Welcome to the blog for the 2017 Thailand 21 Day Elephant Expedition with Smithsonian Student Adventures!

July 29, 2017
Written by: Savannah Johnson
Smithsonian Adventures Program Leader

Final Reflections

I think I can speak for everyone when I say, “where did the time go?!” This has been an action-packed incredible three week program, and it feels like we’ve been here for years but also like we’ve just arrived. We were able to participate in a multitude of meaningful service projects while truly getting to know each other and Thailand, and I know we are all feeling sad to part ways. In my four years of international program leading, I know this is the sign of impending hard goodbyes and treasured lifelong memories.

This bunch, is nothing short of remarkable. They are inquisitive, engaged, fun-loving, positive ambassadors of themselves, of Walking Tree, and of the USA. It only took a few moments for Bo and I to know they were here for the right reasons, and we were so impressed by how fully this group took ownership of their experiences. It was an absolute pleasure for Bo and I (as well as our in-country partners) to work with Jesus, Tiana, Teagan, Sarah, Anna, Lauren, Della, Kaden, Chase, and Carey this month, and we will sincerely miss each and every one of them.

I am particularly proud of this group’s enthusiasm for ensuring the impact of this program transcends the length of it. We are excited to announce that we have conceptualized and begun brainstorming “BEE CONNECTED,” a multinational fundraiser 5K that will take place on World Elephant Day (August 12) 2018. We are hoping to raise enough money as a group to sponsor the construction of beehive fences for some or all of the the ~20 farms who are awaiting them in/near the Chong Sadao community.

Bo and I cannot wait to see where life takes you all. Thank you for an amazing program. Big love to everyone, and keep in touch, falang ting tong! You know I’m always just a text or phone call away if you need anything. <3

July 28, 2017
Written by: All Students
Smithsonian Adventures Student Participants

My favorite part of Koh Talu was…

Della- Slack lining next to the beach while it was raining, and afterwards running into the ocean.

Kaden- Playing soccer on the beach and swimming at night, despite the pouring rain.

Teagan- Collecting sea shells on the beach while it was raining.

Carey- Spending nights on the beach hanging out with everyone.

Tiana- When we all played soccer and volleyball and listened to good music while bonding on the beach.

Jesus- Exploring the island and all of its natural beauties.

Sarah- When Anna and I tried to go snorkeling in the pouring rain, couldn’t see anything until we ran into some coral, and then gave up and looked for shells.

Lauren- When we saw a giant red-and-black centipede outside our room.

Anna- Playing soccer in the rain.

July 24, 2017
Written by: Lauren Gardner
Smithsonian Adventures Student Participant

Today we woke up early to go bird watching at 6am. Unfortunately, when we got there, it started pouring rain. We waited for an hour but it wasn’t letting up so we went back to the resort. We had breakfast and changed into our work clothes.

On the drive to the project, we saw lots of different species of birds. We saw rainbow bee-eaters, which look like giant hummingbirds but fly like normal birds. There were also cuckoos, dollar birds, and a hawk. Beyond these, there were also lots of hornbills, which look kind of like toucans. When we got there we were mixing and pouring cement to make a watering hole for the animals. This was definitely the most difficult project because of the language barrier. We got the routine down eventually but until then, it was a lot of pointing and nodding and head shaking. We finished early again, so went on another mini safari.

At one point, we kind of snuck up on an elephant on the main road. We were just driving and then, BAM! elephant. It was maybe 15 feet away. We reversed and it walked a little deeper into the forest. We got past him without any issues. Later down the road, we saw another elephant. It was alone, so it was probably a male but he didn’t have tusks. Bo said Thai people called male elephants without tusks, Si Dor. We arrived at the viewpoint and saw another herd of elephants in the distance. I’m very happy that we’ve been able to see so many wild elephants. Before we got here, Savannah and Bo were gently telling us not to get our hopes up about seeing them, but they’ve practically been around every bend in the road.

We had lunch at the park and drove back to the resort. We had a few hours to do whatever and most of us took a nap. At 4:30pm, four of us went to help prepare dinner. Carey shaved the papaya and carrot for green papaya salad and the pumpkin for tempura. Della, Anna and I chopped vegetables and put the veggies and pork on skewers to make kabobs. At 6pm we helped cook the food.

July 23, 2017
Written by: Lauren Gardner
Smithsonian Adventures Student Participant

This morning we drove to Elephant Haven for our last day with captive elephants. When we were eating breakfast, one of the elephants, Chopper, climbed over the barrier to reach the grass. She was lured back by a Mahout with grass, but did it again when she ran out. It was hilarious to watch, and really showcased how much personality elephants have. When we were finished there, we went to cut the grass for the elephants to eat in the evening. It was supposed to last all morning, but we knocked it out in less than two hours. We hung out for a while, prepared rice balls, and went on another elephant walk. Then, we said goodbye to the elephants during our last chance to be that close to elephants, and had our last meal at the sanctuary. Vijo, the owner of OurLand, who we spent half a day with when we floated down the river, happened to arrive at Elephant Haven right as we were having lunch. We briefly caught up with him, and then left to drive for four hours to Kuiburi.

There is a government run nature reserve here. The time we spend here is focused entirely on wild elephant conservation. When people talk about elephant conservation in Asia, we usually never mention captive elephant welfare and wild elephant welfare as separate issues. It’s all just under the umbrella of ‘Asian Elephant conservation.’ This isn’t good because the issues facing wild elephants and the solutions to those problems are worlds apart from those of captive elephants. We learned that this park serves a similar purpose to the tree nursery with Bring the Elephant Home. It provides a safe place full of food and water where the elephants can stay and not bother farmers.

When we arrived, we were allowed to do a small ‘safari’ experience even though the park was closer. We saw a small group of banteng, which are a highly endangered type of wild ox. Eventually we went to get  a closer look at the rainbow, and when we turned the corner, were lucky enough to be able to see a whole herd of wild elephants in the distance! There was a tiny baby with the group. It couldn’t have been more than a few months old. It was amazing to finally see these animals act completely naturally, as they’re meant to in their natural habitat.

We had to drive home in the dark, but it looked like Jurassic Park, so it was okay. A gecko crawled up my leg. We saw flashing lights in the rubber plantations and asked our guide Poe, what they were. He said it’s a method to keep elephants away because they avoid lights at night.

July 22, 2017
Written by: Teagan Walker
Smithsonian Adventures Student Participant

Elephant Haven

We arrived at the Elephant Haven sanctuary in Lum Sum, Thailand on Saturday afternoon and were welcomed by their super lively staff. Our guide for the day, Pi Pat, taught us how to prepare rice balls for the elephants which is one of their favorite daily snacks. We smushed pumpkin, fruit, and steamed rice together, coated the balls in rice bran, and then got to chopping watermelon and pumpkin.

After feeding the elephants, we went on a short walk through the forest with all the elephants and the tourists who were staying there. We got the chance to take lots of pictures with the elephants and learn a bit about them. These elephants used to be trekking/riding/showing elephants but are now happier, as Elephant Haven no longer treks, shows, or rides. Though the elephants did seem to be a bit bored, it’s clear they are much happier, and Elephant Haven is moving in the right direction. Savannah and Bo said that the Walking Tree group was the only group there last year, and this year there were about 100 visitors between our two days. It’s great they are getting such a positive response to their more ethical model of elephant tourism.

When we came back from our walk, we had a delicious all vegetarian lunch prepared by the Elephant Haven staff while we watched a short video about how this organization was founded. After lunch, we went on another walk with the elephants, so they could take their daily mud baths which ended up in a big messy mud fight. Since we were all covered in mud from head to toe, we went down the wash off in the river with the elephants. It was amazing to be surrounded by so many huge beautiful creatures in the river.

Afterwards, we went back to the resort for a quick shower before we came back to Elephant Haven for a lovely dinner prepared specially for Walking Tree. After dinner, we sat around the bonfire and played games and had a dance off. The next day we came back to Elephant Haven and had a nice breakfast and then went to help cut grass for the elephants snack. After we finished our work, we made rice balls for the elephants again, and went on our last walk with them before we had to say goodbye. We left Elephant Haven feeling fulfilled, accomplished and looking forward to (hopefully) seeing our first wild elephants in Kui Buri.

July 22, 2017
Written by: Jesus M. Leal
Smithsonian Adventures Student Participant

Bangkok and Homestays Day 1

We woke up bright and early in Chiang Mai, to fly to Bangkok. Once we arrived, we took a shuttle and received our first taste of Bangkok traffic to the Bangkok Guest House. Once we got settled, we walked to a market next door and ate a ferociously good street food lunch. We then took the BTS, the Bangkok Transportation System, to the water taxi station, met our hilarious guide for the day Aof, and took a river boat tour before heading to Wat Pho, one of the biggest temples in Thailand.

After we saw the Reclining Buddha and the sights at the temple, we got smoothies and coconut ice cream and headed back to the guesthouse to relax. Some of us went running at a huge park nearby, and then we went to eat dinner as a group. Our day concluded with time to explore the mall and get some tasty desserts.

The next morning, we were greeted by a volunteer from Bring The Elephant Home, a grassroots NGO dedicated to wild elephant conservation in Thailand. We headed to Kanchanaburi — to a tiny village called Chong Sadao, where we would be staying in home stays and participating in service. We had no idea what a magical experience was in store for us.

The first day of our homestay, we got right to work after lunch. We went to the community plant nursery, where we learned about HEC (human-elephant conflict) and what the village is doing to prevent it by planting more forest and installing beehive fences around farms. We saw an example fence and started putting baby trees in plant bags, and then watering them with coconut water so they could grow strong before planting. Once we were done, we headed to a local farmer’s house to see a beehive fence in action. There was also a monkey at her house! Then, we headed to the nearby dam to watch the sunset and hang out a bit before dinner. After dinner, we headed to Pi Laor’s house (the mayor of the village) to watch several short documentaries about HEC and conservation in Thailand. We talked a lot about how we can bring the impact this experience has had on us so far, back home, and we’re brainstorming awesome ideas as a group. Stay tuned for more info!

July 21, 2017
Written by: Kaden Jones
Smithsonian Adventures Student Participant

Homestay Day 2

Today, we woke up to the sound of many farm animals and had our last breakfast with our homestay families. The first task of the day was to create a check dam with several members of the community. The check dams purpose is to create natural watering holes for elephants and other animals using nature itself. We worked with army rangers from the nearby battalion, in addition to a bunch of other members of the Chong Sadao community to collect rocks to form as a dam. It was really fun to work together and we got a lot accomplished in a short amount of time.

After lunch, we were picked up by OurLand, a land conservation organization, and headed off for an afternoon of excursions. First, we explored a large bat cave on the grounds of a nearby temple. In the bat cave, we sat and meditated in complete darkness for five minutes. Then, we headed to the river Kwae Noi. The funnest part of the day, was floating down the river wearing life jackets like diapers. The river was moving fast, but we still felt safe and had a great time.

The river took us down to Our Land, Thailand’s only privately owned nature reserve. In Our Land, the people in charge, gave us an educational course on the snakes of Thailand. After the course, all of us gathered around a fire and sang songs before we headed back to our home stays. Time is flying here in Thailand, and we can’t believe we’re almost on week three!

July 20, 2017
Written by: Chase Jones
Smithsonian Adventures Student Participant


Yesterday after breakfast we joined up with local volunteers, including residents from the village and local military personnel to plant tons of new baby trees in an area that had been previously devastated by the logging industry. Everyone worked tirelessly to dig holes and plant the trees resulting in us finishing the project over an hour ahead of schedule. It was really great to connect over a project like this with people we can’t otherwise verbally communicate with beyond hello and my name is… After lunch, we had a little downtime to reenergize, and gave each of our homestay’s their gift, said goodbye, thanked everyone, and headed out to the river to our houseboat in Sai Yok national park for the night.

We floated down river to a waterfall where we took a bunch of pictures under it, before heading upstream where we docked for the night. After a tasty dinner, we all hung out and enjoyed each others company on the floor of the houseboat till we were tired and fell asleep under the stars. Tomorrow, we will be picked up by Elephant Haven, an elephant camp that has converted from a riding/trekking camp to an ethical riding-free one. This will be our last experience with captive elephants as we move into focusing more on wild elephant conservation for the remainder of the trip.

July 17, 2017
Written by: Carey Ruzicka
Smithsonian Adventures Student Participant

The past three days we spent our time at BEES, Burm and Emily’s Elephnt Sanctuary, which is a lesion project run by an Australian and Thai couple in a village near Mae Chaem, Thailand. It was an amazing experience because we got to be up close and personal with the elephants, but in a way that isn’t harmful to them. These elephants are all old (60+ years) and have been rescued and retired from abusive elephant trekking, logging, and showing camps. They now live happier lives and are so well cared for by BEES. Two of the three of them even have chain-free night enclosures, which has resulted in BEES being ranked one of the top ten most ethical elephant welfare organizations -pretty cool!

The first day we were at BEES, we prepared food and snacks for all three elephants; Mae Kam, Mae Mor and Thong Dee. We all got to bathe them for the first time, which was an amazing experience. We also got to play with all the dogs and cats at the sanctuary.

The second day, we took a long elephant walk in the jungle to see all three of the elephants in their natural habitat. We also walked to a nearby river that some people swam in and had a mud fight. We sat by the river and boiled some water in bamboo to have coffee and tea out of bamboo cups Burm made, which was super cool (all while having the elephants eat freely around us). The third day, we helped Burm shovel sand from the nearby river for the elephant enclosures. We ended every night with a great dinner and enjoyable bonding time with each other in what I called, our tree house. It was so  much like camp, and we played so many games and had so much fun. We also befriended one of the mahout’s sons named, Glaicey and practiced our new Thai skills with Burm’s assistant, Glot. BEES was a great place to be and I think I can speak for all of us, when I say I would go back in a heart beat.

We’re back to Chiang Mai this evening and then off to explore Bangkok a bit tomorrow. We can’t believe how fast this trip has been flying by, but that goes to show how fun it has been.

July 15, 2017
Written by: Della Moran
Smithsonian Adventures Student Participant

Chiang Mai

Today we started off driving to a government-run elephant “conservatory” where they put on an elephant show and we saw how the elephants are abused by the trainers with a long stick with a hook on the end if they didn’t obey them. At first, I didn’t think it was going to be as emotional as it turned out to be. By the end, everyone was effected by how awful these amazing animals are treated and how others come to watch to see them being tortured without knowing it.

Afterwards, we walked around the conservatory and inside the gift shop they sold wooden sticks with hooks to buy as a souvenir which showed that even though people are aware of the abuse, some tourists support it and even encourage it. Shortly after, we drove to an elephant hospital and saw different elephants that have some sort of disability. Here, they can get a prosthetic leg if they’ve been affected by land mines or rest after giving birth. After seeing elephants being taken care of, we left the second sanctuary and headed to a rocking climbing club to spend the rest of the afternoon bouldering and then got coffee across the street. Once we got home, we had a brief time to rest and freshen up before walking to a Korean-Thai barbecue dinner, where you pick different kinds of meat, vegetables, rice, and noodles and fry them on a dome-type plate with water on the sides to boil the noodles and vegetables. Once we filled our bellies, we headed back to Payap University where we are staying, and hung out in the dorms before heading off to bed.

Tomorrow, we are going to BEES (Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary), a passion project started by a married Thai-Australian couple who gives rescued and retired elephants, a pleasant end of life experience. We will be off the grid in the jungle from Friday through Monday, but we’re all excited to interact with happier elephants and learn about how we can contribute to ethical elephant tourism.

July 12, 2017
Written by: Anna McCollister
Smithsonian Adventures Student Participant

Day 2

First, we woke up (some earlier than others) to run around Payap’s college campus and ate breakfast which consisted of; fried rice with chicken, but unfortunately I cannot remember the other options. Then, a golf cart drove us to another side of the campus where we met Ajarn Pim (ajarn meaning professor) and another professor, who taught us how to cook sticky rice with mango, khao ton gua (which is peanuts with minced meat and other delicious spices) and the chicken soup that we ate yesterday (khao soi). We also learned how to cook a spicy hot sauce that we could put in our dishes (as a side note, never underestimate the power of Thai hot sauce…). The food was very delicious and hopefully the notes we took can help us at least attempt to duplicate the delicious food that we ate. After lunch, we proceeded to take a tour of the campus with Ajarn Pim and got to see the library and a few other buildings before we headed to temple number three. At this temple, Ajarn Pim gave us gifts to give to the monks because it is rainy season and many must try and stay indoors. The monk gave us his blessing when we delivered the gifts and tied a white bracelet around our wrists (right wrist for males, left for females). After exploring around a bit and even finding a friendly stray cat, we headed to a market to pick up rain boots. We then piled into one song taeo (the red truck) and headed back to campus. Oh wait, I almost forgot…after the market Bo and Savannah, who are total pranksters, instructed to close our eyes and open our hands and eat what was given to us. The spiky/crunch creature that we all ate ended up being a cooked caterpillar…haha! After eating the nutritious bug, we then headed back to campus. After an hour of rest, we made way to our second market, where we got to utilize bargaining skills as well as find our own place to eat! After about two hours of shopping, we piled back into one red truck and headed to the hotel to make for the end of day three! Tomorrow, we will go to Thai Elephant Conservation Center to see our first white Asian elephants! It will be a controversial day, as TECC is not known for its ethical animal treatment, but we are so excited to begin learning about different models of elephant tourism and elephant conservation in Thailand.

Day 1

We got up and went to breakfast at 8am, where we could choose between some fruit, bread, chicken soup, what appeared to be chow mein and a vegetable dish. We then learned some things about Thai culture (fun fact- it is not appropriate to step on any type of money, including coins, because they have the kings face on them). Then, our personal taxi (aka song teow – that’s not how you spell it, just how you pronounce it) which is basically a covered truck without a back door (which is awesome) drove us to our hike. On the hike, it was rainy and foggy which made for a pretty cool time and all the shrubbery was incredibly green, greener than I (a resident of Colorado) had ever seen before. The greenery especially made for a good ambiance, when we reached the temple at the top! We got to explore the area for a bit and even got to see some real monks before we headed to the cars and drove to another temple at the top of the mountain. At the next temple, we had to climb quite a few stairs to get to it (we learned that the temple was built high up so that the monks can be closer to the heavens) but at the top, the temple was incredibly cool, all gold with many statues that surrounded it. We had to take our shoes off to enter and were also not allowed to enter if we didn’t have pants that reached our knees. After observing temple number two, we headed back down the steps and stopped at a local food place and all got khao soi (again, just how I would imagine you pronounce it) which is basically curried chicken and noodles and very flavorful broth. After lunch, we got a nice two hour Thai massage (which I personally think definitely helped with the jet lag) and then headed next door to dinner and had khantoke, which is a variety of foods placed on a tray and you are served rice (and sticky rice…yum) and are able to try the different foods with the rice. During dinner, there were dancers that came out and showed us different traditional Thai dances (there are different dances based on the region of Thailand you are in) and some of us even got to go up and dance with the Thai dancers at the end! We then got back home and hit the sack.