Written by Ashley Macnie, Student Product Manager at travelcuts
Asia was unmapped territory for me. I love to travel, but I always seem to end up in Europe or the Caribbean. This all changed when I was given the opportunity to volunteer with Global Vision International (GVI). I had the option to choose what program to participate in, so I decided to challenge myself and picked an initiative in a destination I had never visited. Within five months of booking, I was on a plane to Thailand to volunteer with elephants in a remote village outside of Chiang Mai.
My time with GVI got off on an unconventional foot. My original flight to Thailand was cancelled due to a winter storm that hit the northeastern seaboard of North America. Instead of arriving in Bangkok with a few days to make my way up to the north, my new itinerary forced me to go straight to Chiang Mai. From the time I left Toronto on a Friday to my early arrival at Chiang Mai International Airport the following Sunday, I had hopped across North America and Asia via four different planes. Trips like these definitely call for minimal packing and carry-on luggage!
Normally volunteers and interns would arrive on a Saturday, have time to settle in and attend an orientation, and then drive to Basecamp in the village of Huay Pakoot the next day. Instead, I was greeted by a songthaew full of GVI staff, interns and volunteers at the airport in Chiang Mai on their way back to Base. Despite not having that introductory period with everyone, it was like I fell right into the group. I was debriefed by staff as we made our way out of Chiang Mai and enjoyed the five hour van ride into the mountains.
I was immediately blown away by the scenery yet simultaneously reminded of Central America. The tropical humidity, the roadside banana trees, the multitude of scooters and motorbikes – it all seemed new yet familiar. This made it very easy to quickly become enamoured with Thailand. Once we arrived at Basecamp though, I knew I was going to be experiencing a trip that would be far different than the typical Thai itinerary.
Huay Pakoot — home to GVI’s Basecamp – is a remote, concentrated, mountainside village that’s been around for approximately 400 years. Settled by the Karen people, Huay Pakoot is full of winding, red dirt roads linking houses that are truly integrated into the mountainside. Upon our arrival, I was escorted by a staff member to my homestay and introduced to my homestay family. We then returned to Basecamp and were given a village tour.
At the very top of Huay Pakoot is the primary school and a Buddhist temple. As you make your way down you come across various homes and the few shops scattered throughout the village (appropriately named “Top Shop”, “Middle Shop” and “Bottom Shop”). The people of Huay Pakoot follow a chiefdom, and Old Chief’s house, which is situated at a fork in the road near Basecamp, quickly became the main navigational landmark for me. It’s easy to get lost but after a day or two of walking, you quickly memorize your route.
After our tour we returned to Base to enjoy a pot luck style dinner, provided by all of our homestay families. After a very eventful day, we then had a relaxing evening on Base and were debriefed on our itinerary for the following day – we were going hiking with the elephants! I went to bed early that night, exhausted from all the travel but excited for what was to come.
The next morning I woke up to roosters and a grunting hog around 4:30am. I thankfully didn’t have any jet lag, but after the roosters started their morning ritual, I couldn’t go back to sleep. Welcome to life in the village!
I eventually made my way back to Basecamp for breakfast, and was greeted by a few of the village dogs, who guided me for a part of my walk. Elephant hikes depart at 7:30 every morning in order to get an early start to the day (and to try to beat the heat), so it’s best to have an early arrival. We enjoyed a warm breakfast and once it was time to go, we hopped into the trucks to get dropped off at our various hikes.
The hikes are split up into three groups in order to keep group sizes small. The elephants involved in GVI’s program are being rehabilitated back into the jungle after years of working in the tourist camps (and also the logging industry if they’re old enough), so hikes are organized this way to keep our influence on them to a minimum.
There are three separate herds, made up of a total of nine elephants ranging in age from about 4 to 65. On my first hike, I met Dee Dee and Gureepo, a male/female pair who were both under 10 years old.
The hikes are never the same as the elephants are moved in order to reach the best feeding grounds. My first hike, I was later told, was a bit more challenging than usual as we had to make our way deep into the forest. However, we were being guided by mahouts (elephant keepers), who knew exactly where their elephants were. Eventually we came over a crest in the hill and spotted Dee Dee above us. It was my first sighting of an elephant outside of a zoo, and it was a very emotional (and sweaty) moment for me.
After spending some time with Dee Dee, we then followed behind him to meet up with Gureepo. The elephants were due for a treat that day, so the new volunteers were given the honour of feeding them bananas. We then hung back and observed the pair as they foraged, food prepped, and ate. Part of GVI’s initiative is to collect data on elephant behaviour, in order to document the physical and psychological effects these elephants showcase after years of working in the tourist camps. For example, as we first approached Gureepo, we witnessed her displaying one of her coping mechanisms of swaying back and forth. We kept our distance until she was calm enough for us to approach, but seeing this behaviour first-hand really did highlight why GVI’s elephant program is important and why we, as travellers, need to promote ethical tourism.
We spent about an hour and a half observing the elephants that day. We eventually returned back to the trucks to get driven back to the village, but I will never forget my first hike and the experience I had as we sat in that forest, watching the elephants be nothing but their natural and curious selves.
Our arrival back at base was punctuated with a well-earned appetite. As we sat and ate the lunches prepared for us by our homestay families, we went through the plans for the remainder of our day. First on the itinerary was some free time, then our daily lesson. This was to be followed by debrief of our next day’s events and eventually dinner.
One aspect of living in the village that I came to appreciate was the bucket shower. The bathroom/shower facilities are outside of the house without heated water or a stand-up shower stall. Instead, you douse yourself with small buckets of water that are taken from a full cistern. Having a shower in the morning could be a very jarring experience! However, after a long elephant hike in the sun and humid jungle, it’s a welcome feeling. This became a part of my regular routine during my time with GVI – breakfast, hike, lunch, bucket shower during my free time (to feel human again), then lessons, dinner, and some downtime before bed. Our lesson that first day was a beginner’s guide to the local language.
The Karen people of Huay Pakoot speak Pakinaw, a Sino-Tibetan language that can vary from village to village. Learning it has to be done phonetically, but after you get a hang of the sentence structure and remember the basics, it becomes like second nature. Some of the staff speak it fluently! One of the first sentences you learn is “I don’t know”, which can be sounded out to “de sinyah bah”. It comes in handy when you’re not as comfortable with the language as you’d like to be. Another example is “Na zee oopalaw?” which means “Where are you from?” “Zee” is “village” or “home”; “oopalaw” is “where” (essentially, “Where is your village?”). The most common saying, and probably the first one everyone remembers, is “Da blue!” which translates to “Hello!”, “Goodbye!”, and “Thank you!” It’s a must to learn.
Becoming familiar with the language is a great way to integrate into village life and makes it easier to communicate with your host family and the mahouts. Every night you sit down to dinner at your homestay, but to help you settle in during your first week you are chaperoned by a GVI staff member or intern. I was lucky enough to be partnered up with the Basecamp Manager, Danielle. Having already spent two years in Huay Pakoot, she was a great source of knowledge for my numerous questions on the village, the elephants, Pakinaw – even asking if my homestay family had a kitten (I witnessed a little paw trying to push its way through the gap under the door of my hut one morning). I quickly learned that “saminyah” is the word for “cat”.
Acclimatizing to my new life in Huay Pakoot really only took that first full day on the program. The GVI staff, interns and volunteers make it feel like home away from home, despite the exotic setting. It had been a physically demanding yet emotionally fulfilling day, and I couldn’t wait to go to sleep to prepare for my second hike.
Read more of Ashley’s adventure in Volunteering in Thailand Pt. 2!