Walking Among the Elephants

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Posing with elephants is not necessarily the cute, care-free activity it may seem to be on social media. I actually found it to be quite intimidating. While I did manage to score a handful of quality photos, it wasn’t without some squealing and squirming. Standing next to a gigantic elephant felt like cliff jumping- your instincts tell you not to but it’s too awesome to pass up.

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My elephant journey happened alongside the volunteer crew (minus James- he stayed in Phrao for a boxing/festival event). If I’m being honest, we were fairly hungover from the night before in Chiang Mai but the headaches and nausea went away as the adrenaline kicked in. We all struggled in the morning to get up at 6am and onto the Songtaew (red pick up truck taxi) but eventually made it to the elephant camp, called Into the Wild, after an hour and half journey winding through the mountains.

As we made our way from the truck down the mountain to where the camp was, we were greeted by a mother and newborn baby elephant. The baby was only 15 days old and still blind so it looked so helpless and lost but even the more lovable. After that exciting introduction to the camp, we had a really interesting lecture by the camp owner, who spoke really good English. He explained to us that while Thailand’s elephant camp’s have a reputation for being abusive to their elephants, it is in fact the camps that keep the elephants healthy and alive (there are still better camps than others, however). We learned that while elephants traditionally were used for hard labor in Thailand, such as pushing down trees, there has since been an effort to stop using elephants this way. But since the elephants have already been raised with humans and depend on human feeding and care, they cannot be released into the wild because they will not be able to fend for themselves and will probably be killed by wild elephants. So, the alternative is to have camps, where owners can make enough money off of visitors to pay for the elephant’s food and care, without making it do hard labor. The owner of Into the Wild, for example, cares a lot for his elephants, who were rescued from people who were using them for labor and works hard operating his camp so he can have the money to keep them healthy. His insight gave me a totally new perspective on the elephant issue and also gave me relief knowing I was supporting the health of the elephants, rather than taking away from it.

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We headed into the woods after our briefing with three of the elephants walking in front of and behind us. At times, one of them would pick up speed or try to turn around and we would all have to move to accommodate them. As in every group, there was the slow one who just wanted to stop and eat and another who kept finding trees to itch herself on. The trail we walked on with them wasn’t big so sharing such a confined space with three massive animals was an adventure.

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The last big activity we did was the mud bath. All the visitors gathered around this muddy area and dumped handfuls of mud on the elephants since that is apparently something they like. Of course we also dumped mud on each other in the process…

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To clean ourselves and the elephants off, we swam in a waterhole on the site and splashed water all over the elephants until all the mud was off. Swimming around with these gigantic elephants in a body of water the size of a pond was also pretty intimidating – but really cool. They looked so happy having water splashed all over them but as soon as they got out of the water, they threw dirt all over themselves again.

Spending the morning and most of the afternoon with these creatures was unforgettable. They are very intelligent and even seemed to have human-like expressions.  Staring into their eyes was fascinating because it made me realize how much life was behind those long eyelashes. Until next time, big guys.

-Annaleigh

It’s All Coming Together 

Phrao, Chiang Mai, Thailand 

Having been at Warm Heart for one month now, I have finally established my projects and learned a lot about my surroundings. My title here is a fundraising and public relations volunteer. During the first couple weeks I did a lot of brainstorming, planning and organizing, trying to figure out what my place would be here and how I would be of benefit. I had a lot of ideas and plans struck down with unexpected projects thrown at me, which constantly redefined my purpose here and made me think hard about what my projects would be. It turns out that my ideas like implementing a brand new annually-based fundraising system and my several suggestions for the website and social media pages were not a priority to the staff and were too complicated to take on for an organization that is too busy worrying about their current projects, much less taking on new ones.  

By the second week, I had a good grasp on what the organization needed and began jumping in. Sometimes I consulted, other times I just hoped I wasn’t crossing boundaries. Turns out, there’s not much crossing boundaries you can do here as anything is better than nothing. My first big duty I took on was social media. I began to act as the primary handler of the Warm Heart Worldwide Facebook page as well as the Instagram account. At first, I was extremely conscious of what I was posting and was worried what the marketing director would think of my posts but quickly learned that she had left it in my hands because she trusted me. I began posting 3-5 times a week on each account, taking requests, but mostly just posting what I thought was most relative, urgent or engaging. So far, both accounts seem to be doing really well and I am having fun being the voice of Warm Heart online.

I also learned about the need for help on the Sponsor A Child program sine 11 new kids have been added to the Children’s Home this year, all without sponsors. Not only were photos and updated bios needed for the older kids who do have sponsors, but more importantly photos and bios needed to be taken and written for the new kids who need sponsors asap. Because my main purpose coming here was to fundraise and because James takes photographs, this has become our main project. It hasn’t always been exciting or eye-opening as it often requires the tedious tasks of organizing folders online, sorting through pictures and gathering information about the children, but the necessity of it makes it valuable and worth-while to me. Not to mention, I’ve gotten to know the kids REALLY well. To spice things up, James and I began working on a social media campaign to promote the program. He has been designing the graphics and I brainstormed the slogan and message while also gathering photographs and bios to share. I am extremely excited to launch it as it will be a visual product of what we’ve been working on.

Aside from the work I do in the office during weekdays, I have also occupied a lot of time with random visits to local events and errands with other volunteers. Because everything works on a last-minute schedule here, there have been several days when the other volunteers and I come into the office to hear there is something like a village’s festival, Buddhist house blessing or lunch at a police station we’re invited to. These outings keep things exciting and spontaneous, which I love. I personally go nearly all the time since I find those kind of visits to be great material for social media and a wonderful insight into the local culture.

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A visit to the local police station, where they hosted the WH volunteers and some staff as a welcome gesture.
I also have taken on many English classes at the Warm Heart campus, the local subdistrict offices and a restaurant in nearby Phrao, where a children’s class is hosted. While I expected to teach English a couple hours per week before arriving, I have found my teaching schedule to be very scattered and sometimes hard to keep up with. When I first arrived, I hadn’t been assigned to any classes so I began accompanying other volunteers to theirs and quickly picked up on teaching. Although it can sometimes be challenging to figure out what to teach, since there is a large range of skill levels, I enjoy giving both local adults and children the opportunity to learn English. I myself took my language classes for granted when I was in school and regret not putting more effort into learning a second language so it brings me joy to see Thai people eagerly wanting to learn my language. While my first class was an adult class at the subdistrict offices, I soon tried out the children’s class which I enjoyed more so I started making that a regular commitment. Since then, I have also taken on English lessons with the new children’s house manager, Surapee. She treats me like a granddaughter, always making me dessert and bringing me back fruit when she goes to the market. Every week day we try to meet and practice conversation and vocabulary. She is fairly advanced but still struggles with casual conversation so when she asked me to help her, I was happy to do so.

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Teaching at the restaurant in Phrao, where the children’s class takes place every Monday
The children at Warm Heart know basic conversation and words but many of them don’t feel confident enough with their English to have in-depth conversations with volunteers. Lately it has become a campus-wide goal to get them practicing more and setting them up for success with the English language. While I already have several English classes to take up a chunk of my time each week, it looks like I’ll be beginning even more. With a large number of American volunteers this summer, there is a great opportunity for the children to practice and improve at English. Hopefully we can make some kind of impact and not only help them, but also make them want to learn.

Besides the projects and teaching, I have found great friendships and adventure here at Warm Heart. Although many of the other volunteers are also American, we all have very different personalities but get along well which adds a cool dynamic to our experience. Since we all enjoy each other, we’re always hanging out during free time. On weekends, we take trips to surrounding towns and waterfalls, and also make time for dinners out when we feel like changing up the routine. Adventuring with them has made my volunteer experience so far more than I could have expected. Of course I have learned a lot about Warm Heart and the Phrao valley region I am living in, but I have also learned a lot about other areas of Northern Thailand I once did’t even know existed. The region of Northern Thailand is filled with many possibilities and to be able to learn about it through service and in such an intimate way, has been a true privilege. I am looking forward to growing my projects throughout the rest of my summer here and hoping to make a lasting impact on an organization that definitely deserves the efforts.

-Annaleigh

A Slice of Pai

Phrao, Chiang Mai, Thailand | Pai, Thailand

It seems as soon as I begin to fall into a routine here, something comes up and reminds me what this experience is all about. I have found it’s easy to get caught up in the to-do lists and project tasks in front of me but as soon as I am jolted away from it, whether by a last-minute visit to a village or an unexpected lunch at the local police station, I remember that my focus of this volunteer experience is not only to help check tasks off lists but more importantly to learn from and add to the community I am here to be of benefit to. After all, how can you really help a community without learning about it?

My projects are coming along and although not as quickly as I am used to, definitely as thoroughly. I have planned and adjusted and planned and adjusted over and over but that is what it takes to make progress here. I have learned so much patience from dealing with the limited amount of structure and resources available to get things done, as opposed to the excess amount of structure and resources I am used to from school and internships in the U.S. I also am getting plenty of practice at adaptability- leaving my to-do lists dependent on things out of my control such as Wi-Fi, a last minute schedule change or call for help. An expectation for a day ahead is rarely accurate as no day is ever the same.

With 45 kids living at the Children’s Home, a Thai staff that speaks limited English, and multiple rural villages constantly requesting our presence, the volunteers stay on their toes at Warm Heart. It really is refreshing in a way though to be in an environment that places the people and immediate needs above schedules and routines. Although it can sometimes feel confusing and unorganized when compared to the structure of operations that are practiced in the U.S., I have realized the importance of prioritizing based on values rather than results. There is not a single staff member or volunteer I can think of who wouldn’t drop all of their tasks and duties for a week to be with a child or villager who needed them.

When I’m not running around Warm Heart or taking field trips with other volunteers to temple festivals or official meetings, I am exploring and adventuring around beautiful Northern Thailand. Our last weekend trip was to Pai, a “hippie town,” as it’s known around Thailand, surrounded by an incredible landscape west of Phrao. Seven volunteers went and we all had an amazing time getting to know a new town.

Our first evening there was rainy and dark by the time we arrived but we were welcomed by a lively and decorative backpacker resort, where we spent the night eating, talking and having a drink. The next day was a full and lovely day spent traveling to all the major attractions in the Pai area via private air-conditioned mini van. We did not mean for it to be private or air-conditioned but since we had a big group, we were offered a cheap rate for a VIP tour so we went for it. We got to see just about everything you can in the area. Some stops were obvious tourist traps but places like Pai Canyon and Pambok Waterfall completely made it worth it.

Pai Canyon was amazing to me with its tall, narrow walls winding around with spectacular views of mountains all around it. I couldn’t figure out how it was formed but I definitely have never seen anything like it. Pambok Waterfall was everyone’s highlight as it was the kind of adventure you dream about when you think about hiking to waterfalls. It was the full experience- admiring the falling water, braving the cold, and then swimming under the waterfall. Not to mention, it also poured down rain while we were swimming. Of course it was an amazing sight but just being so intimate with nature is what made it special. To see a waterfall is one thing but to swim in one is where the real beauty is.

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Our night out in Pai was one for the books. Although we didn’t all go completely crazy, we all had some drinks and plenty of laughs. We went to several different bars, some where we chatted, others where we danced to the blues. What made it even more exciting was that a couple of James’ friends from New Zealand are now living in Pai and showed us around for the night. It was cool to merge the groups and enjoy life and each other in such a far, unique place. The road to Pai is one of the windiest in SE Asia so the drive back the next day wasn’t easy but it was still worth it.

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Pai’s simple and natural beauty combined with its ample amount of viewpoints and attractions definitely drew me in and made me feel relaxed the whole time I was there. I can see why people rave about it. Great vibes and great people. But at the same time, the views in Phrao aren’t half bad either and there aren’t streets full of backpackers ;).

So here I am now back in the Pradu house with another week in full gear. The anticipation for future unexpected outings, gorgeous views and exciting adventures continues!

-Annaleigh

 

Phrao District

Phrao, Chiang Mai, Thailand 

It’s been nearly two weeks since I arrived in Phrao, Thailand and I couldn’t be happier with what has come out of the experience so far. I’ve been working hard to make progress with fundraising projects for Warm Heart while also balancing my time here with plenty of spontaneous outings and adventures with the other volunteers, whom James and I have found to become good friends.

The district of Phrao is situated in an unbelievably beautiful landscape that I have gotten to know a bit more about in the past couple of weeks. Since learning to become comfortable driving my own motorbike to and from the Warm Heart headquarters every weekday and to the town of Phrao, like I did today, I have discovered a lot more freedom to get around the area and soak in views from every angle. Although I still have a long way to go, I feel I have a good start on knowing the region well after some little motorbike expeditions this weekend. While there is only one main, curvy road, winding through the valley to Phrao in one direction and to Chiang Mai in the other, there are many backroads that go through villages and to temples. Today, James and I went into Phrao for lunch and to pick up some fruit from the afternoon market. On the way back, we took our time, cutting through some backroads that led us to a temple, to views high in the hills, and then back through the villages off Phrao district’s main road. The protected land that makes up most of the region is called Si Lanna National Park. While many of the volunteers and I want to do some hiking through the valley, we have been warned about there being a sparse amount of trails, only used by villagers and also dangerous because of the wild tigers that call the mountain region home. We still haven’t decided how seriously to take this warning, but gave it a pass for this weekend until we get to know the area for ourselves better. Instead, we opted for a local waterfall visit and climb.

The waterfall, known as Bua Tong Waterfall, is located south of Phrao, outside the northern suburbs of Chiang Mai. Although relatively touristy and busy, it was a great escape to a cooler, shaded place where we could be relieved from the heat by the refreshing spring water. Because the rock of the waterfall is made of minerals that are not slippery, people were climbing up and down the waterfall, using a rope to help support them through the steep areas. Of course myself and a couple others joined in and cautiously walked down the waterfall, enjoying the cool water splashing on us as we went.

We have also visited the town of Phrao many times in the past couple of weeks between work meetings, market runs and meal outings. Although it is not a big town, with only a few streets of buildings, it has all the necessities and offers a wide selections of fruits, veggies and breads at the market placed in the center of town. Not to mention, it’s a great place to grab a quality cup of coffee when you’re craving it. Many of us go to Phrao to simply get some coffee that isn’t made from instant powder or to get food that doesn’t consist of steamed rice, like we eat as a part of every meal at Warm Heart. Phrao isn’t somewhere I could see tourists having a reason to visit but I do enjoy the authenticity and quaintness about it when walking around, with other foreigners being non-existent and local, rural Thai people smiling at you everywhere you go. There’s no doubt the other volunteers and I get some stares and as we walk around with our pale skin, speaking our English language.

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Taken at a meeting regarding Phrao tourism efforts, with local business owners and government officials in attendance

Meanwhile, the children at Warm Heart are becoming friends and are getting more comfortable with me as they see me around more. There is one girl in particular, Pim, who is about 10-years-old and always has the biggest smile and hug waiting for me every time I see her. She is always ready for a cuddle and loves to imitate the English words I say as I try and communicate with her. While she still struggles to understand many, she seems to be a really smart girl and a quick learner. She is by far the friendliest I have gotten to any of the 45 children but am getting to know a new one every day. There are so many running around that it can be overwhelming trying to get closer to them but with time, comes the natural interactions that make me want to do everything I can to help these kids with the struggles of their past they internalize all the time.

This past weekend spent in Phrao was comforting as I learned more about my surroundings and had time to relax in my new environment. I look forward to more time exploring the local area, but also have my sights set on some new adventures in surrounding towns and mountains of Northern Thailand for some of the upcoming weekends. After all, no day is quite the same around here.

-Annaleigh