After finally getting home after my first day in the Starfish Volunteers office I decided to look back on what sparked this whole new part of my life. That meant whapping out the old Mac and having a trek down memory lane, trying to defog some of the crazy nights out we had after a hardworking week with the elephants, remembering how the warm water of the river felt on my sunburn after a days trek and the hilarious conversations that always seemed to occur when we all tried to talk to locals in Thai, to mention just a few.
I can honestly say that there isn’t a part of my whole 4 week trip that I would have changed or would ever not talk about for hours if the opportunity occurs; and by opportunity I mean I talk relentlessly about how much fun I had, again, sometimes to the dismay of my friends who have heard the story of how I ate a cockroach about as many times as I found bits of its legs in my teeth for the remainder of that incredible night on Khao San Road.
So do I just eat it whole or bite off its face? – Pre cockroach consuming Wendy
Eating cockroaches wasn’t a required part of my project it was just the best way I could think of of making a good first impression with my fellow volunteers. I mean who doesn’t want to be known as the girl that ate the cockroach? Well maybe a boy. . . . . or anyone that hasn’t eaten a cockroach.
Awkward realisation that I am the only person known for eating cockroaches.
Moving swiftly along!!!
One of the parts I will remember of my trip most vividly is the first time I actually saw an elephant up close. I’m not talking through the mesh fence at a zoo or safari park, I’m talking actual trunk touching distance away, where you can hear their low dulcet rumbling voices and feel their hot breath when they come and inspect you on your first meeting. Nothing can compare to that feeling of sheer elation that you are finally doing something that you aways wanted to do but also, that that one elephant could kill you with one flick of their mighty trunk, one misstep of their bone crushing feet or…….. if you are truly unlucky they could sit on you like that poor guy on Youtube. The thing with elephants is, they don’t want to kill you, all they want to do is find the tastiest bit of sugarcane that you are hiding in your bag and quietly strip away the course outer layer and munch on the sweet tasting inside; a bit like roast potatoes for elephants really.
Now I love elephants, I really do but they aren’t half lazy when they want to be. My elephant Buntan (which is Thai for ‘full marks’) was the biggest of the elephants in our village which meant that it was an adventure in itself to try and clamber up her mountainous side and sit atop her neck; turns out it isn’t as easy as Legolas makes out when he scales that huge Oliphaunt in Return of the King, who knew movies weren’t true, especially ones with elves in. I always thought they looked quite honest.
As much as it looks like Buntan is helping me to get up, along with Mr Lee, the hilarious man that owns the elephants, and Burn, her mahout, she actually isn’t. In any way. I know. I was there. I was literally trying to scramble up the side of that elephant much in the same way as cats are desperate to get out of water, and I am nowhere near as nimble or as quick as a cat so I was there for a good 5 minuets; much to the amusement of the other mahouts, like the cheeky one in the corner of the above photo.
Meanwhile. . . . . . another Starfish volunteer, Caroline Cravey, was perched very beautifully on her elephant Pailin (the Thai word for Sapphire) without a care in the world and definitely not as sweaty as me after my own elephant climb.
It’s alright for some huh?
As much as getting on the elephant was a challenge, it was all worth it when we set off for our first trek in the jungle surrounding the village. It was a scorching hot day in June and the three of us were trying to find our inner mahout (elephant handler) whilst wandering through the bright green jungle with the equally as bright orange dirt floor. Now elephants are pretty big but they make no noise when they move through the jungle, the noisiest thing you will find would be Tom complaining about his sore behind or the mahouts talking to the elephants, trying to convince them that walking was far more interesting that eating, which wasn’t often acknowledged. I know I would rather eat a packet of Skittles than walk around piggybacking a foreigner; unfortunately they don’t sell skittles in Thailand 😦
After about an hour of walking through the the most beautiful Thai jungle we came out of the curtain of bamboo and found a free flowing river with an old thai man washing his clothes, not bothered at all by the sight of the elephants but greatly intrigued at the three ghostly white figures sat atop them. I always forgot how ‘normal’ elephants are in this part of the world, they aren’t exotic or intriguing they are just like rather large dogs, but white people? White people are more exotic than a desert to an eskimo. After talking to the friendly Thai man we took the elephants into the warm water of the river only to then be told by our co ordinator Worn that elephants love to poop in the river! And poop they did!
Do I need to stand up like you do with a horse? – Tom Kanter
But, poop aside, swimming in the river besides a live elephant is an incredible experience that is far more fun than it looks, even though everyone tells me how amazing it looks. The elephants will just sit down in the river and tumble from side to side getting themselves comfy in the soft mud and just chill out, take in some rays and let us clean them down; like an elephant spa day. Pailin’s mahout Saam (the Thai word for three, as he is the third son) was 17 when I first visited, which is very young for a mahout, and he loves Pailin more than I have seen any person love an animal before, he has taught her to blow air through her trunk making a squeaky noise on the command of ‘thank you’ in either Thai or English, to open her mouth up so it can be checked, to pull flowers from branches to give to pretty girls and also, most conveniently for washing, he has taught her to pull water through her trunk and fire it out on command. A tool which he uses to help wash the other elephants and also to blow water into your face when he calls your name; I never managed to remember to always be weary of my name being called whilst we were washing the elephants, so it’s safe to say I regularly had river water, held in the trunk of an elephant, blown in my face.
But now, looking back at that river drenched girl in my photos I can see a smile on my face and a realisation that I was actually achieving a dream that I had spent months saving for and talking about with my Starfish liaison, Steve. I can remember feeling so at ease and happier than I had done in a very long time and it was all because I took that first step to sign myself up to do the Starfish Elephant project, the project that has given me friends for life around the world, the confidence to travel alone and that made it possible for me to tick off one of the things on my bucket list.
I know that you are sat there right now reading this, unless you are stood up or laid down that is, and probably thinking about what you have on your own bucket list and wishing you had done some of the things on it, well it isn’t too late you know. You are never too old, too young, too under qualified or too busy to be able to find a few weeks in the year to do a once in a lifetime adventure like swimming with elephants, teaching english to children who might otherwise not get the opportunity, or helping build an orphanage and making it self sufficient so that it can support children for many years to come.
So take that first step to ticking off your bucket list and get on over to the Starfish – Volunteer Thailand website and sign yourself up on one of the projects and make the memories that you always wished you always had. If you are already signed up to come hang out with me and the elephants and want to know all the new Starfish news or want to just see what we are doing with our work in Thailand and India then sign up and have a butchers at the Starfish Newsletter, the Starfish Tumblr page, where you can also read the blog of my Sanghklaburi counterpart, Joe Bloggs, or even our new snazzy Instagram at
Build. Protect. Teach. Care. – The Starfish Motto