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Lauren De Terra's Report of Her Term as an English Teacher in Moo Ban Chang, Ban Ta Klang, Thailand

May 14, 2016 Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation GTAEF Moo Baan Chang The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation

Seven months into my time in Thailand I find myself walking a gravel road. I look to my right and can see Burma and Laos. A young elephant extends her trunk, demanding more sunflower seeds. We continue to the Ruak River where I watch two elephants bathe, flapping their ears in happiness and spraying water on their backs to fight the April heat.

I'm a volunteer at the elephant camp at Anantara Resort and Spa, located in the very north of Thailand. This past month I've met travelers from all over the world and helped them get up close and personal with elephants. How did I get here? My journey started in the rural village of Ban Ta Klang.

Ban Ta Klang, also known as Moo Ban Chang, or elephant village, sits surrounded by rice fields near the border of Cambodia. The village is home to 700 people and about 200 elephants. I arrived to the village in November at the start of the term as the new English teacher, only the second native speaker to date.

At the end of my TESOL training I accepted my teaching placement in the rural East where I knew I would be the only Western teacher for miles, and there was a reasonable chance of bucket showers and squat toilets. I'd have to learn how to ride a motorbike to get around and the village only had one main restaurant. I was told there would also be elephants. I said yes to it all and luckily ended up with a proper shower.

Being the only foreign teacher meant I taught at both the primary and secondary schools in town, covering all grades 1-12. Each grade level offered its own challenges and things I looked forward to each week. Over the next 4 months I observed my students become more confident with their English, inside and outside the classroom. Students would attempt to answer my questions in the halls, instead of giggling and running away like in the first few weeks. Students were more likely to volunteer in class even if it meant the possibility of messing up and getting called a buffalo (not a compliment) by their friends.

I prepared lessons, printed flashcards, and made vocabulary games while passing elephants on the road to school and watching as they would occasionally lumber by the open classroom window. The students didn't pay any particular attention, it's all part of their world.

When I first entered this world I was excited by the pure novelty of it. How many of my friends had ever lived in an elephant village?? They were absolutely everywhere, as common as cars on the road. There were even three elephants kept at my accommodation I passed every time I left the house.

Once I got settled into my teaching routine and felt more comfortable in the classroom I started to examine my surroundings more closely. I turned to the internet to try and learn more about elephant tourism and conservation projects in Thailand. I was left wanting to know more about a hot button issue with more gray area than I was aware of. I was lucky to get the opportunity to visit the elephant camp at Anantara on a school break in December to get perspective and ask some burning questions.

Thailand is called the 'Land of Smiles' for a reason. Almost every person on the street would give me a wave, whether they knew me or not. Co-teachers invited me to their family dinners. Around town I went from being called 'Farang', a casual, not particularly polite word for foreigner, to 'Kuhn Kru', the polite form for teacher. I am thankful for the kindness showed to me by the people of Ban Ta Klang.

That said, the quality of life of the captive elephants is generally poor. Many spend all day on a short chain without the chance to walk around or socialize. Some elephants work at the local elephant show and ride attraction, 'The Elephant Study Center', which is the only tourism activity in the area and caters mostly to Thais and school children on field trips. The elephants not involved were largely kept idle. With previous forms of work now illegal and the high cost of caring for a large animal (that eats so much!), it's a difficult situation for both the elephant and their owners.

Now that I've learned about elephant behavior and intelligence and seen the kind of life captive elephants can have, I'm saddened. My mission was to help students improve their English. My larger mission, due to the vision of The Elephant Story and The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, was to give students the skills to seek alternative work opportunities. Instead of taking on the family tradition of breeding or raising elephants, increasing the number in captivity, students could have the option to travel to other parts of Thailand and be more qualified for a wider range of education and work opportunities. 

Students pictured above are receiving a certificate of excellence for English class attendance and participation at the secondary level.

I'm happy to be a part of the new education initiative in Ban Ta Klang. After my term teaching was up I knew I couldn't leave Thailand without doing more to improve the lives of captive elephants. It has been an amazing month as I've been able to work closely with elephants and share their impressive beauty and intelligence with visitors. While the Foundation and myself believe the best place for elephants is in the wild, I'm glad I've been able to see the light in a tough situation and help provide the best lives for those already in captivity.

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