Before discovering my love of journalism and writing could actually lead to a career, I had planned to become a teacher. An English teacher to be precise. When I went to university to study English literature with language and communication, that is what I wanted to do when I finished. I loved the idea of becoming that teacher who really inspires you, I was lucky enough to have a few like this who really spurred me on and inspired my love of learning from the very beginning to my last days in education. With two parents who both ended up working as lecturers in healthcare at a university and college near where I live, it seemed inevitable that I would inherit some of their teacher ways.
But I have to be honest, there was one thing in the back of my mind that put me off the idea of teaching, something that became a pet peeve of mine throughout later education - it was the attitude of students in the UK. Now don't get me wrong, I know there are many wonderful students out there who are eager to learn and develop. I also know there are many incredible teachers out there, some of them are friends of mine who stuck it out and are now working in schools across the country. But there are two factors in the UK that seem to be putting an extortionate amount of pressure on both sides, preventing them from being the best they can be and in some cases, stopping them from loving their job or learning.My concern lies with the government who are putting such ridiculous pressure and demands on teachers that they barely have time to notice when there are concerns over wellbeing of their students. The sheer amount of paperwork and time spent on fulfilling guidelines means often, as I have heard from some teachers firsthand, they don't feel they are doing their jobs properly and are sometimes expected to lie in order to fulfil certain criteria. It is ridiculous and I can't imagine I would cope well with such pressure, I have huge admiration for those who do on a daily basis.
The other big issue lies with the sense of entitlement in the UK - it really hit me when I came away and met so many people from various countries. I realised how much more dedicated they seem as students - how the majority of people I have met speak three or more languages fluently while most English people I meet seem to have only mastered English in their 18 years of education. How some people have gone to such lengths to achieve an education - like the Vietnamese woman who searched at length to find a scholarship programme so she could study in America for her PHD, studying in a different language, culture and on a new continent to become a doctor. It's inspiring to meet such people out here, but I can't help but feel a bit embarrassed when you think of the naughty students at home who used to disrupt the classroom and refuse to learn, who don't see the value in learning languages or maths and don't think past finishing school.While staying at Elephant Nature Park, we were asked to take part in an education programme run by the sanctuary by giving a morning up to go to the local school and teach English. The Park is very involved in the local villages as many of the men and women work at the Park and staff there make sure their children are sent to school, it's not just about the elephants - it's about ensuring a better way of life and a future for all involved. I jumped at the opportunity - teaching English abroad is something I've wanted to do for a while after knowing so many who have raved about the experience and how amazing it was. I chose a day in the middle of the week and was really looking forward to it. On the day, four of us volunteers headed out on a minibus to the village school where we were welcomed by the headteacher who was warm and friendly.
The school was a bit of a building site with construction ongoing in the middle, but the classrooms were laid out around a giant courtyard, they were bright and colourful. A quick decision was made, we would be spread across three classrooms and I was thrilled to have a class all to myself - I would be teaching students ranging from five to 18-years-old with the help of a local teacher who spoke minimal English. I love being thrown in at the deep end so this suited me perfectly, after checking out their workbooks for a clue of where they were up to in their studies, and after meeting the adorable, giggling students, I was ready to start. We ran through simple concepts they already knew slightly such as colours, foods, verbs, basic phrases and conversation, and had a good sing-song ones like head, shoulder, knees and toes, twinkle twinkle little star, the alphabet song and a few others. I was really impressed with what they already knew, it suggested their ability was much higher than I had anticipated which was great. The older and more fluent speakers were helping the younger ones to understand which meant we worked well together as a group and gave me the chance to try some trickier stuff with them later on.I had the most amazing time with the children that morning and felt like we were making so much progress that I couldn't resist staying for the afternoon when the other volunteers went back to the Park. After a lunchtime spent meeting the other children at the school, joining in a jam session with them, playing ping pong and chatting to the young girls, we were ready for round two. The classrooms were a lot stuffier in the heat of the day and you could tell the children were getting tired, but that didn't stop them for a second in their determination to learn and impress me. It was lovely to see how dedicated they were when I know full well that children in the UK would have been far more disruptive in the heat.
That afternoon we covered past, present and future tenses, complex phrases, adverbs and more conversation. We also worked on longer passages, firstly for pronunciation and then for meaning of longer and more unusual words. We translated a piece about a science experiment using rockets and worked on the hardest piece of the day - discussing a passage about April Fool's Day. Trust me, that is a hard enough concept to explain in English and it was nearly impossible to non-native speakers! But we got there in the end and I was so proud to see how well the children did - they picked up so much and helped each other to understand which was amazing. It actually mad me think that teaching English abroad might be something I would like to try for a while in the future.If you get an opportunity to go into a school while travelling and teach - whether English, music, maths or something else, snatch it with both hands. Even if you don't think you have the knowledge to do it, they can learn so much from you and it is such a rewarding experience. Often you don't need to have done a TEFL course and village schools will just have signs up asking for volunteers to come in, ask at your hostel and read notices. A friend of mine spotted a notice asking for those who can play musical instruments to come into a music course and help teach, he could play the guitar and jumped at the chance. Afterwards he said it was one of the best afternoons he has had travelling, that it was so much fun and they were wonderful students. It's a great way to give something back and if you choose to do the TEFL course, it's a great way to earn money while travelling.
Have you taught English while travelling? Tell me about your experiences and whether you would recommend doing it to others.
I'm so happy to hear how much you guys have been enjoying my elephant-themed posts this week - it's been such a highlight of my trip to become a part of the work at Elephant Nature Park and I'm glad to know reading the posts have been a highlight for you. I really hope that by reading my posts on the background of elephants in the tourism trade has helped to teach you something, and that you enjoyed the interview with founder Lek Chailert. This post is something that has been requested over and over again by friends, readers and travellers met have met along the way - this one will focus on my time spent as a volunteer at the sanctuary. I spent a week volunteering at the centre in Chiang Mai back IIn the middle of March and to say it was life-changing would be an understatement. I know so many people who would love to have the same experience but worry it is not worth the money you have to pay to get there. Well I'm here to put any questions and worries to rest, to assure you that including a volunteering placement in your travels is one of the best decisions you could possible make.Along with around 70 other weekly volunteers, I was picked up from my hostel in the city and taken straight to the charity's office where we paid the balance of the placement, picked up our t-shirts and water bottles, and met some of the other volunteers. Once loaded on to the buses, we were shown a brief video giving us some background on the Park and the work that goes on there, along with a quick chat from the guide. When we arrived at the Elephant Nature Park, we were taken straight out on a tour of the property, given a talk on what work goes on there, the history and the plans for the future. We were given a talk on safety and good practice around the elephants, plus an outline of our jobs over the next few days. After a delicious and huge vegetarian buffet lunch, we were moved into our dorm rooms which held three people each and were right next to the elephant shelters where the creatures would sleep at night. To say we were all excited was an understatement. Later that afternoon we got to watch the elephants being bathed and fed, and spent some time unloading huge trucks full of melons - one of the funniest jobs as we ended up making up songs and turning it into a game/competition. That first night we were invited to a special welcome ceremony in which we were blessed by the local village elders and a priest who gave us blessing bracelets for good luck and safety. After a delicious dinner, we all headed to bed so we would be ready for our 7am start.The early start didn't agree with most but I actually had the best night's sleep I'd had in ages and woke up feeling refreshed and excited for what lay ahead. Surprising considering we had all been woken up at 5am by the elephants in the shelter behind our dorm when one had a bad dream and started trumpeting, but the others soon calmed her down. It was amazing to be sleeping so close to these stunning creatures, and even more amazing to have them walking around just metres from where we ate all of our meals. I've heard some volunteers complain about the lack of time spent with the elephants but I have no idea where they could have got that from, we're with them constantly from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep. After breakfast, Team C were taken off to the fields a bit further away from the sanctuary where we would spend the first morning on the hardest job of them all - corn cutting! We were given machetes and were told to cut down the corn, arrange it in piles and once it had been bundled, to carry it to the truck. It wasn't an easy job, but it wasn't as bad as we expected. Our group was amazing and we really worked together and put all of our energy into it, we had the job done quicker than any other group and celebrated with a picnic and a ride back on top of the corn before getting to spend an afternoon tubing on the river that ran alongside the Park. We also took the opportunity to help bathe the elephants in the river afterwards which was just lovely to be so close to them and to play in the water with them.It was a pretty awesome first day and we were all riding high until we headed to the communal areas that evening to watch a film put on by the staff. It was one of the most devastating and shocking things I have ever watched and within minutes most of the room had tears running down their faces. I'm not normally a very emotional person, but I was a wreck watching that video. It was all about the elephants that are kept at the park, the situations they have come from and various other horrifying stories that Lek herself has caught on film of witnessed. It was one of those things you have to watch, you learn so much from it, but it absolutely breaks your heart. Dinner afterwards was a sober and quiet affair as everyone mulled over what we had seen, it definitely brought the group closer together and unified us in our anger and pain over what we had seen. It was a wonderful experience to be surrounded by individuals as passionate about this cause as myself. I couldn't sleep that night, I think after the video I just had too much on my mind but soon enough the sun hit the window and it was time to start all over again. For that second day of work I was helping to clean up the park by clearing the leftover food from the fields - this was one of my favourite jobs because it gave you the chance to watch the elephants in the park just acting naturally, unbothered by us they played and ate as they would in the wild. Some of the babies were a little boisterous and decided they wanted to climb into our van which gave the girls a bit of a shock as the whole thing started to rock with just a coup,e of them left inside. Again, our job was completed quickly and we had plefty of free time to help out with dog walking, to write in our travel journals and to watch the elephants around the park.After lunch, we headed out on an elephant walk in which our team leader took us out around the elephant sanctuary to meet the elephants and to hear their stories firsthand. I mentioned a few in the earlier posts that were particularly devastating but there were loads who had back legs, bad backs and were blind from bad treatment, one elephant had a severely broken hip she had learnt to deal with over time, it had been caused by a horny bull in a forced breeding programme and now, years later she still cannot walk properly. We had the chance to see the baby elephants in action, and playful they are! With a very protective family including an adopted nanny, you have to be careful not to spook the animals because despite us being far across the field from them, she became anxious and charged at us. It was pretty crazy, we had to sprint across the field out of the oath of this stampeding elephant, half of us lost our flip flops and another girl ended up falling face first in the mud, a pretty dramatic day in all! We rounded off the afternoon by playing with the lonely dogs in the dog shelter at the park, where they have over 400 dogs needing homes. Then that night, we had a Thai culture lesson which was brilliant, our guides taught us about the history and customs of Thailand, about the language and the Chang Chang Chang elephant song! My next job was elephant food - unloading trucks of melons and pumpkins then washing and helping prepare the food for the elephants, particularly for those with special dietary requirements. This was hard work because these elephants go through so many melons it's unreal - trucks carrying four tonnes of melons roll in daily and need to be prepared. But once again, team C smashed it, made it fun and were done in no time thanks to a cracking playlist provided by our team leader who seemed to have a fondness for Avril Lavigne. In the afternoon, we spent our time helping to wash down shelters and having water fights as we prepared the elephant's bedrooms for the evening. After dinner, we finally got to meet the woman behind it all, Lek gave a special talk and presentation with another horrifying film for us to watch. This one was even more harrowing than the last and I'm not ashamed to say I was a blubbering mess. Everyone in the room was left shell shocked but insanely inspired after hearing first hand from this tiny woman all that she had achieved and overcome to reach this point and how she had never let herself become disheartened by the terrible things she witnessed but used her anger to fuel her work. Meeting someone so inspiring was one of the best moments of my trip and I left on a high despite the sad things we saw that night.The next day passed in a blur of preparing elephant food, watching the elephants be fed and joining in, bathing them and generally loving life. It would be so easy to have stayed and to live that life every single day. So simple, but so rewarding, I woke up every morning raring to go and finished each day with a heart full of happiness at what we were doing there. That final night at the Park, they organised a special Northern Thai meal with special foods and fabulous entertainment from the local schoolchildren I had been teaching just days before - they all danced for us in traditional costume which was wonderful. It was so sweet, they all recognised me from the school, and came over to say hello - more on my teaching experience in my next post. We had a brilliant last night together and prepared for some really sad goodbyes the next day - in such a short space of time we had become a little family. The next morning, we took to our final jobs of clearing elephant poo - which was definitely not as bad or as smelly as it sounds. Then we headed back to Chiang Mai where I spent the night at a hostel with some girls from the Park and a larger group of us met up to shop, eat and drink cocktails at the local market. It was a perfect end to one of the best weeks of my life.
If you are thinking about volunteering at Elephant Nature Park but aren't quite sure, or are worried the money of it will cut into your backpacking budget. Don't worry for a second longer. I can honestly say that it was one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life and that it will stay firmly in my heart forever. Both the people I met and the things that I ddid and saw have changed my life and it has inspired me to do more to help by writing and sharing my experiences with others I meet along the way. Why go elephant trekking or riding when you can experience these creatures in a natural state - unharmed and unafraid - see how they behave when they are happy and safe. Spend money and know that it is going back in to helping to save other elephants from the tourism trade, from abuse and cruelty rather than the back pockets of cruel people who harm elephants. Spend your money wisely and it could be the best experience you have travelling like it has been for me so far.
Since volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, it has become a regular topic of conversation with friends, family, fellow travellers and complete strangers. Everyone seems to have elephants on the brain and its little wonder why, these majestic, intelligent and simply beautiful creatures seem to capture the hearts of most. Why? For me, it's always been something in their eyes. Elephants seem to have eyes that tell a story, much like humans, you can tell there is more going on in their heads. That they think and feel in similar ways to us - whether you agree of. It is another matter, but I've always felt that elephants have a lot in common with humans which is why it has always broken my heart to hear about cases of poaching and animal cruelty. The more I read about it all, the more it tore me apart to know that such amazing creatures could be so brutally targeted by my own species. Sad how you can feel so ashamed of your own kind at times, but I guess some brains are just wired differently.
Something that has come up again and again in conversations are the same questions about how to know if elephants are being treated cruelly, what is cruel treatment, whether elephant riding is okay and so on... Of course I answered all of these as best I could after learning so much firsthand at the sanctuary, but the journalist in me couldn't resist talking to the expert about it all. Lek Chailert is the founder of Elephant Nature Park, and during my week long volunteering at the centre I was lucky enough to meet her and to sit in on a talk she gave about her experiences, her work, Elephant Nature Park, elephant cruelty and tourism, and the future. It was simultaneously fascinating and devastating - within seconds she had the whole room captivated, and in less than five minutes she had the whole room in tears. I have never met anyone so passionate and true to her cause, and I have never felt so inspired by a single person. Lek has achieved so much in the face of great cruelty and adversity, she has never given up on her mission and remains stronger than ever and full of determination to make her dream of freedom for elephants a reality.
A week of volunteering left me desperate to do more and help in any way I can, and my best way of doing this is to write, to photograph, to interview and to share all of this with all of you. I know I have many friends and followers who are big supporters of the volunteering programme, who love elephants and are strongly against animal cruelty, so I thought it would be great to share my interview with Lek on here so that you can all hear firsthand from her of the reasons behind her work. By hearing exactly what is involved in domesticating elephants, you can make a decision for yourself about whether you really want to ride an elephant or participate in elephant tourism. As Lek says herself in the interview, the most important thing is educating people on why it is wrong. I hope very much that you are finding my elephant-themed week on the blog informative and interesting, I hope that you too will feel inspired to help by sharing this post with your friends, family and social media followers - you could be helping to save an elephant out there from being subjected to cruel treatment.
Check out the video below for my full interview with Lek Chailert.
If you have any questions about Elephant Nature Park or the topics covered in this video, please do leave them below and I'll do my best to answer. I have a final post in keeping with the elephant theme coming up this Friday - focusing on my time as a volunteer and what I thought of the experience.
My travels have been made up of several incredible, life changing experiences so far, but there is one that has stood out more than any other. The very second I booked my week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, almost a year before I went travelling, I knew it would be one of my highlights. Now, after I've completed the week, I look back and wonder how any other travelling experience could top it. In just seven days I learnt, saw, experienced so much, it changed my view of the world, gave me a new passion and inspired me to write and share it with you guys. I can't thank the team at the Park enough for letting me be a small part of their mission, and I can't thank all the other wonderful volunteers enough for sharing the experience with me and making it the best it could possibly be. After meeting other travellers along the way and talking to them about elephants used in tourism for riding, shows etc, after hearing about the misinformation they have been fed and believed, it shows that it is more important than ever to educate travellers, holiday makers, tourists, backpackers and everyone else on what is really going on beneath the surface of a booming industry in Thailand and across Asia.Before travelling to Asia, I had read and researched a lot about elephant treatment which influenced my decision to volunteer at ENP instead of any other centre.During my week there, I learnt far more than I ever did reading, I saw firsthand video footage of mistreatment and torture captured by the founder, Lek, and met elephants that had been rescued from such horrors and heard their stories, saw their wounds. Some had been rescued from logging and had terrible injuries including broken hips from forced breeding, others from tourist camps where they were forced to give rides until their backs broke or were seriously damaged, many were blind from where trainers had stabbed them in the eyes for not complying with orders, others suffered mental illnesses from the extreme torture they had been put through. One story that broke my heart was that of an elephant who was constantly trying to care for and take the baby of another, she was traumatised because her own baby had died. She was forced into logging on steep mountainsides, carrying huge trees and enormous weights every day while pregnant. One day, she went into labour up a hill and when her baby was born it fell down the hill, it died in the amniotic sac and she couldn't save it. They say an elephant never forgets, well her heart won't forget the child that was taken from her through this disgusting treatment and despite it happening years ago, she clearly still lives with that pain everyday.The centre was founded by Lek, who has led a life fuelled by her passion and love for these amazing animals and has dedicated years to campaigning, researching and more. Finally it looks like some governments are starting to listen and take note, but it has been a long hard road for her and her team. The centre started over 20 years ago with just one elephant, Hope, who still lives there today and is the big man of the park, but now they have 44 elephants to take care of. These range from elephants aged one to 80 and all of them have special needs thanks to their injuries, all of them have specific diets and personalities which must be catered for. It is a hard and demanding job, but one of the most rewarding I have come across. One baby elephant at the park is a shining beacon of light for the others and those who work there, Navann is the only elephant at the park who has not gone through the traumatic and horrifying Phajann Ceremony to make them usable for tourism and trade. This means he is a lot more boisterous and cheeky than the rest, but it is lovely to see the freedom and happiness of an elephant who doesn't hold this innate fear thanks to the ceremony.This is something that needs to be clarified for all those who I have spoken to who try to justify elephant riding and tourism, the ones who say the elephants look well treated at that time. Every single elephant used in tourism, for trade or logging has been through a horrific process that can last a week, a month or even longer. The baby elephant is ripped from its mother when it is still immensely vulnerable and needs her care, it is taken away to the jungle where it will go through a process to break the animal's spirit. It is tied up, beaten and terrified, then it is forced into a crush which does exactly what it says on the tin. It is barely big enough for the baby, crushes its body and removes any power and strength it had to move and free itself. It takes away all independence and scares the poor creature beyond anything you could imagine. For days, weeks or even months in some cases - as long as it takes - the creature is shouted at, stabbed with hooks, has pins and nails driven into its flesh, burnt on its head and legs. The elephants is deprived of food, drink and sleep until it conforms to certain behaviours, loses all fight through fear and will eventually perform tricks you seen in shows like elephant painting, climbing through hoops, dancing, elephant riding, the list goes on. Whether they look like they have no obvious injuries at the time doesn't matter, by riding or partaking in these experiences you are funding and supporting years of mistreatment and an industry that still works on the basis of mistreatment.I'm not saying that those who have done this are awful people, I too have sat on an elephant, it is just a lack of education that makes us do this. People get caught up in the whole thing and forget to look past the initial excitement. When it comes down to it, most people I asked - just like me - found the elephant riding experience underwhelming and would prefer to have walked beside the beast to appreciate its full beauty. When you know what the ride is doing to the animal - because yes the weight is uncomfortable and can cause injuries for an elephant, especially when you consider that many of them already have bad backs from previous mistreatment and logging. And many of them are being hit by the mahouts, or have slingshots used on them while you are sat atop them, just because you don't see it doesn't mean then aren't doing it. The mahouts know we tourists don't like to see this treatment so they keep it out of sight, and out of our minds. But the problem is that we need to put it in people's minds, at the forefront of their minds when they go travelling, on holiday or visit these exotic countries. Our responsibility to these animals doesn't stop because we are on holiday and on a break from normal life. They are more important than ever.What can we do to help aid the work of Lek and the Elephant Nature Park? Share this post with your friends and family, make them understand what is behind the industry and educate them so they don't support it. So many don't know a lot of this information or have been fed misinformation, help me correct that and make a change.
How do you feel about elephant treatment in Thailand? Is it something you were aware of before reading this post?