After 18: Herding elephants in Thailand

After a whirlwind freshman year in Edinburgh, another trip before summer on-Island.

Sophia McCarron walking an elephant in Surin, Thailand. —Courtesy Sophia McCarron

If the school year started out at a sprint, then it finished at the speed of light. Before I knew it, all my exams had been taken, and I was living out of boxes as I tried to pack up my dorm with some level of organization and efficiency. My plan for a stressless move turned out to be a pipe dream, as I was frantically shoving things into boxes and suitcases while watching the amount of sleep I could get before my flight shrink to about four and a half hours by the time everything was where it should be. Other than paying for overweight baggage at check-in, I was home for two weeks without mishap.

Those two weeks in May on Martha’s Vineyard were just about enough for me, as I remembered how disturbingly winter-like a New England spring could be. I had reached the furthest extent of my creativity on how to make an interesting and fashionable outfit incorporating sweaters and long pants halfway through February. I was over it. With what my parents considered to be a too-quick turnaround, I was off again to Northern Ireland to visit a friend from school for a few days. From there, we hopped on a plane in Dublin, and headed to Thailand for the month of June. We met with another friend from university in Bangkok, and joined up with our tour group from there.

We spent a few days in Bangkok, in which I sweated more than I thought was possible. We saw temples and explored street markets, which sounds exotic and interesting; however, my enjoyment of it was tempered by the river of sweat running down my face. That was not an aspect of life travel Instagrammers would post about, and somehow I was under the delusion that I would maintain a pleasantly warm temperature the entire time I was there.

That being said, I had some of the best meals out of markets, despite the sweaty mess that I was. All the food ranged from 20 to 90 baht (which ranges from about 60 cents to $3). There were plates of pork fried rice made in front of you, zeen doy (fried sweet sesame dough balls), chicken satay, and so much more I couldn’t name. Sometimes it was a bit of a gamble as to what you were actually buying, since most of the vendors couldn’t speak English and my Thai is nonexistent. The gamble paid off most of the time, and my friends and I vowed to have a Thai food night when we’re back in Edinburgh.

After two days in Bangkok, we headed out to northeastern Thailand to spend a week in an elephant sanctuary in the province of Surin. Within a few hours of getting to the sanctuary, I accepted that I would spend the rest of the time covered in elephant poop. Elephants only sleep for about four hours a day, and when they’re not sleeping, they’re eating, and if they’re eating, they’re digesting. There were about 40 elephants on the property. That’s a lot of elephants to be eating and digesting for 20 hours a day.

Most of our responsibilities centered around gathering food for the elephants. These elephants’ diets consisted mostly of sugarcane, bamboo, and palm leaves. Eating for 20 hours a day, they go through a lot of food. We spent one morning making house calls around the local village, advertising amateur landscaping services for cutting down bamboo and palm trees. Anything we cut down got fed to the elephants. I have to give the locals credit, however; they didn’t seem fazed by a bunch of inexperienced 20-year-olds pulling down a 20-foot palm tree growing about 10 feet away from their house.

We got closest to the elephants when we were walking them down to the river for baths. I was a bit skeptical the first time I did it that the rope leash I was handed would give me any control over the 10-foot wall of muscle standing next to me, should she have taken it into her head to go for a run. She seemed quite content, however, to go at a meandering pace and stay in line with the other elephants, and so long as I kept my feet out from under her massive ones, we ran into no problems on the walk down. The river, however, was a different story. Elephants are like dogs. You have dogs that like the water and dogs that don’t like the water. The elephants that didn’t like the water were compelled into the river, and seemed to sit in sullen acceptance while water was splashed over them and the mud was cleaned from their backs. The elephants that liked the water, however, would flop into it, regardless if there was a person underneath them or not. We had to get in and bathe them, and I suddenly had visions of headlines flashing through my mind along the lines of “Local girl killed by sitting elephant.” Don’t worry. No one was killed by a flopping elephant who was overexcited for bathtime. Although I have to admit, that was one hazard my mother neglected to worry about when sending me halfway around the world.

We left Surin after a week with no elephant-induced injuries, and spent another night in Bangkok before driving to Sangkhlaburi in the northwest. Sangkhlaburi is in the Kanchanaburi province near the Myanmar border, and the area is divided by a river with Sangkhlaburi on one side and Wangka on the other side. Sangkhlaburi is a Thai community, while Wangka is a community of Mon refugees who settled there after fleeing Burma in 1949. We did some community development work for a week in the surrounding area. This was mostly around making a concrete path for a preschool.

Snorkeling in Koh Tao, Thailand. —Courtesy Sophia McCarron

We spent the rest of the time on the islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, which are in the Gulf of Thailand. On Koh Tao, we went snorkeling for a day. My only previous experience with this had been on State Beach when I was 6. I was grossed out by having to spit in the goggles, and refused to do it again. I got over that squeamishness this time around, and the sights were way better than anything State Beach could have come up with. We swam around bright fish and coral, and at the last site three sharks about the size of my arm darted by.

It felt weird to leave Thailand and get to Logan, where the temperature was the same as in Bangkok. I’m reluctant to set my alarm again, and have the responsibilities that come with everyday life; however, that’s normal to feel after vacation. I’m now setting my mind toward the next school year, when I’m back in Edinburgh and moving into a flat with some of my best friends, taking more classes, and meeting new people.