Dreaming Big

The world’s only Elephant Hospital in the world is a remarkable accomplishment for the country and is a must for all visitors to the area. Owner, Soraida Salwala’s story is truly inspirational.

When Soraida Salwala was 8 years old she found a baby elephant hit by a truck, dying on the side of the road. She ran over to the elephant and asked her father “Why can it not go to hospital?” Her father replied, “Soraida, there is no such thing as an elephant hospital and there never will be.”  It was these words from her father that inspired this young girl to develop the world’s first elephant hospital and provide care for one of Thailand’s most cherished animals.

When Salwala first told her father that she wanted to build an elephant hospital, she was told that it wouldn’t work. And after years of dreaming, when she finally proposed the project, she was laughed at and told “People didn’t care enough about elephants to donate money. They said, ‘an elephant hospital? No way.’ But that’s what I did.” Though despite strong resistance Salwala stayed true to her beliefs, knowing that the value of an elephant hospital would one day be recognised and she would be able to fulfil her childhood dream.

The elephant hospital, bordering Thailand’s northern capital Chiang Mai and Lampang, was built in 1994-one year after Salwala founded the Friends of the Asian Elephant organisation. The hospital is the first of its kind in the world and attracts much support from both the Thai people and foreign visitors. The hospital now houses 4 infirmary units and has treated more than 600 elephants with a variety of ailments.

The hospital usually keeps between 10-15 elephants at a time, with almost half of these being full time residents due to either abandonment by their owners or being donated to the foundation.

“Currently we have twelve elephants in total. In this group four have been donated to the hospital; four are victims of landmines; one has a deep knife wound; one has a severe infection due to neglect from her previous owner; one has an amphetamine addiction and eating disorder and one has a broken hind leg. Though despite difficult circumstances Salwala ensures that these elephants are receiving the best care available at the Elephant Hospital. “We are dedicated to giving every animal that comes to our hospital the best treatment we can,” said Salwala.

It is this dedication by Salwala and her team that has ensured the credibility and recognition of this unique hospital, though it has not always been easy. In the first few years the hospital had quite significant financial struggles, and Salwala was unable to afford basic necessities such as a vehicle or even a phone. Because of this, villagers were unable to get in contact with the hospital and Salwala and her team (which was at this stage quite small) would walk to the villages to treat the sick elephants.

“We treated the elephants the best we could. We would make the appointment and we would also vaccinate those who were in elephant camps for tourists.

“Today, much has changed. We now have a phone so people can call us and bring the elephants to the hospital. We also have a car so we can help elephants who are further away. This is very convenient and means we can help more elephants, but now I don’t do as much exercise!” Said Salwala.

Despite the growing support that the elephant hospital now receives, Salwala admits that there is still a long way to go before her dream will be fulfilled. “The hospital is extremely helpful but the root of the problem still exists. Wild Elephants are dying every day, and when we release them [the elephants] there is a good chance they will end up straight back in the hospital,” said Salwala.

“We have come so far from when we first built the elephant hospital. We give the elephants a special place, but what they need is a sanctuary where they can spend the rest of their long lives. Somewhere that has the facilities to care for them until their very last day. I want to ease their pain, but to also build a home for the old disabled and unwanted ones,” saids Salwala.

As the elephant population continues to decrease in Thailand, people like Salwala and her team give the country hope that this sacred animal will one day regain its former glory. And despite initial scepticism, the elephant hospital has successfully developed into one of Thailand’s most valuable animal refuges and tourist attractions.

“There is a long way to go before my dream will be reached. But there is hope, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Salwala.

Feeding time at The Elephant Hospital (Photo by Richelle Chapman)

*Story by Sam Kilborn. Pictures contributed by Richelle Chapman. Quotes graciously provided by Soraida Salwada and animalplanet.com (http://animal.discovery.com/convergence/safari/elephant/expert/expert.html)

The ‘True’ Elephant Attraction In Thailand: Chiang Mai Elephant Conservation Centre

Bordering Lam Pang and Chiang Mai lies a care facility which shows the true love of animals that very much exists in the Thai culture. Forget the countless elephant tourist traps offered by Phuket and Kho Samui, here lies the true beauty of these magnificent creatures.

In the West elephants are often perceived with curiosity, as majestic beasts that inhabit distant jungles and bring us occasional delight through travelling circuses and zoos. However, in Thailand elephants play an enormous part in the country’s culture and way of life; representing the traditional symbol of power and peace and also acting as spiritual mentors.

The Thai people have connected with the curiosity that surrounds elephants in Western culture and have developed a range of tourist attractions such as elephant rides and shows-which have become an integral part of all tourist visits to the country. All parks will differ on what is offered, and it is generally recommended to head north if you want something more than just cheap thrills and a quick ride. There has been much controversy regarding the inhumane treatment of elephants in some of these centres and it is important to choose carefully.

One of the premiere Elephant Centres in Thailand is the Chiang Mai/Lampang Elephant Conservation Centre, located approximately one hour South of Chiang Mai and bordering Lampang. The Centre is managed by the Forest Industry Organisation, who successfully developed a sanctuary for elephants and an enriching cultural experience for visitors. There are no cheap tricks or cruel techniques here, and all elephants are encouraged to show-off their natural power and hidden talents in a supportive environment.

Elephants take riders for a bath at Chaing Mai Conservation Centre

What can you do?

Aside from the regular 45 minute elephant rides which will take you through the surrounding jungle of the Conservation Centre, there are numerous attractions that you will not find anywhere else in Thailand. The fantastic elephant show, which takes place three times daily, promotes the different skills of each elephant through a variety of tasks such as playing soccer, balancing on wooden planks and playing instruments. However, the undoubted crowd pleaser is the painting section at the end of the show.  Here you will be dazzled as the elephants show off their brush skills by painting breathtaking portraits with their trunks. These are then auctioned off at the end of the show, with all proceeds being donated to the neighbouring Elephant Hospital.

Who ever said you need hands to paint a portrait?

Another unique attraction to the Chiang Mai Conservation Centre is the making of elephant dung paper, which means exactly how it sounds-paper made from elephant dung. Because of elephant dung’s large fibre content it is widely used throughout Thailand and here you will learn first-hand how it is made. For the more adventurous visitors, you will be given the chance to make your own dung paper with some help from your friendly instructors. But fear not, locals assure that the dung is 100% bacteria free and is surprisingly odourless for those with a weak nose.

Paper made from elephant dung? Why not

However, if observing is your forte’ you can enjoy learning not only how it is made but how the paper is used throughout Thailand. And why not purchase your own dung paper at the completion of your demonstration? A variety of styles and patterns are offered and are a great present idea for family, friends or loved ones.

Vang Vieng…Going Down The Tourist Tube

On a recent trip to Laos I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful Vang Vieng. The town and its surrounding country side are stunning, and well worth the bumpy bus ride, however traditional culture is now hanging by a thread as a result of the growing popularity of ‘tubing’.

The gentle sounds of young locals fill the air as they bathe in the flowing river, while local merchants immerse themselves in various handicrafts and street stalls. Hordes of tourist buses take their turn hurtling down the town’s rugged terrain, though nothing will disturb the silence of this quiet sanctuary-a potent reminder of the sheer beauty of nature, if only for half a day.

As the sun sets behind a range of glorious mountain tops a cluster of stars can be seen illuminating the unblemished night sky.   Suddenly, the music rises in a crescendo of bass and electronic beats as the animals come out to play. Local residents retreat to their homes as the streets begin to buzz with the excited screams of half-naked back-packers carrying an assortment of rubber tubes. The picturesque countryside becomes a blur of flashing neon lights and the only trace of traditional culture can be found on the sign of the local pizza shop, reading “Home grown traditional weed for cheap price.”

This is Vang Vieng.

In most countries around the world, particularly the emerging nations of Southeast Asia, the word ‘tourist’ is perceived in a positive light-as an intrinsic part of economic growth, a valuable source of multiculturalism and (perhaps most importantly) a way to share and exchange cultural values and beliefs.  However, to the local people of Vang Vieng ‘tourist’ has become a dirty word. It has become a reminder that their traditional farming village, surrounded by stunning natural scenery and sitting on the Nam Song River, has become a cultureless scene of opium topped pizzas, beer bongs and debauchery.

So how has this sleepy farming village transformed so dramatically?

Initially, adventure junkies began arriving in Vang Vieng to scale the spectacular mountains and explore the many caves that line its picturesque country side. Or they would come to relax in the quiet, traditional lifestyle of Laos and its people.

The town is not so traditional now, nor is it quiet.

It is widely believed that this sudden influx in tourism was an accumulative result of the popular river activity ‘tubing’, which was accidently introduced to the world in 1999 by local farmer Thanongsi Sorangkoun, who bought some tubes for his workers to float down the river with after a hard day of work.

Little did he know that this gesture would soon become a world-wide tourist phenomenon.

It took local guest houses a little over a month to appreciate the value in this simple idea, and it wasn’t long before flocks of tourists could be seen gliding down the once quiet Nam Song River in rubber tubes.

Cambodian born Vanny Mann has been leading tour groups through Vang Vieng for eleven years, and he believes that the effect of tourism on the town’s culture has been enormous.

“Tubing is a good idea and it is easy to see how travellers enjoy this activity. It brings lots of money to help with the development of Vang Vieng and Laos but it has exploded. People are getting too drunk and destroying local culture and themselves,” says Mann.

The tubing office in Vang Vieng says that during peak season there are over 500 tube rentals per day, and it soon becomes obvious that once on the river all bets are off.

The number of deaths that have occurred are varied according to whom you speak (and with the amount of revenue it brings this is not surprising), however some sources claim that the number ranges from twenty to twenty five people each year.

Despite what the actual figure may be it is clear that with rickety wooden riverside bars, pumping rave music, free shots and flying foxes over hanging hidden submerged rocks, Sorangkoun’s initial idea has taken on a life of its own.

“Vang Vieng has changed. Ten years ago it was a quiet town where tourists would come to relax and enjoy the Laos culture, but today it has become a place for drugs, alcohol and sex,” says Mann.

It has been written that “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng”, and with good reason. For every bikini-clad Barbie there is a beer toting Ken just around the corner, waiting to whisk his prize away to a dirty dorm room or the next obnoxious bar.

However, it would be rash to blame the problem entirely on cheap alcohol and drugs. Of course these are contributing factors, but as locals say, TIVV-This Is Vang Vieng. And when coming from a relatively expensive (and regulated) country such as Australia the allure of this accessibility and affordability of illicit substances is unsurprising.

What is surprising is Vang Vieng’s complete lack of regulations and policing. In Australia we have regulations, and then we have regulations for our regulations, with an overwhelming fear that ‘something’ could go wrong and a need to prevent this.

However, it seems that authorities in Vang Vieng do not share the same ideologies as we do in Australia. Despite the zombie-like creatures slurring their words as they ride on the roof of a tuk-tuk; despite the numerous deaths that occur every year (whether through substance abuse or river carnage) and despite the abundance of marijuana and opium based pizzas being handed out like skittles, the police are nowhere to be found.

As a local restaurant owner, Nang Sysavath admits, “Law as we knew it has left Vang Vieng. We now live by a new law-the law of the tourists.”

Though while many locals protest against the loud music, disrespectful Westerners and the degrading of their traditional culture, there is also rejoicing in the job opportunities that have become available as a result of this sudden influx.

Mann says that in the last ten years an increasing number of people have been packing their bags and opening guest houses or bars in Vang Vieng, and in a developing country where the majority of the population are restricted to working in rice fields or labour-intensive jobs this has provided great opportunities for the country’s people.

“New guest houses and bars open every month, and these are run by both the Laos people and foreigners,” says Mann.

“Many who own these guest houses or bars say that it gives them new opportunities to make money and support their family, but watching the change of Vang Vieng I ask, “At what cost? ”

The views surrounding Vang Vieng’s sudden notoriety are as assorted as the collection of beer cans and empty coloured buckets that now line the shores of the Nam Song River. Though for the moment it is clear that the tubes will keep coming and the whisky will continue flowing, until the river runs dry.

For those that have been (or are planning on going), what are your thoughts on this? Is the loss of traditional culture a necessary evil for a third world country to develop?