Cultural Experience | Thailand

Life Lessons Learned in A Thai Elephant Village

A Peace Corp Ambassador’s Reminder to slow down and live in the present.

Last summer I signed up for a volunteer trip to Thailand, complete with riding elephants, living like a local, and making elephant poop paper. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like, paper made out of an elephant’s poop. (Well to be fair, I didn’t sign up for that but the tour company threw it in for free, yay!) It took me all of about two seconds after arriving to question my sanity for signing up for this, but what I got out of the adventure was priceless. The trip was an incredibly unique look into the lives of others and taught me some incredible life lessons. So here they are!

Less Is Better

If you’re like me (meaning you’re incredibly high maintenance) then the thought of living in a village with no toilet, no hot water, and no air conditioning sounds horrendous. I’m not going to lie, it was hard. I was constantly sweaty, I really missed having something to entertain me for hours on end like a tv or a computer, and I put off going to the bathroom for days because I wasn’t sure how the new toilet works. But in the end I survived it, and it honestly wasn’t unbearable. In fact, it was empowering, doing everything by hand and really living in the moment. I actually got to know the people that were in my group because I had no phone or computer to distract me. Not to mention my entire body was detoxed from having no air conditioning. I sweated out every toxin I had consumed in the past 3 years of college which was awesome! Best of all, I know now that I can live without all of the material things I thought were so important before and it’s incredibly freeing.

There Are No Language Or Cultural Barriers When It Comes To Caring

One day into living at the village I got really sick. I still have no idea what exactly was wrong with me at the time but my kidneys were in extreme pain, my body ached, I was completely overheated and dehydrated, and best of all nauseous. Our guide spoke very little English and the family we were staying with didn’t know a single word. In fact, they didn’t even speak Thai, they spoke a local dialect. Unfortunately, I was unable to effectively communicate what was wrong with me to my guide and she had about 10 other people to worry about so I had to stay at the house for two days while they went out and did things. I mostly just laid on the living room floor and slept because it was the coolest place in the house while the family stared at me with curiosity and confusion. On the second day though, the mother of the house rode her bike all the way to the market an hour and a half away, in the heat of the day, to get me some food. She was always incredibly busy, taking care of the house, the children, cooking, everything, yet she took the time to go get me some food simply to make me feel better. She motioned towards her stomach as she handed it to me, like she somehow knew I was in pain. Sure, whatever it was she fed me was the spiciest thing I’ve ever consumed in my entire life and made vomit within 20 minutes of eating it but surprisingly it did make me feel better! It was incredible to see that there really is no barrier between human beings, a total stranger that had absolutely nothing in common with me and spoke an entirely different language knew exactly what I needed to feel better, no words needed.

Family Is Worth Everything

And by family I mean anything you love. It can be you’re actual family, your friends, your neighborhood, or even your elephant! The village we stayed in was known specifically for being an elephant village. Almost everyone owned an elephant, some even had a couple. The family we stayed with had two and everywhere in the village these elephants were worth more than gold. Literally. Most people of the village lived very humbly, with little to no electricity, some didn’t even have floors in their house, but an elephant is big bucks in Thailand and if any of these people were to sell their elephants they would probably be incredibly well off. But they never do. Elephants have been in their families for generations, and most grew up with their family elephant, taking care of it it’s entire life. Most of their day revolves around these giant family members, feeding them, making sure their living area is clean, training them, etc. One mahout that I met told me that he had been riding his elephant since he was two years old and no money in the world is worth the bond that they have. And they mourn the death of their elephant just as any family would, as I unfortunately found out when I asked what the weird looking logs were that I had been sleeping next to in my room. (They were elephant bones!) But they showed me that it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or have everything you want, the bonds you share with other people and other living things are worth more than anything money could ever buy and they should be cherished.

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Life Isn’t Perfect So Might As Well Have Fun With It

After I signed up for this trip I spent months dreaming about riding beautiful, majestic Asian elephants through the Thai countryside. My elephant and I would swim and play in a nice clean river somewhere and it would be a joyous life changing experience. What I got instead was Rico. A young adolescent elephant that just wanted to have fun! Rico was still in training when I rode him and had no idea how to listen. While the other elephants walked uniformly in line, Rico trotted along ignoring everything the mahout said. Then, as we approached a big lake (teeming with mosquito larvae I’m sure) instead of drinking from it as all of the other elephants did, Rico plopped down in it and submerged his entire body. I started to worry as Rico rolled over, taking me and the mahout with him. But the mahout just laughed and said he was playing, which was a relief since a part of me had started to wonder if the elephant was trying to kill us! I relaxed until it was time for all of the elephants to leave but Rico just kept right along floating and rolling over, ignoring everything the mahout said. Instead, he just let out a loud elephant roar and pooped right in the lake he was drowning us in. Which of course got all over me, come to think of it that’s probably how I ended up deathly ill later that day. Nonetheless, I learned a lot from Rico. Sometimes we just got to go with the flow and do what we want to do simply because we love it. And yeah my experience riding the elephants was not at all how I had envisioned it but it was certainly a blast and definitely unique.

Everything Happen For A Reason
My week in the village probably presented me with more different and uncomfortable situations than I’d ever experienced up to that point. But each of these experiences changed me in different ways and helped me grow into the person I am now. Staying in the village was like a giant reminder: a reminder to slow down and live in the present, a reminder that even when you feel alone in your travels complete strangers can and will be willing to help you out when you need it most, a reminder to just have fun without any care in the world and to do what I want sometimes just because I want to, and most of all to never take for granted the people and the things I have in my life that I’m so lucky to have. On my last day in the village as I sat outside waiting for the bus to pick us up, I noticed two little kids spying on me through the bushes. One of the girls in our group offered them a thing of bubbles since they seemed too shy to come near us. They excitedly took it and proceeded to blow bubbles for over an hour. They had never seen them before and I’ve never seen someone so happy and grateful in my life. I’d like to think that since coming home I’m a much more grateful, carefree, and kind person and sometimes I wonder, what would I be like now had I never gone so out of my comfort zone to stay at that tiny elephant village in Thailand?

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Tori Danforth

University of South Florida | 7 stories

Tori is currently a senior at the University of South Florida, majoring in International Studies with a minor in Linguistics. Growing up in a family that has a serious addiction to travel and adventures has allowed her to visit twenty-five countries and live in three. When she's not planning her next trip, her hobbies include yoga, paddleboarding, telling stories, and consuming at least a half pint of ice cream a day. After college she plans to serve in the Peace Corps and become a full-time wanderer.


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