And Today I Met…

Soraida SalwalaFounder of the Chiang Mai Elephant Hospital

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

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Olivier Van Den Bogaert-Owner of Olly’s Place, Kampot

Belgium born Olivier Van Den Bogaert talks about the difficulties and triumphs of starting a new life in Cambodia

A double shot of motivation. One small pinch of courage. A splash of resolution and a slice of adventure to top it off.

To me, it seems like starting a new life in a foreign country is much like making a good cocktail-without the proper ingredients the outcome will usually fall devastatingly short of your expectations. It takes a certain set of motivations and characteristics to make that leap from comfort and familiarity to a world of uncertainty, with the hope of finding a new life (while taking the risk of finding nothing at all).

How many times have you caught yourself dreaming about a new life in an exotic location? A fresh start to revitalise that adventurous spirit you once felt-or perhaps to maintain the adventurous spirit that you were lucky enough to have held onto. Unfortunately, it seems that very few of us actually succeed in making the difficult transition from fantasy to reality. We find refuge in the all too familiar “I wish I had your courage…”, “I have too many responsibilities” and “One day…”

But will that day ever come?

For Belgium born Olivier Van den Bogaert leaving the country he called ‘home’ was a hard decision, though was one that he had been dreaming about for many years. It wasn’t until 2008, after devastatingly losing his job during the financial crisis, that Bogaert’s day finally arrived and he packed his bags with the hope of finding a fresh start in a mysterious, inspiring land known as Cambodia.

Cambodia is a land abundant with beautiful scenery and welcoming smiles, though is also mixed with a past so savage and volatile that it makes you wonder how this joyous culture remains so firmly intact. It is a land of contrasts, and one which was perfectly suited to Bogaert’s conflicting state of mind.

“My life in Belguim was nothing special. The last 10 years I worked as a driver for medical equipment. I was just an ordinary man and for a long time I had wanted to leave my country and find something different and exciting,” said Bogaert.

However, Bogaert’s decision to leave the only life he knew was not an easy one and he soon discovered that resistance to change was a mentality he not only had to address in himself, but also in the people around him.

Bogaert recalls the negativity and lack of support from his friends, as his mother “was the only person that supported my decision. She saw that I was no longer happy and it was time for a radical change. My friends couldn’t believe it and they were trying to keep me there. They would say “what are you going to do when you’re 65?” “What about your pension and healthcare?”

“These questions are all valid. However, it became clear to me that I didn’t want to get stuck in a system like this. I chose freedom and trusted in my own skills and instincts.” Said Bogaert.

It took Bogaert some time to find his stride in the electrifying atmosphere of Siem Reap (home to one of the world’s most spectacular man-made structures, Angkor Wat), though after a number of months he soon discovered the magic of the Cambodian people and it wasn’t long before he met the love of his life, Nahm.

Olly and Nahm find happiness in Kampot

Together, Bogaert and Nahm bought their first motor cycle and set off to explore the country they had seen so little of.

“I planned to do something, somewhere in Cambodia but what and where was a big question mark.”  Said Bogeart.

After weeks of travelling they passed through the small town of Kampot, situated between a stunning mountain backdrop and a glorious river system. Little did Bogeart know that this captivating town would soon become his new home.

“When we were first shown the town we saw the beauty of the river. Nahm and I both love the water, and we decided to stay a bit longer in this charming village. The typical French little houses and the laid back vibe really attracted us,” said Bogeart.

It only took three days for Bogeart and Nahm to stumble upon a quaint abandoned house while kayaking down the Tek Chouu River-not too far from town and ten metres from the water’s edge.

“We decided to rent it, and this abandoned house soon became Olly’s Place.” Said Bogeart.

Olly’s Place

Fast forward to 2012 and after two and a half years Olly’s Place has become one of the most popular backpacker accommodations in Cambodia, and with good reason. With quaint wooden bungalows nestled neatly on the shore of a picturesque river, surrounded by towering mangroves and a wonderland for wildlife enthusiasts, you would be hard-pressed to find a better hideaway for such a low price.

However, living the dream does come with its share of inconveniences and it took six months of blood, sweat and tears for Olly’s Place to be opened for business. And even after the stream of backpackers came trickling in it became apparent to Bogeart that running a business in a developing country required a degree of moral flexibility, empathy and patience.

“The Cambodian people are extremely laid back, and anyone who has spent time in this country will know that it is not uncommon for buses to be hours late. However, when trying to open a business it can be problematic when your builders arrive late and finish early every day. This is just the culture you have to get used to!

“We also got to know the police very well, who would come to Olly’s Place and demand extra money for protection. Though once we began to understand the situation in Cambodia we would offer them a couple of beers and wouldn’t see them again.” Said Bogeart.

Paddling the river

As I steady myself on one of Bogeart’s multiple paddle boards in the middle of the spectacular river, I prepare myself for the glorious sunset just beyond the mangroves and suddenly get a strong sense of belonging. I can now understand how Bogaert must have felt two and a half years ago when he swam out to this very spot to watch this same sunset. Or was it a sense of accomplishment, of defying the odds and finding a life that very few are lucky enough to experience?Whatever he felt, it was a moment that changed his life and one that he believes every person should experience.

“Since moving to Cambodia my life has become what I once dreamt it would be, but I had to be honest about what I wanted, and I had to push the ‘What if’s?’ from my mind.

In developing countries such as Cambodia it is extremely easy to set up a business, and it also gives you the opportunity to help a beautiful part of the world that is struggling economically…I believe that if you can adapt yourself to a new way of life it will be the most rewarding experience you will ever have.”

A big thanks to Olly for taking the time to talk to me about his new life in this fanastic country!

To make a booking at Olly’s Place please visit:

http://www.ollysplacekampot.com/

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