Trekking in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand

Volunteering in Thailand Pt. 2

Written by Ashley Macnie, Student Product Manager at travelcuts

Continued from Volunteering in Thailand Pt. 1

The mountains surrounding Huay Pakoot offer a different hiking experience every time you set out to see the elephants. Our first hike was through a forested, hilly area that at times required a walking stick or a boost from a tree branch or vine. Our second hike was a contrast in setting and difficulty.

We started the day as usual by eating breakfast on Base, then set out in our different groups. Day two of hiking saw me assigned to Charlie and Thong Dee.

We began by hiking through rice paddy fields, which eventually led to an easy path into what felt like a traditional jungle. After just a few minutes we could hear the gentle, somewhat melodic knocking of one of the wooden bells worn by the elephants, and on a ridge above entered Charlie.

Charlie’s known for being a wanderer, so I wasn’t surprised when after just a few moments of observation, he slipped back into the trees. We then hiked deeper into the jungle, led by Thong Dee’s mahout, Patti Sayee, whose reputation precedes him! Prior to even meeting him I had heard about his relationship with his elephant.


Their partnership is a special one that has lasted over thirty years. Thong Dee, who’s around 65, is one of the oldest elephants in the program, and aside from having to work in the tourist camps, she’s also worked in logging – a practice that ended in 1989 when the Thai government banned all logging in protected areas. They have a relationship that can be compared to a marriage – they’re around the same age, Thong Dee sometimes ignores Patti Sayee when he’s talking to her, he tends to her and makes sure she’s fed, and even refers to her as “Wife”. It really is an endearing relationship to witness, which is enhanced by the fact that Thong Dee gets to live out her days in the jungle eating all the banana trees she likes.

We sat and watched Thong Dee for over an hour, and she showed off by demonstrating to us how she rips off strands of banana tree trunk by wrapping it around her own trunk. Adult Asian elephants can eat up to 300 pounds of food a day, so it wasn’t surprising that she did nothing but foraged for food while we were there.

Thong Dee’s other nicknames are “Beyoncé” and “Betty White” because she can be somewhat sassy at times, so once she started getting a bit restless we knew it was time to head back and give her some alone time.

We returned back to Basecamp for lunch and our lesson of the day, which was called “History of the Asian Elephant”. We learned that Asian elephants have been domesticated for thousands of years, have been trained to provide heavy labour and transport, and even at times to wage war. They also play a major role in royal iconography. We also learned that in Thailand there is a law that classifies elephants as draught animals, along with oxen, donkeys and horses. This same law also allows them to be treated as private property. When you look at the current elephant stats in Thailand and find out that not only have their numbers dropped drastically since the beginning of the 19th-century due to habitat loss, but also that the majority of Asian elephants within the country are now domesticated and not wild, it’s evident that conservation efforts are needed. Receiving this lesson on the history of these animals really put into perspective the work being done by GVI and other conservation groups.

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Additional to our language and history lessons, we were also offered the chance to volunteer with the local children at school and nursery; or to give English lessons to the mahouts, women in the village, and the village monks. It’s very easy to become entrenched in the community during your stay with GVI, even if your visit is only two weeks long.

The next day we embarked on our third hike of the week, and this time I was scheduled to visit Khum Suk and Khao Moon, a monther/daughter duo. These two are actually part of a bigger herd that also includes Khao Moon’s daughter, Lulu, another juvenile female, Sajah, and a large bull elephant by the name of Bullowan. I was amazed that this particular herd represents three generations of females!

The older ladies were on their own on this day due to the location of feeding grounds, so we took off into the forest to find them.

This was by far the most challenging hike I had been on to date, as the incline was quite steep and required focussed maneuvering. However, it was one of those challenges that causes you to pause and think “I can’t believe I’m actually here. I’m in a Thai jungle, looking for elephants”. If I had posted about it online, it definitely would have received a #lifemoment hashtag.

The mahouts once again helped out by creating walking sticks from fallen branches, and also by showing us the best trails to take for proper footing. Their ability to adapt to the hike is incredible – the rest of the group were clad in proper hiking boots and the mahouts tactfully scaled the forested hills in nothing but sandals. I will admit I required a boost or a hand here and there, but the group stuck together to ensure we all made it through.

Meeting Khao Moon for the first time was extraordinary. She’s an older elephant in her thirties, so her size is impressive. With Thong Dee, we observed from afar; Khao Moon is a curious soul and came right up to greet us.

After our initial meeting, we followed Khao Moon and her mahout deeper into the forest to join her mother, Khum Suk. We then relaxed on the hillside as a staff member collected data on Khao Moon’s behaviour and movements. It was incredible to witness mother and daughter peacefully interact with each other, as they foraged and ate.

Once our data collection session was over, we said goodbye to the elephants and were led back out of the forest. Instead of returning back to Basecamp for lunch, however, today we were going to be treated to lunch prepared by the mahouts.

GVI Thailand Chiang Mai_Post 2_11

Led by Khum Suk’s mahout, Root, we hiked through an onion field to a farmer’s hut with an amazing view. The mahouts cooked noodles and Root created a traditional egg-salad type dish with lime and chilli. Phoebe, the Volunteer Coordinator, managed to find some ripe limes on a nearby tree for us to snack on. Our luncheon became a communal feast, and even induced a nap out of one of volunteers. After a tough hike, it was a much deserved rest.

We eventually packed up our little hilltop picnic and made our way back to the trucks. It was all downhill walking from here! Returning back to Base that day, I remember feeling exhausted but content. The past three days were full of moments that never in my life had I imagined I’d experience, including coming face to face with an adult elephant! I already knew it at this point, but after today’s events I was reassured that coming to Thailand was the right choice.

Read more of Ashley’s adventure in Volunteering in Thailand Pt. 3!

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