I would have to write a novel, no, a trilogy, to convey to you everything that my time in Thailand has given me, which seems quite incredible considering I’ve barely been here for 2 weeks, so I will not even attempt it. This short post will offer a small insight into my favourite experiences of my time here so you might be able to get the gist of what this has been like for me.
I have come to the end of my time in Thailand, and what a phenomenal time it has been In just a short time, I have done so much and immersed myself in so much culture. It’s amazing what you can do when you put yourself out there and embrace your life and take every opportunity presented to you.
I’m currently writing this on a 9 hour overnight layover (oh what joy) in Colombo, waiting for my flight to India, but that’s the price you pay for a more affordable flight I guess, all part of the experience.
So to begin at the beginning, I left home almost 2 weeks ago, absolutely shitting myself as you can imagine. I’ve never done anything like this before and I was going to literally the other side of the world by myself. Whaaaaaaaat. My poor mother could tell how scared I was when she left me and kept calling me at the airport to check how I was! I was right to be nervous and a bit scared cos I knew that even in this short time I’d be forced to face challenges, even little ones, like when things don’t go to plan, and had to use my initiative as a fully functioning adult (lol next joke please) to sort everything out.
As to what I’ve actually experienced, let’s start with the organisation that I volunteered with, GVI (Global Visions International). They have been an amazing leaping off point to surround myself in the culture of Thailand and to give me a bit of handholding at the beginning of my trip (extremely useful for a first time solo traveller going to a completely new country!
The specific project that I actually went to work on was with rescue elephants; working with the local village to rehabilitate elephants that had been rescued from camps and such like. Or in GVI’s own words, ‘Support community efforts to help reintegrate elephants into their natural habitat, from their previous lives in tourist camps’.
It was an absolutely breathtaking experience. Not many people have the privilege to experience getting that close to the elephants in their natural habitats. The only other real option to get as close to the elephants as we did is if you saw them in camps or zoos, not the best situation for them as I shall explain.
We not only got to visit, hike with, feed and health check the elephants, we were also educated on the history of the elephants, how they have been treated and seen in the past, how they are treated in camps currently and what learned behaviours that they ‘perform’ are harmful to them e.g. standing on hind legs. We learned how these tricks are learned through the negative reinforcement in the camps, bad diet they are given and the lack of healthcare for them etc etc. More importantly we learned how we could make a difference and promote ethical tourism, which I suppose is what I am doing now. So if you take one thing away from this post it is do not ride the elephants. Their lungs are actually attached to their rib cages so the minute any pressure is put on their backs it greatly inhibits their ability to breathe. A lot of people don’t know that (I know I didn’t) so I urge you if you ever hear your friends say they’re going to ride them please discourage them!! If you must visit elephants, please do your research and find out which ones actually treat the elephants well.
After ethical tourism, most importantly we learned about the elephants bond with their mahout, a villager who stays with their specific elephant and is bonded with them, stays out with them in the field and is essentially their carer, protector and friend. We try to persuade as many mahouts as possible to bring their elephants back to the forest and away from the camps.
The bond that the mahouts have with the elephants is amazing. On one hike, one of the elephants, Charlie, had hurt his leg and within about half an hour, several of the villagers had biked down to where we were to see what was wrong and if they could help. The love that these people have for the elephants is second to none.
Not only was I helping a wonderful cause and learning a lot about the cause in the process, the way the project was structured I have been completely thrown into a another culture with new customs, new language, new way of life and the whole experience has been phenomenal. For example, the first night we arrived in the village, we were thrown into the middle of a celebration of the Karen people.It was the villages end of harvest festival and they had all been drinking since 8am something called rice whiskey, a drink that they make buy and sell themselves (it was super strong and super gross btw) but you couldn’t refuse it, as that is rude in their culture. Consequently, I also learned by first pakinyaw word that day ‘chicka’ which means little haha, chicka chicka whiskey. And in the process discovered that they have their entirely own language that is in no way similar to Thai (super useful I know).
In the middle of these celebrations we took a break for dinner where the people of the village all brought food for a potluck dinner. At the end of which, they villagers blessed all the newcomers and current residents, by tying white string around our wrists (which is now brown coz of all the dust in the village) to keep away that bad spirits and invite the good ones in what is called a gigu.
In addition to all of this, I had a few lessons in Pankinyaw which was super interesting and also had a tour of the village itself which was amazing. I’ve never experienced a village which was so isolated, in the middle of the mountains, literally not appearing on google maps, only 200-300 people, very basic conditions, bamboo/wood housing structures, no hot water, bucket showers, squat toilets, not for the faint hearted!! Really see how the other half live, self contained, had its own school and nursery, a couple of little shops and they worked the fields and the elephants. The women in the village even hand made their own garments which were available to sell (I bought a fair few items!)
Also, the people of the village were not cautious towards us as I had feared. They were glad of the help and the GVI team had create such a good bond with them over the years that they had been there. Each volunteer stayed with their own home stay family who took them in, gave them a bed, and fed them. We even had a cooking class in their traditional style of cooking, which basically meant alllllllll the rice, lots of eggs and then some veggies.
As well as hiking with the elephants, I went on a night hike which was amazing as we were taken by a mahout through the spirit forest, so called as when the babies are born in the village, their umbilical cords are tied to the trunks of the trees in they forest so that their spirits are intertwined with the spirits in the forest (very avatar- esque it seems to me).
I was extremely lucky to be able to experience a corner of Thai culture that is not available to most who visit and wasn’t just thrown into the hustle and bustle of the usual tourism.
I got so many experiences like that it was incredible to have fitted them in in such a small space of time.
I was also lucky that in the week I was with GVI we were offered a trip into the town and then to visit Doi Inathon the highest point in Thailand. Not only is it a beautiful national park but it is also a gorgeous temple. The amount of incredible views and beautiful temples I saw was great, most people only get to see pictures but I managed to experience the whole thing first hand. For pictures and descriptions check out my Instagram.
Most importantly let’s not forget the people that I have met. I have met so many incredible people, from all over the world, people who I had no idea I would meet and ended up travelling on with some! I felt so close to people even after only a couple of days so I can’t imagine how the people who have been on the project for months or even years feel!
In my, albeit currently limited experience, I have found that you tend to get on well with pretty much everyone, as I feel there’s a very niche group of people that would be willing to spend weeks or even months in a dirt village in the middle of nowhere with no wifi and questionable sanitation, getting up at god knows what time each morning to go hiking to look after other creatures…
So, here’s a smidge of what life was like as a first time traveller, in Chiang Mai, however, I will do a full post on my tips, tricks and advice when I have completed my travels and am full of worldly knowledge (hahahahahaha). I was concerned as single girl travelling alone in strange country where I didn’t know my way around but if you’re sensible you’re fine. Everyone I’ve met has been super helpful; check tripadvisor and trust word of mouth of your friends that have been before. As a Westerner they will probably try and charge you more, especially at markets buy usually the prices are still so low it’s not much of an issue. If you find a fixed price stall that takes away the pressure of haggling which I really hate. In the city, you’ll find western food, super cheap food at markets, alternatively go to a restaurant, get a massive really good meal and a drink for under a fiver, had meals that you would easily pay 3 times as much for at home.
However, I’m not going to pretend it was all sunshine and rainbows, although there was pretty much nothing but sun weather wise. I have found some bits hard. Feeling like I don’t have a safe place or a place to call home that I can run back so when it all gets a bit overwhelming. I still have so much to learn, learning not to get panicked at the first hiccup, not to be afraid and feel bad when I’m on my own, not afraid to talk to other people, you kind of have to be ‘that person’ when you’re oh your own. Have to love yourself and your own company, need to learn to let go of the little things that make you angry inside, leave it alllll behind and take a deep breath. I have to keep reminding myself that I’ve barely been doing this for two weeks and it’s bound to get some getting used to.
Thailand, you have been incredible and I am sorry to leave but am equally as excited to go to India. I hope my time there will be similar but oh so different at the same time. Peace out.