The GVI project I had the pleasure of being a part of was the Conservation Project with Elephants in Thailand. I was there for a total of 4 weeks, this was certainly not long enough! I arrived at the village of Huay Pakoot, about 5 hours North of Chiang Mai, not knowing what to expect. I was immediately greeted by the staff and some other volunteers and taken to base camp. The view was phenomenal, I couldn’t stop staring at it – and to think that this was the view I would be looking at whilst having my breakfast every morning was just amazing.
I was then taken to my homestay, it was just my luck that I was at the top of hill! My homestay mum name was Areerat, and she always greeted me with a smile and asked me how I was. Obviously the villagers didn’t speak much English, but I was able to learn a lot of their local language (Pakinyaw), and it was so rewarding when I could finally have a flowing conversation with them without even thinking about it. My room was very basic but it quickly began to feel like home – and the view from my window was something I will never forget. To wake up every morning the amazing view of the hills of Northern Thailand is not something many people get to experience every day. Areerat made my lunch and hung it on a peg outside my door every day, which I was always very grateful for, especially because her cooking is amazing! The first night I arrived we had a pot luck, which was where all homestay mums would bring food down to base camp and we all ate together and shared food. This was a great time to meet all the other volunteers and get to know each other. There was also a Geeju, where the villages would come and tie small white pieces of string around our wrists, as their token of good luck and to keep away bad spirits. I still have these bracelets on to this day!
A typical day would start at 6:30am (which took a lot of getting used to!), and I would go down to base for breakfast. Most mornings I would head to Root’s Coffee Shop beforehand, where he made the most amazing coffee I have ever tasted – it was always a great start to the day. We would then leave for the hike. The hikes would usually last around 5-6 hours, which at first I struggled with, but it soon became normal and extremely enjoyable. We would hike through the dense forest until we could hear the gentle sound of the bells the elephants were wearing – the sound was so beautiful! We spend a few hours with the elephants, most of the time just watching the beautiful creatures go about their daily lives (mostly eating). We also noted down any behaviours we saw and also did regular health checks. It was so heart-warming to see the elephants in their natural habitats, stress-free and able to roam without constantly being forced to perform tricks or give rides to tourists. Even though deforestation makes it very difficult for them to be completely wild, this is the best environment they could possibly be in, so I was extremely humble to be able to volunteer so closely with them. The relationship the elephants have with their mahouts (who owned the elephants) was just beautiful to see, and the strong friendships I also made with the mahouts is something I will never forget.
We would then head back to base and enjoy lunch – a typical lunch would include omelette, noodles, chicken and the odd fried banana. It was also so tasty and was amazing to get a taste of what the villagers eat every day. Then in the afternoon, on some days I would head up to the local school to teach the children English. This would include children in Nursery up to grades 5/6. The children were always so happy and eager to learn, and it was incredible to see the progress they made in just the month I was there!
We would eat with our homestay families most nights, and a lot of the time I would invite the other volunteers to eat at my house too, because Areerat always loved having visitors. We would sit on the floor around a small table and Areerat would sit with us and ask us how our day was, and we would tell her that her food was delicious and she would always have a beaming smile across her face. Some days we would have a cooking class, where groups of volunteers would go to a villagers’ house and they would teach us how to cook some of the dishes they served us every day. This was amazing experience as it has given me something to take home – I cook these dishes a lot at home now, it gives me a taste from my second home!
All in all the village has been a life-changing experience, so much that I have planned to go back there for 6 months next year. It is a place that quickly felt like home, so much that I plan to live and work there in the future. Doing a Zoology and Conservation degree, the project and all that it is about is everything I want in a career and also in my own life. The simplicity of life here is so refreshing, and it makes me wonder why life elsewhere can’t be like that all the time! GVI does amazing things, things that I will continue to be a part of. It inspires me every day to continue to be involved in conservation and also community.