This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.


A person like me needs to be tricked into making friends with people. I can’t seem to do it directly.

When meeting a person for the first time, I guess my ego is so concerned with making a good impression that I never register the person’s name the first time I hear it. This puts me at a disadvantage immediately. I’ve considered asking the person if they would slap me after telling me their name, like, “Hi Mike, my name is Joe”—thwack!—across the face. Now I will surely remember Joe.

Beyond that, my natural state is hermit crab-shut. I am not much of a joiner, a Meeter-Upper, Grouponer, or group-anythinger.

When I watched I am Legend, with the solitary guy walking the empty post-apocalyptic streets accompanied only by his dog (although in my opinion the older, better version of this movie is The Omega Man with Charlton Heston), I was not thinking, “Oh, that poor lonely guy”—I was thinking, “Hey, cool—sign me up!” I could talk to the dog and I could shoot the heads off zombies, all by myself. I mean, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

But, I am willing to confront my weaknesses… this is another reason why I jumped head-first into this adventure in Thailand.

I wanted to be tricked.

One of the first people I meet on this trip is Mallory. She has just graduated from college in Vermont before embarking on the volunteering adventure here—this is a common theme for many of the young volunteers. Most of them choose to do this elephant trip as their major “gap year” activity, seeking out a grand adventure before transitioning to adult job, career, or even more higher learning.

At breakfast before the long ride to Huay Pakoot, Mallory asks to sit at my table. We had met briefly at the orientation meeting the night before, but of course I have to ask her name again.

Mallory,” she tells me, and slaps me across the face. She packs a punch—it feels like I’ve just been struck with a very large dead fish, maybe a tuna.


But Mallory seems to set things in motion—she tips the first domino, and they start to topple. Other young volunteers join us at the table, and the hermit crab begins to poke his head out.



Curiosity also trumps shyness with me—this is why it is easy for me to break the ice with the staff running the program—because I am constantly asking them questions.

Gemma is the Base Leader in charge of the rest of the staff, as well as a liaison to the Karen People in the village and the go-to for all the volunteers. She runs the place and participates in all the activities the volunteers do.

On hikes Gemma will stop everyone so she can take eighty pictures of a millipede zigzagging across the jungle floor. That’s one way the friendship with her develops on my end—her passion for bugs, birds, rodents, the entire diverse population of the jungle itself, big and small, insect and elephant—it all rubs off on me. Her enthusiasm is contagious.

Plus with all the things she has to do, all the details big and small, she always has time for asking me, “How you going then, Mike? You alright?” (She’s British—and that’s another thing—since the Brits comprise most of the staff and volunteers, they begin rubbing off on me too, both their accents and their even-keeled natures.)

At a pancake dinner with volunteers and villagers. Gemma is second from the right.

At a pancake dinner with volunteers and villagers. Gemma is second from the right.

Susi, a staff member originally from Paraguay, is similarly passionate about the surroundings, although my connection with her is initially through her facility with Packinyah, the language of the Karen people. For the first week in Huay Pakoot she accompanies me on dinners with my host family.

My family loves Susi because she is a charging bull about learning the language and communicating with them. I scribble down as much as I can while I listen to them chattering in Packinyah and broken English like excited chipmunks.

Susi also has a bombastic, haw-haw-haw laugh. It seesaws from gasping breaths to sledgehammering guffaws, and when I watch her laugh I can see that she holds nothing back—it comes from deep inside her. I have a bit of an explosive laugh too, so I know that laughs like that are contagious. Susi laughs a lot.

Tammy is another staff member, an unflappable Australian who is eager to help always, and she crams as much information about the elephants and the village as I can fit into my cranium.

On one hike while I am taping popsicle sticks into crosses and dousing myself with holy water to ward off the leeches, one of them burrows into Tammy’s ankle. Her foot turns into a blood fountain, and she barely breaks stride.

Kerri is a brand new staff member from Ireland who I share a wild Sung Tao truck ride with when I have to get emergency dental work done in Chiang Mai. During the ride with her I am in the unusual position of answering her questions about what it’s like in Huay Pakoot, since this will be her first time there. It feels good to be the teacher rather than the student for a little while.

All of the staff people are open and seem to genuinely enjoy their jobs. When I am radioactively glowing about an amazing experience that I’ve had on any particular day, they get excited that I am excited.

Eating with the other volunteers at Base Hut.

Eating with the other volunteers at Base Hut.

But in the end, I discovered that the best way to be tricked into making friends is to be thrown into the middle of a jungle with about 20 other people who, like you, don’t know the local language or customs, and are as baffled as you are by bug swarms, leech attacks, 90-degree climbs, perpetually dirty feet, and especially by being five feet away from wandering elephants for large parts of the day.

And don’t forget eating meals together, washing dishes together, and sharing the same squat toilet. And take away the Internet—or even better, put the Internet up at the top of a mountain and make it super-slowww and prone to bailing out, like playing poker with a sea turtle, so you have to actually work at being antisocial—and sooner or later, the wool gets pulled over your eyes. You get tricked into making friends with other people.

When I faltered, Mallory was there to say hi to me… then slap me with a dead fish.


Left to right: Boon Chew, Som Bat, Suwit

Left to right: Boon Chew, Som Bat, Suwit

In Huay Pakoot, the baby elephants have ‘baby’ mahouts: Suwit (pronounced Suh-weet) and Som Bat (Sum Baht) have barely scraped by 20, and Boon Chew is the youngest mahout at 15. All three are inseparable and tend to operate on Boon Chew’s wavelength: that is, they act like teenagers.

They are concerned with typical teenage pursuits: appearance, status, sports. Girls too, but they conceal this for reasons I’ll explain later. So even though they may be walking around in a jungle, they still have to look cool.

A mahout will wear a scarf sometimes to protect himself from the elements, particularly the punishing sun. Ostensibly, that is the reason these young mahouts wear them as well. But it’s pretty obvious once you see them the real reason they’re wearing them: because it makes them look like ninjas.

Cooking lunch with Boon Chew, ninja, and Som Bat, ninja.

Cooking lunch with Boon Chew, mahout ninja, and Som Bat, mahout ninja.

Suwit, ninja.

Suwit, mahout ninja.

Colorful ninjas. So the scarves will be blue, orange, green, or red. Sometimes Boon Chew will forgo the scarf, but that’s only because he wants to display his hair. And when I see it, well-coiffed but with a few strands carefully combed askew, it’s pretty clear that he’s spent some time working on it.

Individually, all of the younger mahouts are painfully shy, even Boon Chew. But together they have that magical blowhard strength of teen boys in groups. They like to pose, to tease, and they’re capable of extraordinary feats of athleticism and dickishness, like when I greet Boon Chew as he’s driving by on his stylish little scooter. He stares right at me, then looks away with a perfect combination of apathy and insouciance, pulling off the very complicated maneuver known as the moving vehicle freeze-out.

I guess it’s reassuring to know that all teens the world over, be they from the suburbs of Los Angeles or from a mountain tribe in Thailand—have the same asshole hormones.

Boon Chew.

Boon Chew.

But when they let their guard down, these young mahouts are respectful and friendly. In the English lesson classes all three of these guys work hard and speak English fairly well. Using English in front of the volunteers would not be cool, so they play dumb when you try to engage them in conversation.

On two separate occasions they ask me through a staff member (with a translation that they probably don’t need) if I’m married, and wonder how many children I have. The answers are the same both times: I have a girlfriend but no child. I think they don’t absorb the answers the first time because in their world an older man is almost always married with children.

Sometimes I catch them staring at the volunteer girls, but there is something in their looks that is more innocent, less brazen, than the stares of Western teen boys. The focus of the young teens here seems to be more toward finding mates and starting families than just having sex, and perhaps this is the reason.

Open male-female contact and affection is frowned on in the village. The volunteer men and women are strictly forbidden to display any outward affection toward each other. No man and woman are allowed to be alone in the same bedroom together, unless they are a couple and preferably married. Even casual touch can be considered too much.

But these restrictions don’t apply to male friendships, and there’s a peculiar gender reversal from Western culture that exists here. Male-to-male affection and contact is common and very open, and the younger males—like Boon Chew, Som Bat, and Suwit–seem to show it more than the older ones.

This is the exact opposite of what I would expect of boys their age. When I was a teenager, a boy would never get too close to another boy, or else there would be talk. In Huay Pakoot there is hugging and hand holding between male friends. The young mahouts will even lay together out in the jungle, arms and legs entwined, laughing, talking, joking.

Mahouts hug 2

These are the same guys who throw themselves in front of three-ton elephants. Drop them out of the sky into the middle of the jungle and they can survive for weeks. They pluck leaves off plants and use them to dress wounds, they walk for miles without rest, and they are able to be still and silent for hours. They call the male volunteers who complain about anything ‘lady boys’.

Once Som Bat greets me in the village as I am walking by. He clasps my hand—does not shake it—he clasps it. There is no male bluster to this gesture, no ego, just friendship. He smiles and his face is warm and open.

Som Bat walks away, going on with his day. Honest affection expressed simply between men is just not something I am accustomed to, as a teenager and even now as a man. And unless I return here, I don’t think I’ll experience it ever again.

Som Bat.

Som Bat.

Gallabay also is a very young mahout at 18. He is quiet and often looks somber, but he is easily coaxed into laughing. One day he suddenly disappears from the village, and there is speculation that he will be replaced as the mahout of the elephant named Mana. ‘Substitute’ mahouts show up, but Mana seems to ignore them, and is a little more unruly.

After a week Gallabay returns. I’m told that he had to be with his family in another village because his brother was arrested on a drug charge. It is a reminder to me of the Western, ‘civilized’ world, hovering just beyond the village. With her mahout back, Mana’s behavior returns to normal.

Galllabay with Mana.

Galllabay with Mana.

Next to the lead mahout Singto, Jordoh is the most gentlemanly mahout, always helpful and always respectful. He’s also the most enigmatic mahout, and perhaps that’s why he seems to get the most attention from the female volunteers. He is in his late twenties, unmarried, seldom talks and almost never in English. He has a big smile that he sometimes hides with his hand.



Jordoh ends up at the center of an incident that rubs up against the male-female taboo.

During one party at Base Camp with the volunteers and the villagers, he got drunk, along with some other villagers and a lot of the volunteers. Apparently when Jordoh gets drunk not only does he talk, but he even speaks English. Well.

And he gets too flirty with the volunteer women. Or maybe the volunteer women get too flirty with Jordoh. It’s a fine line, but the simplest physical touch or gesture could cause a scandal for Jordoh and potential expulsion for any volunteer involved.

Rumors fly after that night. I was not at the party, but after filtering through all of the noise, all I discover is that there was some friendly joking and shoving involved. Eventually the incident blows over, but I realize that gossip is as much a part of the landscape here as the elephants–it’s as big as they are and as hard to control.

Jordoh's smile.  Singto is behind him.

Jordoh. Singto is behind him.

Soh Eh is about the same age as Jordoh, and he has been dubbed by the volunteers as “James Franco Mahout”. At times his resemblance to the movie star is uncanny. It shows what kind of person he is that he embraces the name and the joke, and even poses in pictures like a movie star.

'James Franco Mahout' (Soh Eh) and Gallabay.

‘James Franco Mahout’ (Soh Eh) and Gallabay.

'James Franco Mahout' (Soh Eh).

‘James Franco Mahout’ (Soh Eh).

During my second week there, one of the volunteers challenges the mahouts to a soccer game, volunteers against mahouts. The field is next to the school, on top of a mountain. The sky feels close enough to touch, and clouds roll in as if to pack the stands.

Boys from the school round out both teams. They are young, none seem to be older than ten, and their sheepishness around us foreigners vanishes amidst the excitement of the game.

Boon Chew plays goalie for the mahouts and he is a vacuum cleaner, sucking up kicked fireballs, laughing as errant shots fly off the field and bounce down the mountain. Play has to be paused for five minutes while someone hikes down to retrieve the ball. I use the time to gasp for breath.

Som Bat and Suwit play like they’re the same person, easily floating the ball back and forth to each other as they move it down the field. Singto runs sideways on the field as fast as he runs up and down mountains. The school boys are athletic even in their bare feet, exploding in laughter as they launch the ball with wild kicks. Overhead the sky blackens and threatens rain, but never quite delivers.

I am going all-out, and I’m not sure why. My sports were always baseball and some basketball, and the mahouts are patient with me, laughing, as I almost knock them over with my brute force attacks on the ball.

In the heat my clothes stick to me like wet paint. The belt holding up my shorts is so drenched with sweat that it droops like a dead snake.

A few times I steal the ball from Som Bat and Suwit, and I see the surprise on their faces.

We lose, and it’s not even close. The mahouts are just too good.

I walk off the field thinking, these guys are cool. I feel like a teenager.

mahouts laugh


In week one I eat my first meal prepared by the matriarch of my host family, Apah. She is told that I am a vegetarian. No eggs, either. She laughs, and after a translation, I am told she has said in her language: “Then what do you eat?” Throughout my stay she smiles, laughs, and tries to joke with me. Despite the language barrier, I understand her warnings about the low ceilings everywhere in her house.

At six o’clock every day I arrive for dinner, and every day I bonk my head on the low ceiling. Apah rolls out a rug onto a sort of porch area of her house. It begins to sink in that there is no furniture anywhere. People in the village sit on the floor to eat, relax, hang out. There is a lot of squatting. Tigers used to prowl the jungle here fifty years ago. After they were hunted into extinction, it looks like everyone went after the chairs.

My host family's house

My host family’s house

Apah and her daughter, Tee Ta Poh.

Apah and her daughter, Tee Da Poh.

I love Apah’s cooking, and from this vegetarian’s perspective the key to the food is not necessarily what it is, but how it’s flavored and spiced. Some of my favorite dishes are spiced potatoes, spiced pea puree, spiced peppers (perhaps you’re seeing a theme here), and sometimes Apah makes a cold paste out of red chilies that goes well with anything. Occasionally there is fruit, usually mango, pineapple, or watermelon, which is delectable and balances the other dishes well.

I have a striking view of surrounding mountains from where I eat. During this first week, a staff member eats with me and my family. After that I will be on my own, so I can either try to learn some of the language, or go the other way and just get down some really cool blank stares and grinning idiot poses.

The staff member knows a lot of Packinyah, which is the native language spoken by the Karen people that live here. As the staff member and my host family converse in fits and starts, I write down as many words as I can and practice pronouncing them. Packinyah is not a written language, so I write down the words phonetically. It’s hard to figure out grammar rules. A lot of it sounds like some weird version of French, like if Pepe Lepew had invented his own language.

One phrase I manage to get down is ‘Da bleu!’, which is a good all-purpose phrase, since it means hello, goodbye, and thank you. One little wrinkle is if you slightly mispronounce it, if you say ‘Ta bleu!’, you are calling the other person crazy. After a few days I’m da bleuing all over the place.

My view while eating dinner

My view while eating dinner

Apah packs my lunch for the day hikes in a pink Minnie Mouse plastic container. Breaking out a Disney lunch box in the jungle is a bit off (another British expression, I can’t stop myself), like if I clopped into a Disney board meeting with hiking boots and a backpack. (That might be my next trip.) All the other volunteers are jealous of my Minnie Mouse container, and they should be, with their plain no-mouse-eared food containers. I am very proud of it, beaming as I unscrew Minnie’s head. Lunch is eaten cold, either out in the jungle on the hike or at base hut if the hike is shorter. The food is good no matter what, even if you imagine it’s Minnie’s little mouse brains, which I would never do.

Minnie pre-lobotomy

Minnie pre-lobotomy

Canon_June 28 151

And post-lobotomy

The bathroom facilities are in a separate building from my host’s house, in what is for all practical purposes an outhouse with ‘shower’ facilities. So, Outhouse-Plus. Here I am introduced to the squat toilet. This is a happier meeting than I expected–I thought I would be actually crapping down a hole. It is at least a toilet, made of porcelain, and even imprinted with the manufacturer’s name. ‘Otto’ is the manufacturer. Strangely, in the city, the toilets are imprinted with ‘Cotto’. The brothers Otto and Cotto, twin toilet titans of Southeast Asia. The toilet is set into the floor and the squatting takes some getting used to. I consider it a victory that I somehow escape crapping on myself.

The ‘shower’ is a big barrel of ice cold water in the corner across from the squat toilet. A little plastic pot is used to scoop up the water and pour it over myself. I start the week ‘showering’ (you can substitute ‘dump arctic water over my head’ if you like) once in the morning, and once after the hike.



By the end of the week I shower only after the hike. Morning showers are bracing but pointless, since I am clean for all of thirty minutes before the hike begins. They do get my attention. I stifle a shout as the poured ice water bashes me like a baseball bat made of ice. This feels great after a hike—or at least less like electroshock therapy–but only if I walk directly from the jungle into the shower without breaking stride. If my body temperature cools down even a little while I’m hunting down soap, towel, fresh clothes, etc.–then I will suffer an ice cold water beating once again.

After all the intense hiking, I am a little concerned about my protein intake. Since all the chickens are free range around here—and I’m serious, they’re walking around everywhere, in and outdoors, pecking, tending to their chicks, bumming cigarettes—I ask the staff to tell Apah that eggs are okay. After I lift the egg embargo my weekly egg intake goes from zero to a metric shit-ton. I get served rice and eggs, vegetables and eggs, egg omelets, fried eggs, hard and soft boiled eggs, eggs with a side of eggs.

Clockwise: rice, egg omelet, soup with egg, spiced pea puree

Clockwise: rice, egg omelet, soup with egg, spiced pea puree

There are a lot of other animals around here. All the village families seem to have chickens and pigs. Some families also have buffaloes, which look and behave roughly like cows. And there are stray dogs and cats everywhere. Or, sort of stray—it’s unclear. Many of them are fed to a degree and hang around certain houses, but when I stop to pet a dog or cat, invariably the animal’s initial reaction is to go stiff, as if unsure of what to expect from my contact. It’s clear that they don’t get much affection, especially the cats. The dogs are all of similar breed and on the small side. The cats are shockingly small, about a third the size of one of my cats. The pigs are confined in tiny cages or tied to stakes and are barely allowed to move.

Buffaloes often just lounge under the houses

Buffaloes often just lounge under the houses

Piglets at least have some freedom

Piglets at least have some freedom

I have to bite my tongue on this stuff, obviously I can’t be Mr. Animal Crusader around here. On the plus side, I am told that the people in the village don’t eat their pigs (they get pork elsewhere). I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I like to think it is.

There’s one famous chicken in the village. His feathers have grown out in a strange, almost afro-like fashion. He is dubbed ‘Blow-Dried Chicken’. When I first encounter him, he gives me a suspicious, sidelong stare and a wide berth, like a movie star avoiding the paparazzi.

Da bleu!” I bellow cheerfully at Blow-Dried Chicken, testing out my Packinyah on every soul I meet.

He waddles away, clucking imperiously at me.

Blow-dried chicken ducking the media

Blow-Dried Chicken ducking the media

Blow-dried chicken escapes after pecking attack on paparazzi

Blow-Dried Chicken escapes after pecking attack on paparazzi