The Death Railway – Thailand

Much has been written about the building of the Thailand Burma railway. Films like The Railway Man and The Bridge on the River Kwai depict the brutality of Japanese soldiers and the deadly conditions under which allied POWs and conscripted Asian laborers worked on the railway during World War II. A walk across the River Kwai bridge elicits images of the suffering. The heat is extreme even during this January day, the sun so unrelenting that I pop open my umbrella for relief. The POWs had no opportunity for any respite. A momentary stop to wipe sweat from their eyes could result in a beating. The solemnity of my experience here is broken only by a group of Thai schoolboys who smile excitedly as this westerner greets them in their native language — sawasdee ka —    –hello!

We travel down the road to the Hellfire Pass Museum where short films about, and photos of, the railway POWs bring me to tears. War as they say is hell, but somehow seeing these images in this setting is so much more heart wrenching than my high school history classes could convey. In the summer of 1942, World War II was raging across Europe and Asia. The allies were rapidly capturing the sea routes to Burma, forcing the Japanese to develop an overland supply route from the east to support their troops. About 200,000 Asian laborers and 61,000 allied prisoners of war built this 260 mile stretch of rail in abominable conditions. For every half-mile of track laid, 38 POWs perished.
From the museum we head to the four kilometer trail that will take us through Hellfire Pass. The pass appears suddenly, less than ten minutes into our hike. I can picture the men, with their primitive tools, chipping away at this mountain of stone. Children and grandchildren of the men who died here have visited and left behind flags and mementos in honor of their loved ones. It is another stark reminder of what we lose because of war and hate.

Elephant Nature Park – Some Final Thoughts and Pictures

As I say goodbye to Zaza, Champagne, Hope, Tubtim, and all of the other elephants at the sanctuary I feel a sense of wonder. The land, the people, and the animals that make this experience so magical will remain with me forever. I urge you to consider coming here and making a contribution of your time and labor. You will be rewarded ten fold. Some information to help you decide…..

Where: Elephant Nature Park, less than 90 minutes from Chiang Mai, Thailand

Cost: 12000 Baht, or $339 a week at the current Baht to US dollar exchange rate. Covers food, shared room, and transport to and from Chiang Mai.

ENP is not for everyone. The accommodations are rustic. No heat or air conditioning. Neither of which is necessary during the month of January. Mosquito nets are provided. There is running water – sometimes hot, sometimes not. No television, and wifi is sporadic at best. Meals are all vegan and vegetarian. I am neither, but I found every meal to be filling and delicious. And, an ice cold beer can be bought for $1.70! Bring mosquito repellant, sunscreen, and a sense of adventure.

Lorenza, Peggy, me

There are no single rooms. I was matched with Peggy from Canada and Lorenza from Italy, both friendly, funny, caring women whom I hope will be in my life for a long time. Partly because we are so isolated here, and partly because of a shared purpose, the other volunteers become like family. Most of my fellow volunteers were Aussies, Canadians, Americans, and a handful of Europeans. They were grade schoolers and retirees, solo travelers (like me), couples, and families. We lingered on the pavilions after dinner sharing life stories, playing games, and laughing. These were some of the most interesting, friendly, and engaged individuals I have met in all my travels.

The volunteers

The work is hard. We scrubbed melons, sorted bananas, weeded and prepped new garden plots, cut grass and corn stalks (with machetes!), scooped giant elephant poo, fed the elephants, helped them cool off in the river, unloaded truckloads of melons and pumpkins, and whatever else needed to be done to support the efforts of the sanctuary employees and veterinarians. And for fun we often went to the dog rescue to walk dogs and play with the puppies.

So it is not a rest and relaxation kind of vacation. But the rewards are many….the sense of peace that comes with being around these big, gentle creatures; the unique setting and beautiful Thai countryside; the comraderie.

But my time at the sanctuary is ending and I am off to Bangkok and the next leg of the journey. Good night from Thailand.

Emma, the rescue dog

A Volunteer Adventure in Thailand

Lek Chailert, founder of Elephant Nature Park

Experience one warm month this winter — check

Volunteer with big, sweet animals — check

Visit an exotic Asian locale — check

Thailand fit the bill on all counts and as foreign travel goes, it’s a bargain. So for the month of January I will be in Thailand, followed by a few days in Cambodia in February. And the big, sweet animals? Elephants!

Zaza and me

Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants in Mae Taeng District, Chiang Mai Province, Northern Thailand. Founded by Lek Chailert in the 1990s, the park is now part of the Save the Elephant Foundation.

ENP provides sanctuary for rescued elephants and it has expanded to care for dogs and other animals displaced by the devastating 2004 tsunami and 2011 flood.

img_1500One week into my stint at the sanctuary, I have learned several things. It will not surprise you to know that people who dedicate their lives to the love and care of endangered and discarded animals are selfless, hardworking, and kind. In the case of ENP, those people are the local villagers, sanctuary employees, volunteers and veterinarians from around the world, and founder,Lek Chailert. Lek has been saving elephants since the early 90s, but she will not turn away a dog, cat, pig, buffalo, horse, or a cow. And she is not some distant figurehead. She is here everyday…..talking to volunteers, feeding milk to an abandoned baby boar (hourly!), meeting with the vets and employees, feeding the elephants, and sharing her love and dedication with all.

I have learned that the work we do as volunteers is vital to the health and stability of ENP. There are seventy elephants here…..seventy! And they each eat an average of 250 pounds of food a day. That’s over 17,000 pounds of corn stalks, bananas, melons, and grass –  a day. While most forage on their own on the roughly 5 square mile property, there can be as many as 20 being cared for in the accessible areas. On any given day there are 70 – 100 volunteers cutting corn and grass, scrubbing melons, picking bananas, preparing medicines, bathing and feeding the elephants. And that 250 pounds of food? Well it becomes elephant poo…..and volunteers shovel and scoop away, without complaint. The work that volunteers do allows ENP to use their resources for all of the other costs and labor of caring for such a large and diverse group of animals.

Poo patrol

I have learned that the elephants at ENP have come from some tragic backgrounds. They have been rescued from logging camps and tourist shows where they were subjected to hooks and chains, malnourished and broken. Many had injuries or illnesses that were never treated. Some of the elephants were victims of land mines in neighboring countries, sustaining devastating injuries. At ENP they have received life saving surgeries, medical intervention, nourishment, and care. The elephants are healing and thriving and have formed loving family units that emulate the natural behaviors of elephants in the wild. Watching these dignified giants care for their young, for their disabled or elderly, is something to behold. At first you cry over the stories of their mistreatment, but then you laugh at their antics….trunk tug of wars, splashing in the river, babies rolling in the mud, and mama stealing bananas from your basket.

Poo patrol

So one week in, I can close my eyes in the cool Thailand night and dream of safe, healthy elephants.

Until next week, hope you enjoy these photos……

Students at a local school

Clearing for vegetable planting