03 Jun A Week Away and Elephants Today
Where do we begin? Two very appreciated showers later and I think all the sweat and dirt is out of our hair, but no doubt the memories are still fresh and not to be forgotten by anyone. Working with the phenomenal Mirror Foundation, for our fourth year straight, the group has just returned safe and sound from a perspective-changing week with the Lahu tribe hidden amongst the remote hills of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.
Each with a distinct culture and unique traditions, Thailand is home to several hill tribes – the Akha, the Lahu, the Mien and the Karen just to name a few. Working closely with the locals in their area, the Mirror Foundation aims to improve the lives of the isolated communities living a far more traditional lifestyle than the majority of the population in Thailand. Preserving their culture in a changing environment is merely one challenge amongst an array of citizenship, trafficking, and development issues that Mirror tackles along side the people. We stayed with a Lahu community, who are proud of their hunting heritage but are more traditionally farmers today. Considered one of the most gender equitable societies in the world, the Lahu are strong and serious people governed by cooperation and unity.
As our crew hiked up the steep hills in the sweltering heat for 6 hours, the intensity of our experience over the next week started to sink in. Attacked by leeches and haunted by every hill that appeared after the next, we eventually stopped asking and continued to crawl up the hills rewarded by the fantastic scenery of rolling hills dotted with rice fields and motivated by the bucket shower awaiting our arrival. That being said, the team arrived ahead of schedule and shocked Mirror’s headquarters by our rapid ascent!
OG’s third visit to this tiny village, they have been through a lot. Our first year there, we built a water tank. Sadly, the village burnt down only months later. Our second year, we reconstructed the lost homes. And THIS year, we rebuilt the water tank! We have the blister to prove it!
After a delicious welcome supper and everyone crashing into their bamboo floor beds, the group was up the next morning and ready for work. Our first task was to dig the trenches from the large water tank to the small water tank and then to each house. While many did that, the rest of our crew was busy putting together the pieces of the water tank and cementing it all together. We quickly realized that digging a couple hundred metres of trenches was a much hotter and smellier job than we ever could have anticipated but we persevered. The gang of girls capped off our first night, exhausted, singing our favourite songs while a family of pigs slept below us.
Day two was much of the same and we quickly realized throughout the day that the 60 year old men and women in the village had incredible skill with digging trenches and we had a lot to learn. None the less, we managed to finish the trench digging, lay all the pipe, and cement everything for the water tank. Our team did awesome work and our guide/provider of fruit, Surachai, informed us that we finished one day ahead of schedule!
Once we were finished everything, we set out with a mission to find more work. This wasn’t hard to do: we discovered that the remnants of the first village, burnt posts, were still jutting out of the landscape. Our motivated team spent part of the second day and all of the third day removing these posts. Our last night in the village we were treated to music and dancing with the locals. It wasn’t hard to see just how bad our dance moves were but the villagers were very, very understanding (They only laughed a little).
One last night of sleeping with squealing pigs and roosters waking us up at all hours and we were on the trek back down. We opted out of elephant trekking and instead hiked to a hot spring where we washed the cement, dirt, and paint out of sore bodies. Afterwards, we were picked up and taken back to Mirror foundation for debriefing and long overdue showers. This past week is set to go down as the most rogue of the trip.
After some touring of Chiang Rai (including the amazing White Temple) we packed our bags for Chiang Mai where we all got dolled up for Jennie’s 23rd birthday and what seemed like the first non-rice meal in ages. Everyone had a blast and went to bed happy.
Today we return from the Elephant Nature Park (ENP). ENP is an NGO based in Chiang Mai that serves as a rescue for abused and overworked elephants. Started by an incredible woman with a big heart named Lek, the park is now home to 34 rescued elephants, near 100 rescued dogs, and 50-some water buffalo who seemed to have found their way onto the land. There are no chains, no fences, and no physical abuse of the animals. Each elephant chooses their mahout (keeper), not the other way around.
The girls spent the day seeing the elephants, feeding the elephants, bathing the elephants, and learning even more about the elephants. I’m not sure if it’s clear, but we were all pretty stoked on elephants today. In the afternoon, we watched a very intense documentary on the realities of breaking a baby elephant’s spirit for the trekking process. It was incredibly emotional but it definitely cemented our decision not to do the trekking. We finished the day on a high note with some more elephant feeding.
The group has one more day to see the attractions of Chiang Mai before we’re off on a 2-day journey to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the glorious Angkor Wat. Talk to you all in Cambodia!
Amanda and Steve