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A massive THANK YOU for joining us in Laos this summer and a special thanks you to Mike, Lydia, Sarah and Thom who have been a fantastic team to lead our volunteers for 2017.
You may enjoy reading about not only your own group’s achievements but those who came before and after. This will give a complete picture of the vast amount of assistance we can give to the local community with your help!
The work will recommence in November of this year when our first group of Australian and New Zealand volunteers arrive to carry on with these vital projects.
What a way to start off the season with a bang! The group worked tirelessly at the ECC despite the heat to smash out a new slab in front of the hospital and freshen up the inside of it with a coat of paint.
One of the ECC’s new elephants, Bua Bahn, has suffered several injuries from having spent his whole life working in the logging industry. Recently he developed an abscess on his back right leg, which had to be cut open and is now proving complicated to keep sterile. It has to be cleaned twice a day. Aside from that, following a 4 month visit from a male elephant, the centre thinks 4 of its females might be pregnant! It’s too soon to tell for sure, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed.
The project for this group was refurbishing a current school. Ripping ceilings down, prepping walls and painting. Also demolishing a poorly built village project due to being unsafe and rebuilding a new classroom block. Pretty much from scratch.
A positive comment came from a big group of girls about how the locals loved watching us help out their community project to finish the new classrooms that they started before running out of money to finish. Whilst working on the floor an old lady came with some local treats to give to us. They were disgusting yet she wouldn’t leave till we all finished and showed her our empty mouths.
School name: Na Lang Loung
Location of school: Ban na Lang loung, Sayaboury
The students’ parents are mostly farmers with basic conversational English skills. The students have better hopes and chances to secure employment in government and in tourism industries with our intense English language programs.
We focused purely on verbal rather than reading and writing, which eliminated a layer of confusion as the kids could barely identify letters anyhow. By the end of the week, from grades 3 to 5, learned:
One day at the school, Thom and Kyle heard Lao music on the way to lunch and went to check it out. Turned out there was a really cool Lao man weaving chicken coops (which was incredible to watch!), who offered them coconut water. Kyle asked if we brought the volunteers over if they’d have more available to sell so they could make a bit of money and figured it’d be a great little treat for volunteers.
The man just grabbed a long rope and a machete and climbed this massive coconut tree in his backyard. He was frolicking around up there for a few minutes before he eventually machete’ d off a branch, which had about 12 coconuts on it and roped it down. It was so incredible to watch! Despite only wanting 3 coconuts initially, he had thought that’s how many we wanted so we bought the whole lot of fresh coconuts for approx. 150 000 kip which was still much more than they asked for (still so cheap!) and brought them back to the school for the volunteers, teachers and builders who all appreciated it heaps!!
Simply walking around the ECC was a bit of a challenge this week with all the rain! I loved that you guys embraced it and just got absolutely covered in mud the whole time.
Bua Banh, one of the male elephants, got a leg injury back in his logging days. He developed a huge abscess on the opposite leg from overcompensating when he walked, prior to his arrival to the ECC in January. It seems to be healing fairly well. The vets estimate it should be completely scarred over by the end of this year.
There was also a new (temporary) arrival at the ECC this week – a female named Mae Ping – who will take up residence there for the next four months as part of the breeding program.
Lastly, we got some extremely sad news during our activity week. Thong Khoon, the second male elephant, passed away extremely suddenly on Thursday 25th May. He was in the Target Training area and fell to the ground; at the moment, the vets think he had a cardiac arrest but we are waiting for the autopsy for more information.
With rain for almost 3 days straight Mike was pretty worried about our progress for the week. By the third day we had cleared the area we needed to clear from bushes and grass, but because of the heavy downpour we were left with a pretty muddy site, and it was unclear where the solid ground was. Thankfully the rain ceased and the sun shined enough for to do dig through to the good, solid earth.
We introduced a new game to the kids at school, which is super great for reviewing words and has helped motivate them to study what they learn at home. Every day at lunch, the volunteers and I would have a little drawing session where we would make flashcards for all the new words that we taught the kids (or were about to teach them). We now have about 50 flashcards. The game consists of separating the class into 3 teams, and 1 person from each team stands at the “starting line”. Volunteers then take turns showing flashcards – the first student to get the word in English takes a step forward. First one to cross the finish line gets a point for their team. Team with the most points wins.
The kids LOVE this game and get quite competitive. It’s so fun for the kids, the volunteers, and the teachers and parents are always peeking through the window.
By the end of program 2, kids from grades 3 to 5 (now on school holidays), learned:
This group were awesome about how much rain there was in the volunteer week. They worked hard and we even had a few dance parties, including the builders and a few of the kids.
We have started all the prep work and started painting the classrooms and instantly the kids and teachers have become super excited about the colour and the instant improvement.
This group showed so much interest in the elephants, constantly asking questions and fact checking with the guides, it was an absolute pleasure to explore the ECC and its surrounding forest with you! You were also the first group of the season that got to take part in the enrichment exercises for the elephants!
Following Thong Khoon’s death, the medical training area (or “crèche”) has been destroyed. A local shaman believed there were bad spirits in the tree that lead to the death of the elephant, and said that if more elephants were brought there they would find the same fate. At the moment, the leading suspected cause of death is that Thong Khoon contracted a virus called ‘EMC’ (Encephalomyocarditis Virus). The ECC is trying to find a lab that can test his blood for this; unfortunately, it is a virus that is extremely difficult to detect ahead of time and can only be properly diagnosed after the death of the animal. The second possibility is that after a life of working in logging, his heart simply gave out.
This week after the uncertainty of being able to build a new treatment area for the elephants due to the death of Thonkhun we decided to halt the project for another season. So from this week we started to build a new water tank for the hospital. The tank should take us the rest of the season with planting as a back-up for days too rainy to lay concrete.
On the last day of volunteering, at the end of the day, volunteers were playing with the kids. We had one couple with us that day – Ali and David – who are absolutely lovely. Somehow the kids must have figured out that the two of them were dating, and all the kids started singing “David loves Ali! David loves Ali!” repeatedly for a good 10-15 minutes and trying to push them together to hug or simply show some sign that they were actually a couple. Although I think Ali and David were a little embarrassed, it was so cute and funny – and surely a very memorable experience for them.
By the end of program 3, kids from grades 3 to 5 (now on school holidays), learned:
On one of our days trekking back to the ECC from the socialisation area, we saw a member of the ECC staff running furiously in the opposite direction with a bucket of rice. On some occasions – for instance for their medical training – the elephants get fed rice, but this seemed a little unusual. It turns out the commotion was because the resident “naughty boy” Suriya, the centre’s 6 year old male, had escaped from the socialisation area and was on the run.
At the moment, the centre has a male elephant, Kham Phet, on loan as part of their breeding program. Kham Phet has been in musth and so has been kept isolated in the forest and he is extremely aggressive and a potential danger to the rest of the herd.
Curiously, Suriya ran directly to where Kham Phet was being kept, prompting panic amongst the staff that he might harm Suriya. When the staff got to them to intervene, the two were playing along happily as though they were old friends.
Elephants can communicate over great distances through their stomach rumbles and through infrasound; in all likelihood, the two would have already chatted and perhaps got to know each other before ever meeting face to face!
A really nice group, it’s always nice to have a mix of Brits and Americans. They worked really hard on the tank and got all the work the volunteers can do finished.
From now it will just be the skilled workers to lay the bricks. After this was completed we helped landscape a new botanical garden in front of the newly built restaurant.
Tommy and I took time to reflect on how much the kids have warmed up to volunteers compared to the first groups (and how much their English has improved!). We spend a good amount of time laughing every day despite the language and cultural barriers.
This group, I thought it would be funny if the kids ran a mini Laos lesson for volunteers. So everything they learned in English, Mr. Ken translated for us phonetically in Laos. The kids found it hilarious and had a good laugh at us. This also put into perspective for us “felangs” just how smart these little guys are – we can barely retain a fraction of what they are able to. Really cool little knowledge/cultural exchange activity
By the end of program 4, kids from grades 3 to 5, learned:
This group was super excited because the young boy from the ECC, Udon came to the school with us for the week and the whole group made a huge effort to walk around and introduce him and involve him in all the activities,
It was awesome to see that and also all the kids at the school welcomed him with arms wide open and he definitely blossomed since being at the school.
The ECC has a resident female, Mae Khoun, who has been struggling with socializing ever since she arrived at the ECC. Essentially, from the time she was weaned from her mother and began working in the logging industry, she was in a village with no other elephants. It is therefore quite likely that from the age of about 4 or 5 until the age of 30 when she arrived, she never saw another elephant and had perhaps forgotten how to interact with others of her own kind.
Because of her social anxiety, she is one of the elephants who goes to enrichment quite frequently: the ECC is using it as therapy for her, in order to help her gain self-confidence and help her communication skills. She has made friends with the baby of the herd, Suriya, and with Mae Bu Nam, the most social and outgoing elephant.
In recent weeks, the ECC has had a guest on the premises, a young 19 year old female Mae Ping. She and Mae Khoun were constantly trying to make their way to each other when they were by the lake with their mahouts. As such, the biologists decided to let them spend a bit of time together with their mahouts, and then put them in enrichment together – a total success! The two hit it off instantly and were constantly helping each other with the tasks set out for them. This is a massive step forward for Mae Khoun.
This group worked really hard this week to complete a watering hole in the enclosure we built last season for one of the males, it took a lot of digging. A 2m deep hole and a trench leading out of the enclosure at the same depth was dug within 5 days, leaving us an extra day to level out where the newly agreed upon elephant treatment area.
Every group worked hard and seemed to enjoy the difficulty of the work, one of Mike’s favourite little jobs we have done so far I’d say!
This group was one of the most enthusiastic bunch we have had all season. The vibe we got from them was incredible, the kids loved them and all the teachers and workers got a good kick out of them. Made us all super proud and happy of the way this group got involved in the school.
The kids are getting so smart! This group we’ve had a record number of students who got perfect on their oral test with volunteers at the end of the week combined with those who got perfect plus the bonus mark! That was 8 in total. Very proud. And this of course reflects really highly on the volunteers who have been a huge asset to teaching these little guys English.
By the end of program 4, kids from grades 3 to 5, learned:
Our last night at the ECC with the groups generally calls for a bit of a party: one that involves all the volunteers as well as staff from the office team, kitchen, gardening and maintenance, hospital and of course, the mahouts.
The mahouts take on the role of party starters, walking around with Laolao and rice wine shots for all the volunteers proving once and for all that there’s no such thing as a language barrier when it comes to having fun.
My absolute favourite thing about these nights is the coming together of cultures as demonstrated by the variety of music that gets played – from traditional Lao dances to risqué Lao singalongs, Spanish pop, Mr. Lar’s requests for Jennifer Lopez and everything in between. I don’t think anyone gets more excited about the Macarena than the kitchen ladies!
With a lot of rain we struggled to start building the new elephant treatment area. We would dig holes for the posts and after lunch they would be full again after a storm. But we finally got it done with some luck and hard work.
This was what was needed most at the centre at the moment and we’re really glad all the staff were able to choose a place that everyone (including the spirits) are happy with.
As this was the final group, we had a Baci ceremony at the school to mark the end of our time at the school. We spent the day doing touch ups on the school, preparing for the Baci, playing with the kids, listening to Mr. Ken and Thom play the guitar and sing for the kids, and eating a delicious lunch that the ladies in the village prepared for us. The Baci was super-hot but so beautiful.. It was touching to see the kids come around and tie the thread around our wrists saying “I love you” or “I will miss you” or “good luck”.
I trust this group felt touched and privileged to have been there for such a special day!
Mostly review, but learned the following also