During the Summer 2016 I was lucky enough to travel to Laos for two weeks with VESA (volunteer eco students abroad). This particular project was based around a remote elephant sanctuary and the surrounding community. It meant that I was able to spend time getting to know the people who live there and spend time working alongside and looking after their gentle giants!
Once I had booked my place, I had a lot of preparation ahead of me. I researched where I was going and made a list of essentials e.g. vaccinations, equipment, flights and appropriate clothing. It felt like a big hurdle going to the airport alone as I did not know anybody else on the trip and my first step that day was to find others on my trip and introduce myself.
After what felt like days of travelling we arrived in Vientiane and it was so hot I felt like I couldn’t breathe. We were met by the VESA staff members here and taken to a nearby hostel where we would spend our first night. The next day we travelled by mini bus for 8 hours to the middle of the jungle with our final destination being Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Centre. During our week here we had four main activities.
- Conservation of the local school. There were a number of different projects here and those that I was involved in was ensuring the ground was ready for cementing in the new classrooms built by previous volunteers and knocking down ceilings ready for the renovation of old classrooms, along with bits of painting, inside and out.
- One of the VESA group leaders was a qualified teacher back home in Canada and therefore took on the role of teacher at a local school during their summer time. She was assisted by a native speaking teacher whom translated when needed. Our roles took that of a teaching assistant by which we sat with the children and helped them with their work, gave explanations and became members of their teams in class games.
- Meeting elephants. We were introduced to all of the elephants and their Mahouts on the conservation. We watched the elephants in their natural environments from afar, observed their bath time, hand fed them, watched how those who work there look after their health with regular checks at the elephant hospital and even go to hug them.
- Conservation of camp. Each group completed different stages of construction, our group were involved with the last steps in preparing the ground work for a water tank. This included transporting bricks from the road to the construction area, sawing wood panels, laying bricks and cementing.
During the second week, we travelled to Luang Prabang where we visited temples, traditional rice plantations, exotic waterfalls and local markets. We took a scenic bike ride through the countryside and Kayaked down the Mekong river. We then travelled to Vang Vieng, our final destination. Whilst here we climbed to Pou Kham Cave where we went zip lining amongst the trees and went swimming in the blue lagoon. We also visited two of the caves, however due to the weather we did not stay long or compete the tubing.
How you feel you benefited from your experience
As I began this journey without knowing anyone, I was extremely nervous introducing myself and meeting so many new people. However, as I was not the only one travelling either alone or in a couple, everyone was extremely friendly and we had organised to meet up at the airport before our initial flight through our Facebook group. This experience has helped me with my confidence tremendously as well as helping me gain friends for life.
How the people you worked with benefited
During our time on the elephant conservation camp we worked closely with the locals and those who work on the camp. Our presence their helps keep the elephant sanctuary going by providing safer working environments and continuous renovations. Not only are we helping with the re-building of the camp and local school, we learnt a great deal about the struggles and discrimination Asian elephants face. We all left Laos knowing how important it is to educate others about all of the harmful things elephants are exposed to e.g. being used as modes of transport, logging activities, or a tourism attraction (elephant rides, zoos circuses). The Elephant Conservation Centre currently have saved and prevented this happening to many elephants however they currently have two elephants in danger of being bought and taken back into a life time of suffering as their mahouts, after 30 years of caring for the mother and child, can do so no longer and in order to keep the elephants the centre must raise $60,000. Our time here spent with the mahouts and carers for the animals in this centre means that we now have the opportunity to help spread the word, educate others and share their plea for help. I have included a link below for more information.
The difference in cultures and how you adapted to your new environment
The major difference in cultures is that Laos predominant religion is Buddhism. This did not affect us to a great deal apart from how we dressed. When visiting temples, we were asked to cover our shoulders and knees as a sign of respect as well as when working with the mahouts and during teaching times.
What you enjoyed and any challenges you faced
I thoroughly enjoyed all of time spent in Laos. I enjoyed making friends, meeting the locals, spending time with elephants, assisting with teaching, visiting local temples, going to the night markets, relaxing at pool parties and even the longs journeys spent with new friends singing along to George Ezra!!
The main challenge I faced was adapting to a different way of life in the jungle. It was extremely hot with tropical storms hindering our work some days. Our work days started with breakfast at 7am, returning to camp between 4 and 5. The work we were undertaking was extremely physically and sometimes emotionally demanding.
I would like to take this time to thank the Eleanor Peel Funding for contributing a great deal towards this life enhancing experience. By this time next year I will hopefully be in my first job as a Primary Teacher and I have now been fortunate enough to work alongside children in three continents – Africa, (World Challenge Trip), Europe and Asia and these experiences have boosted my confidence to engage children in a wide variety of learning opportunities, wherever I meet them.