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Love-In with Elephants in Thailand

Posted on Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Recently, 27 HWS students spent three weeks in Thailand exploring the importance of love and compassion in Buddhist and Thai culture. The trip was the first of a new January-term program offered through the Center for Global Education. Proposed and developed by Professor of Women's Studies Betty Bayer, the course, "The Revolutionary Power of a Love-In with Elephants: Environmentalism, Peace and Healing in Thailand," was co-led by Bayer and Associate Professor of Art and Architecture Mark Jones.

"The program came out of my travels and teaching in my peace and ecofeminism courses," explains Bayer. Two students aided in planning and research - Katy Wolfe '11 (who had taken the peace course) and Matthew Chin '11. 

During a fall Reader's College with Bayer and Professor of History Maureen Flynn, students read works on each site they would be visiting, listened to Thai healing chants and learned a breathing exercise that is key to Thai Buddhist practices.

Bayer carefully and specifically chose sites to broaden students' experience with traditions of healing and compassion in Thailand, including Wat Pho (also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha), the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. The groups participated in "Monk Chat," an opportunity to informally speak with a Monk, took part in a Wats meditation and visited the Wat Pho Massage School.

For one week of the program, participants stayed at the Elephant Nature Park  and immersed themselves in the compassionate mission of one woman, Sanduen "Lek" Chailert. She has made it her life's mission to rescue and restore quality of life for elephants - a species that experiences significant abuse and neglect in Thailand and neighboring countries as work animals. Raised in a hill tribe in Northern Thailand, Chailert's grandfather was the village shaman. He taught her the importance of caring for all living things with kindness and compassion, as well as how to prepare traditional plant and herb remedies, a practice she continues in her care of elephants today.

During their stay, the students met Chailert in person and worked in all aspects of the park, from unloading fruit and cleaning elephant pens to interacting directly with the animals through bathing and feeding. They became intimately familiar with the amount of work involved in caring for the elephants that reside in this new, safer home. Some also spent time working with hundreds of dogs Chailert and the staff of the Elephant Nature Park rescued during a flood in Bangkok.  

"The key element of my experience involved eco-tourism and what it meant to me personally, what it meant to the park, and how it affected Thailand as a nation," explains Chelsea Maloney '14. "A major part of eco-tourism is education, and so my group spent more than two weeks learning not only about Thailand, but also about its elephants. We learned about the damaging effects the tourism industry has on the elephants' health and well-being, as well as how to care for the elephants through positive reinforcement and love."

Hannah Wilber '13 also took away much from the experience at the sanctuary. "At the end of the week, it was not hard to comprehend the reasons why Lek was willing to devote her entire life to changing the circumstances of these animals. They loomed like prehistoric relics, their wrinkly, tough skin a captivating display of texture. There was also something very human about them, a combination of great intelligence and capacity for emotion; their ability to form meaningful connections was very apparent in the interactions between each elephant and its own dedicated personal handler," she says. "We left the Elephant Nature Park with a renewed and expanded appreciation for the work of the woman trying to protect the national symbol of Thailand."

Another week of the program was spent learning about the Karen people, an indigenous tribe in Thailand. Students participated in a week-long Journey to Freedom project where they lived with a local family and took part in their day-to-day projects. The group trekked with elephants and their mahout (keeper), shucked corn, taught at the school and met other village elephants. These are all important activities seen at the nature park as part of its ambassador work in healing relations with elephants and their use in villages.

Situated high in the mountains, the setting provided students with a breathtaking view of peaks and valleys during the day and a blanket of stars to gaze at during the night.

The group concluded the experience with three nights in Chiang Dao, where they visited the Chiang Dao caves and healing village, as well as the Chiang Dao market where herb and plant medicines continue to be sold, before flying to Bangkok for the flight home.

"It was a remarkable program that took our students far outside their comfort zones," explains Jones. "A week living in a hill tribe village in the far northwest of Thailand followed by a week caring for rescued elephants at the Elephant Nature Park presented our students with experiences and perspectives they will remember for the rest of their lives."

For Bayer, it also met key expectations she had when designing the course. "The program realized much of what I had imagined - a hands-on, short-term abroad program grounded in specific practices where compassion informed the dailiness of schedules and routines, and where being and working in the environment highlighted sustainable practice in ways related to building peace and community too," she says.

After returning to campus, the students shared their stories and experiences with the community through a teach-in. Bayer explains the idea behind the event was to give students an opportunity to connect the principles, philosophy and practices of the elephant park to local Finger Lakes concerns such as water, landfills and the work of the farm animal sanctuary in Watkins Glen.  The program, "Teach in: the revolutionary power of a love-in with elephants" was held on campus.

To continue playing a part in the movement, the HWS students are working to collect donations to help with the everyday function of the elephant park. Donations will go directly to elephant food, vet care and shelter maintenance. For more information, contact Betty Bayer, at bayer@hws.edu, or visit the Elephant Nature Park website, http://www.elephantnaturepark.org.

In the above photos, HWS accompanied by Professor of Women's Studies Betty Bayer work with injured and recovering elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

 


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