The Elephant in the Room.

25 March 2017

Dear Peter,

I’ve been to Phi Phi, it’s beautiful. I had an absolute ball, lazing all day in water, looking out into paradise. Dancing all night whilst watching death defying fire dancers make all sorts of blazing shapes in the darkness. Ton’s of party games, musical chairs with the added threat of having your ass set on fire, limbo a big favourite with the locals lowering the pole each time and flipping themselves back to hop along under whilst a party peep balances on their belly… pretty impressive. We’ll play when I get home.

Ton’s of party games, musical chairs with the added threat of having your ass set on fire, limbo a big favourite with the locals lowering the pole each time and flipping themselves back to hop along under whilst a party peep balances on their belly… pretty impressive. We’ll play when I get home.

I had a really awesome time, and met some superb people. I’d tell you more, but I’m not going to be one to kiss and tell so we’ll end this story now.

Now, back in Bangkok a little while ago, I was sat with a girl I’d met. So excited, the famous Full Moon party was on the horizon and we were about to get started on our plans of drinking copious amounts of Samsong filled buckets, covered in psychedelic body paint whilst dancing like loons on Haad Rin beach under March’s biggest moon.

Sounds like the exact place you’d expect me to be right? But before I’d booked anything something online caught my eye, Phuket Elephant Sanctuary.

The website said there was a new opportunity to volunteer with them for a week and my god, delight filled me from top to toe. It meant missing the mega party but sod that, I party the same way regardless of what state the moon is in and this place looked incredible. I signed up for the week and got so excited looking at all the info that I very, very nearly missed my flight. The gate shut at 1400hrs and I arrived at the airport at 1430hrs. By some miracle, and with 17kg on my back I managed to peg it through the airport, be let through security, sprint it down to the furthest gate away possible and board the flight at 1448hrs. Take off at 1450hrs. Praise the aeroplane lord! A hot mess, but happy knowing I can run like Gump when needs be, and double luck when my bag arrived on same flight too.

Now, where’s my box of chocolates?

I wasn’t prepared for the week ahead. They say miracles don’t exist but I promise you this is exactly what’s happening at this place. I was met by Montri who had the warmest smile plastered on his face, he’s one of the founders alongside an incredible lady named Louise. The staff treated us like family and involved us in every aspect of elephant life at the sanctuary. Our first morning was spent observing the elephants with the morning tour group. We also watched a video on the life the elephants had led before being bought to the sanctuary, it broke me. I sat with silent tears running down my face whilst witnessing the darkest depths of evil.

They’ve been open 4 months and in that time they’ve been able to rescue 5 elephants. It’s tough because, unlike the UK where we have laws and RSPCA officers in place who can take animals out of cruel environments, they have to buy each elephant. They aren’t cheap either. It’s likely that Mahouts will only want to sell an elephant so they can trade them in for a younger elephant to work, we’re talking 10’s of 1000’s of pounds for each rescue. What they’ve achieved in such a short amount of time already is nothing short of incredible.

Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 12.38.07.pngThey say in Buddhism that before you are reincarnated as a human we were all elephants. Meeting Kannika, I’d have to say she is my spirit animal. She ruled the roost at the sanctuary, always aware that the grass is greener on the other side of the path and charging towards the juiciest banana trees and bamboo she could find regardless of what her Mahout said.

You’d just hear this huge cracking noise and down the trees would fall for her to get her eat on. The other elephants followed her lead, she’d be the one to suss out the route, go off and get what she wanted. As soon as the other saw her do it, they’d follow her lead and join in.DSC00245.jpg

She’s inseparable from Madee, her best elephant friend and to see those two hanging out together, learning to be elephants again was so lovely.

Gaew Ta was a blind elephant who had been hit in her eyes by her last owner. She’s older than the others and severely traumatised. She’s unable to hangout with the other elephants as any noises she’s not used to terrify her and she will lash out to protect herself. She’s gotten a lot better, but building back the trust that her Mahout lashed out of her will take many months more, maybe even years.

Dok Gaew is a lot older than the others. She’s in her 60’s and has been working in the trekking camps a long time. She’s finally getting the rest, love and elephant life she should have always had. She’s always found trailing behind the others, but I’m sure in time her legs will heal and she’ll be able to keep up with the herd once more.

And lastly, BaanYen. Oh, how she so wanted to be best friends with Kannika but she only has eyes for Madee. They rescued BaanYen just two months ago. Her legs were bad from the years spent at the trekking centre. The iron saddle, the brutal beatings, the lack of food to keep her weak. Her Mahout at the sanctuary was taking good care of her, DSC00228.jpgmassages and tiger balm and other treatments to get her on the mend. The sanctuary were doing all they could to get an x-ray machine big enough for an elephant so they could take a closer look at what was going on inside.

After each walk in the morning, you could see her favourite bit was getting into the lake at the end of the day to take the weight off her feet. Hey, who doesn’t love that? She’d sit back and through water all over herself with a face full of joy.

I stayed at the apartments where the other staff lived and there were only two other, absolutely lovely volunteers. My days started at 9am. We’d arrive before any of the other visitors and have dippy eggs and coffee for breakfast – my fave! Then it would be time to get in a right mess mushing up elephant breakfast. Squidging banana’s, mango and rice with my hands into big ol’ rice balls for them to eat. You know how much I like getting in a mess, so you will know how much I liked this. The only thing I thought would maybe make it better would be being able to get into the big bowl and mush with my feet at the same time. Heaven.

We’d also chop up about a billion pineapples a day. With giant knives and feed these to the troupe when they’d get back from their morning walk.

Then with elephants out, we’d go clean up their yards. Elephants never stop eating. They have a bigger appetite than me on a hangover Sunday lounged on the sofa staring at the endless lists on Netflix, whilst devouring everything deliveroo has to offer. I was impressed and pleasantly surprised how little poop this endless eating created. DokGaew was an absolute dream, though blind, she kept her yard spotless.

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Now I don’t know if you’ll remember this but one Summer when I was a teen, my StepDad had me work with him on his building site for bit of pocket money. “A GIRL ON A BUILDING SITE? I DON’T BELIEVE IT?!” I loved it. I love the smell of wet plaster, I love the sound of people walking on planks as they plonk on the scaffolding, I love watching the cement get all mixed up and I love seeing paint spattered faces from where they’ve been rollering the ceilings with emulsion. I spent that summer wheelbarrowing, mixing up, painting, and I specifically remember learning how to remove Velux windows and being surprised how easy it was to click them out of their frames. In 36 degree heat, as I entered my own solo wet t-shirt competition and felt like I might pass out this all came back to me.

My Stepdad taught me how to dig like the best of them. Like hell would I let a little heat knock me out. It was time to build 5ft high sandcastles for the elephants to sleep against and I’d dig that sand and dig even deeper down to my kickass reserves to build the best elephant beds they’d ever sleep upon.

I’d be stood in water troughs as deep as I am tall, scrubbing it down and making it all shiny and clean. There was no need for any water as I was sweating buckets and using my own sweat alone was able to wash down 3 out of 4 troughs. Right nice.

DSC00287.jpgAnd you know how prepared I always am… I’ve packed a feather cape, latex pigeon mask, 10 grams of glitter, party cannon, tiny hands, fake fangs, green obsidian, rhino head (from you), pretty much packed for every occasion right?! Not for this. I had no hat and no gloves. This made entering what looks liked the biggest haven for spider holidays I’ve ever seen, to load up the wheelbarrow with palm leaves really great fun. Did you know the edges of the leaves are razor sharp and able to slice right through human flesh? I do. I know that well now.

We did a lot of elephant watching too. I could watch them forever. In the evenings we played badminton and watched the local lads play footy. We’d go to the night market and we’d talk. I love those ladies and their stories made my heart grow. They’ll never understand how much they taught me that week and how much respect and love I have for them all. Even when they are throwing fake snakes at me whilst I chop down the overgrown grass and make me scream every time. Fun and giggles. I love people like that. They knew it.

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What the sanctuary are doing here is one part which I was able to participate in. What they are doing in terms of the bigger picture is changing everything. Trekking Centres have their eagle eyes on this place, they don’t like it. They want it gone. They want to carry on regardless and make their money. What’s happening now is they are seeing that this place is working. Tourists are coming. They are raising awareness and they are educating the Elephant Trekking industry to show there is another way. It’s very early days, but the are on the way to something miraculous happening. I’m sure I’ll be back in years to come and will be blown away with all they have achieved.

On my last day, I sat watching the elephants play in the lake and there were flowers falling from the sky. I don’t know where they were coming from but it was as if the sky was giving them little kisses better. It’s been an incredible week at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, this place proves miracles can exist. The team are the most wonderful, welcoming and beautiful smiling people and made us feel part of the family. They taught me so much and I’ll forever be grateful.

BaanYen had been really struggling this last few days, the pain in her leg had become unbearable and this morning she was unable to stand at all. The team here did all they could. They managed to source a digger to try ot lift her and they spent the whole morning with her trying everything they could.

About midmorning, a single grey raincloud passed over the sanctuary, quite odd on such a hot day with no other cloud in the sky. It passed over from the direction of the yards and poured down for about 10 minutes before disappearing. “That’s nice” I thought “least that will have cooled her down as she wasn’t able to get into the lake today.”. 

That wasn’t the case.

I know you’re kinda sceptical when it comes to this kinda thing, but the Thai’s say that the rain is the ‘passing rain’, and it comes just before death. The Mahouts knew what it meant, the ladies in the kitchen knew too. In the next half an hour, BaanYen found her peace. She passed away surrounded by so much love and she looked like she had just gone to sleep, it happened really quickly. It made me feel sick inside and angry, and so sad that she’d just arrived at refuge two months ago and it ended now.

In the next half an hour, BaanYen found her peace. She passed away surrounded by so much love and she looked like she had just gone to sleep, it happened really quickly. It made me feel sick inside and angry, and so sad that she’d just arrived at refuge two months ago and it ended now. An innocent creature, so gentle and giving.

After we left, the sanctuary held a blessing ceremony with the monks to ensure BaanYen spirit passed on. Her Mahout said she would be a human in her next life as this is what Buddha taught.

Maybe one day I’ll meet BaanYen in human form. Another reason to give everyone you meet with as much kindness, fairness and happiness as you can.

Know it’s been a long one, maybe some night time reading whilst you’re watching over babba.

Love,

Cat xx

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