tree. Elephants can be easily startled and the ease of the chain breaking allows them to get away from situations where they are uncomfortable is necessary. In some instances, for example during thunderstorms, the mahouts will stay with the elephants throughout the night to ensure their safety in a scary scenario.14433010_10154042651859141_2088782770712202398_n.jpg

The dangers facing elephants left alone, unchained, at night, in a human dominated world one day became a terrifying reality when the youngest elephant, Lulu, got into a crop field and ate pesticide. Thankfully, due to the care and love the mahouts give to their elephants, the problem was spotted early, before it was digested and caused internal damage. She was left with damage to her tusk, which fell out, but has since started to grow back.

While initially the word chain conjures up terrible images of elephants being mistreated it must be understood that in a world dominated by humans, sometimes chains are a necessity and when used correctly do not prevent the elephants from living long and fulfilling lives.

 

My First Hike

I’ve learnt a new meaning to the phrase “being thrown in at the deep end.”14368866_10154038468859141_6069508554566436668_n.jpg

Hikes leave at 7:30, so you have to get up early every day in order to go. Breakfast is brought to base and usually (always) consists of rice. After eating and filling up my water bottles we set off on my first hike.

We went to find Khum Suk, 64, Kha Moon, 34, and Lulu, 5. This group of elephants are a family unit consisting of grandma, mother and grandchild.

We hiked for 2 hours, over a river, up steep sided, slippy slopes and through the undergrowth until we suddenly stumbled upon them. While the mahouts knew they would be there it was a shock for me to see the elephants right in front of me just standing in the same forest I had been trudging through for the past 2 hours.

Because it was our first time meeting the elephants we got to feed them pumpkin (lukay bow). I fed Khum Suk, but Kha Moon got a little bit because the people feeding her had run out and she pestere

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Feeding Khum Suk. Left is her Mahout, Root, who also makes fantastic coffee for those early mornings.

d me for more. I’m not complaining! Elephant trunks do not feel anything like you would expect. Their skin is rough, but smooth and firm all at the same time. The strength within their trunks is just incomprehensible. They were only taking pumpkin from my hand but I still felt like they could break my arm in two if they wanted to. From a distance they didn’t look that big, I just took it in my stride, like seeing elephants you see regularly in photos, but getting up close is a whole other story. I’m used to being around horses, but elephants are so much bigger in every single way and they’re a lot more intimidating and awe-inspiring. You get an impulse to reach out and touch them whilst simultaneously wanting to get out of their way.

In order to observe the elephants naturally and take data we moved away a little distance. We remained like this for a little over an hour, just observing the elephants’ natural behaviour (which consists mainly of eating). During this time we had to constantly move out of Lulu’s way, as she’s quite inquisitive but doesn’t seem to know her own size yet!

It was while we were watching the elephants that I realised I had been bitten by a leech. I was wearing wellies, long socks and tight leggings yet somehow the little bloodsucker still managed to worm it’s way onto my skin and steal my blood. I didn’t notice until after it had drunk its full, fallen off and left me bleeding. I wasn’t really bothered by it, but from then on everyone else was super conscious of leeches being Screen Shot 2016-09-27 at 09.43.21.pngaround. The only annoying thing was the blood on my clothes, but I got that off with a scrubbing brush when we got back.

We hiked back a different way,
this route taking us up on to the ridge of the mountains. It provided incredible views but my legs and lungs complained relentlessly. The sun had come out, and while it was a manageable temperature for sunbathing, for hiking it proved challenging. I thought the hills in Exeter would prepare me for hiking in hilly terrain over here, boy was I wrong. It’s like comparing mountains with molehills.

 

I MADE IT

Flying to Thailand is not fun. I took 3 planes, Heathrow to Mumbai (9 hours), (Mumbai to Bangkok (4 hours) and Bangkok to Chiang Mai (1 hour), with a 2 hour stop in Mumbai and a 6 hour stop in Bangkok.

The only upside? They feed you loads on the plane. They gave us this packet of what I thought was peanuts, but realise they weren’t when I opened them. It was called “Murukku,’ which was a bit like Bombay mix flavoured but looked like tiny churros.

On the flight from London I was sat next to a British woman called Bryony, who had a PhD and was marking her masters student’s work. She was really nice and we spent our stop over in Mumbai together.

Passport control is now probably one of my least favourite things. I was terrified I wouldn’t be allowed in even though I know I haven’t done anything wrong! Got through safely though.When I finally made it to Chiang Mai I was so relieved. 14446193_10154049016859141_9022901181063878521_n.jpgThe view from the tunnel from the plane nearly made me cry, a combination of exhaustion, relief and pure awe at the beauty. The picture doesn’t do it justice, especially as it was through a window and there’s a plane in the way, but everything is so green and mountainous here.

I got picked up by a member of staff with a Sung Tao, which is like a truck with benches in the back (probably wouldn’t meet any health a14355703_10154049016959141_3821192079270220929_n.jpgnd safety standards in the UK…) and got dropped off at the Eco Resort Hotel which was my stay for the night. It was during this journey that I realised Thailand is pretty hot. The Sung Tao had no air con, just the breeze through the window when we were moving, and that itself was still just warm air. People drive like maniacs too, scooters and motorbikes weaving in and out of traffic all the time.

I had a roommate called Krystal who is staying on project for one week. We had a meeting where we met a couple of members of staff and the rest of the interns/volunteers who were starting. Krystal and I then had dinner together in a little restaurant just by the hotel and then went to bed as we had both arrived that day and were equally shattered.

We left at 9am on Sunday morning for the 5 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Huay Pakoot, the village I am staying in. We first stopped at a Tesco, where I grabbed some snack food, flip flops and a sim card for my phone. It then started raining, and when I say raining I mean pouring. GOPR0118.jpgIt was like someone had left a tap on up there and it was just flowing out of the clouds. We stopped at Wachirathan waterfall,  where the thunder and lightning started. Please excuse the water on the lens of my GoPro, as I said, it was raining. A lot.

We continued on our journey after being read a few risk assessments for the project and later stopped at Mae Chaem for some lunch and to buy some wellies. I now own some lovely blue wellies/gum boots/rain boots (to accommodate for all the different nationalities we have here).

On the bus journey I was sat next to David, who is also an intern, but had been on the project last year for 3 months, so already knew a lot about it. He got really excited when we got close and the excitement spread like wildfire through the volunteers in the bus. We rounded a corner and a small wall with a mural painted by previous volunteers came into view, signalling our arrival. After a short drive down a bumpy lane (even more holes than my drive at home) we reached “Base” (which after a few days of being here I realised would be where I would spend my life from now on).

I then got introduced to my homestay, Daw, and shown to my room. It’s a cute little bamboo box room with a mattress on the floor and a couple of shelves. There are a whole load of nails in the walls and a bamboo pole across one wall which I use to hang some clothes on, especially when they’re wet.

Dinner was what they call “Pot Luck.” To put it simply, we all sit on the floor around some wooden planks (the table) and our homestay bring our dinner to Base and we all share and pass the food around. It was a great way to spend the first night. Before we could eat we had a Geeju, where a few of the women from the village tied white string around our wrists and said prayers to keep our 37 spirits from straying to keep us healthy.

 

The next day I met my first elephant.

Flights, Camera, Action!

This blog is a little different (and shorter) from the ones I’ve been writing recently, mainly due to the fact that today was the day I bought my plane tickets for my trip to Thailand in September! I will be leaving on Friday 16th September and arriving in Chiang Mai on the 17th.

It has really struck me how real this is now, and with only 9 months to go I am getting extremely excited (and nervous). I can’t wait to be able to get my hands stuck into conservation, and to throw myself into a brand new culture.

On a side note, GVI have asked me to blog for them. My first blog went live last week, you can find it here: 4 Reasons Why The Environment Needs Elephants.

I will continue to write this blog; now I’ve bought my tickets I can’t wait to start blogging about my experiences in Thailand!

Elephant Conservation in Thailand

In September 2016 I will be heading out on my first big adventure. I’m off to Thailand for 6 months, working as an intern with a charity called Global Vision International.

GVI have been working hard to rescue the amazing Asian Elephants from the streets and circus performing in order to rehabilitate them into their natural habitat.

Here’s a little bit of background knowledge on Asian Elephants:

There are currently only 1,000 wild Asian Elephants in Thailand and only a further 3,000 in captivity. The number of elephants in captivity may seem okay, however the conditions that many of these animals are made to live and work in can be horrific. In the whole of Asia there are only around 45,000 elephants, compared to the 550,000 elephants in Africa.

Elephants are expensive to care for, and therefore it is made sure that they are used as much as possible to create income, usually through tourism. Elephant tourism is unregulated and while going on a trip labelled ‘ecotourism,’ you may be doing more harm to the environment than good. Elephants have sophisticated social, physical and mental needs, and when these are not met there can be significant health repercussions.

What am I doing and where am I going?

The aim of my trip is to help the reintroduction of these elephants into a protected forest, where they will be monitored and cared for, for the rest of their lives. I will also be monitoring plant biodiversity, as elephants are vital in the spreading of seeds, and general animal biodiversity, as elephants provide water through digging. Northern Thailand is an under-researched area, providing many opportunities to discover new things! I will also be teaching English and working with the local community of Huay Pakoot. The local language is Pakinyaw, although most members also speak Thai and are eager to learn English. This is not only to help with communication between GVI and the community, but also especially useful for the younger members who aspire to leave Huay Pakoot for the cities and university.

Huay Pakoot is in a remote mountainous area, with around 400 inhabitants.They follow Buddhism but also hold animist beliefs, and therefore the elephants hold significant spiritual value to them. The community owns around 60 elephants, but most of them are working in Chiang Mai elephant camps. The local community receives most of their income by renting their elephants to the tourist industry, and so there is now ongoing work into education and providing alternative, sustainable sources of income.

There are currently 9 elephants in the GVI herd, each one is named and has a unique personality! Look out for another blog where I will go into detail about these.

These are the aims set out by GVI:

    • to successfully manage our current semi- wild population of elephants
    • to expand its current herd in order to bring back as many of the village’s elephants as possible
    • to develop local businesses and expand the work opportunities available to the villagers
    • to continue studying elephant foraging and social behaviors, and to share its studies, along with other ethical elephant ideas, within the elephant conservation and veterinary community

I will be undertaking leadership and first aid training courses and then will be placed in charge of one of three areas: elephant behaviour and health care, elephant foraging, or community-related work. There is also an opportunity to work with Burm & Emilly’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES).

What you can do to help:

My adventure is all about helping the wildlife in Thailand, however I need a little bit of help to get there. There’s a link at the top and on the right hand side to my gofundme page, where you can donate as much or as little as you want. The money will be going to GVI, who require a large amount of money to allow me to go out there. I am funding this trip myself, so any help would be amazing! I also ask that you raise awareness and think twice before booking an elephant riding holiday!

I will be using this blog to keep you updated in what I have been doing working towards this trip, including fundraising and the scary day when I book my flights! Then, once I am in Thailand I will do my best to post regular updates on everything I have been doing. I will also be posting about any interesting conservation articles I come across, in the hope of spreading awareness about how much needs to be done to protect all the animals on our planet!