From Childhood Dreams to Elephant Research: A Week at KSESDecember 15, 2023
Making memories in Ban NaklangJanuary 9, 2024
By Kaat Heynen – 4 weeks photography intern:
When asked to describe my experience at KSES the past four weeks, the first thing that comes to my mind is ‘Dah bah no me bah’. A sentence from the local Karen language that translates to ‘No worries’. Let me show you what I mean, by taking you through a day as an intern at Kindred Spirit.
6.30 Instead of the annoying sound of the alarm on my phone I wake up by the lovely song of the rooster on my roof, I know this is arguable, but I happen to like roosters. After putting on my hiking clothes and an extra jumper (the mornings can be cold here during winter) I make my way downstairs. If I’m lucky I get to pet the cat, who finally decided that she does like me, on my way out. Most of the people from my homestay will already be outside cooking breakfast and getting ready to go to the corn/rice fields. I greet them with the most useful word in the local Karen language, ‘Da blue’, which simultaneously means ‘Hello’, ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Thank you’. How convenient is that!? Although I have to admit that this is the only easy thing about this otherwise very confusing language.
7.00 I cross the hanging bridge to go to ‘base’, a treehouse for the volunteers and staff members. If I’m not completely awake yet the bridge will make sure I am now. And if that doesn’t help there’s always ‘Nee’s corner’. One of the local ladies runs a small coffeeshop at ‘base’. Nee is definitely as sweet as her lattes and always in for a laugh or a conversation in Karen-English. By now she also knows my order by hard: ‘one latte and one pancake’, yes you read that right she makes pancakes too! I mean, is there a better way to start the day?
8.00 Time to put on my walking shoes on. Not always an easy task with Chacha, Gloy and Flaco, the three base dogs, choosing this moment to come sit on your feet and asking for attention. But an even more difficult task awaits me next. We have to cross the village to start our hike to the elephants. What’s so hard about that? Well we have to do this without petting any of the village dogs, despite them jumping up and down in front of us and putting on puppy eyes. We can’t risk them following us into the forest, because elephants get really spooked by dogs.
8.15 At the entrance of the forest Gae, the local guide, is waiting for us (with or without boiled spiders she wants us to try for breakfast). Now we are ready to enter the misty forest. But very soon the sun will break through the mist and everyday again I wonder how I was ever cold this morning. Then we come to the point where the first day my heart beat raised. Was that an elephant I saw there in the distance? False alarm, it’s ‘just’ a big buffalo taking his morning mud bath.
9.00 The moment of truth! It keeps amazing me how one second you’re just walking and the next an elephant appears out of nowhere. Well not out of nowhere obviously because they’re kinda big, but they do walk on their tippy toes though (not kidding). Because of this they don’t make a sound when they walk. (Definitely look up the Tiktok we made about this topic, if you want to know more).
10.00 Because the elephants are free to roam the forest, the moment of truth can be postponed if the elephants decide that we could use a little bit more exercise. We’ve climbed many hills, crossed make shift bridges and done the splits in the mud (okay the last one was just me) . Of course all of this is so worth it. Not only do you get to see the most peaceful spots in the forest, where butterflies are landing on you like you’re some kind of Disney princess. You also get to see the elephants living their best lives in the forest, where they’re supposed to be. With the cherry on top being baby junior running around between his parents, cuddling with his great-grandmother or having absolutely the time of his life splashing around in the river.
9.15 or 10.15 Now on to the main reason why I came here in the first place: taking pictures of the elephants. Taking pictures of moving animals is something completely different from what I’ve done before, which resulted in a lot of blurry photos. But that’s the great thing about being here for four weeks, everyday I can experiment with new settings and angles in order to get that perfect shot.
12.00 We are welcomed back into the village like superstars, by the dogs that is. Followed by a lunch, prepared by our homestays, at ‘base’. Is it the hike or is this the best rice I’ve ever eaten? After lunch it’s time for a shower to benefit my health, at least that’s what I keep repeating in my head while taking a cold shower. Never felt more refreshed after a shower though, so there must be some truth in all those articles.
13.00 If I’m lucky Kua duahmoo, the mother of my homestay, will call me on my way back to ‘base’ to show me her new stash of ice cream in their shop. Now it’s time to get some relaxing done. And what better way to do that then by laying in the hammock with Chacha by my side. I’ve been in love with her since the moment I saw her (don’t tell the other ‘base’ dogs though) and I think it’s mutual, or is it just the ice cream?
15.00 Time to get some editing done on the photos I took this morning. It’s hard to choose between three almost identical photos of Junior being cute. Afterwards there’s some time left to work on my two other projects. The first one is creating content for TikTok, not an easy task for a Millennial like me. However together with Laura and Sebastian, the two other interns, I’m finding my way through the maze. The second one is making a determination chart to make it easier for future interns and guest to identify the elephants. Curtain ears, tusks, chin hair … all six of them have some distinctive features by which you can recognise them.
18.00 The sun sets, which means: dinner time! The sky turns orangy red while I cross the bridge to collect my food at my homestay. Every night the six of us (three interns + three staff members) eat together at one of our homestays. We all bring the food cooked by our homestays and find a cosy spot on the floor. We put our dishes in the middle to share, except for the rice. Each of us gets our own plate of rice, that could easily serve up to four people. It’s no coincidence that the Karen sentence for ‘Have you eaten yet?’, ‘Oh mae lee ah?’, literally translates to ‘Have you eaten rice?’.
19.00 After dinner every night is different. Quiz night, a Karen-English lesson or a presentation by one of the interns on a topic related to Thailand, varying from the basic principles of Buddhism to why Thai men grow long fingernails on their pinky finger. Friday nights are Christmas movie nights. ‘The Grinch’, ‘Love actually’ and ‘The Holiday’ made sure we got into the Christmas spirit despite it being 30° celsius outside. 21.00 Time to get ready for bed. It has already been dark outside for three hours by now, so it feels way later. While crossing the bridge to go back to may homestay I a see a shooting star and wish I could stay here for another four weeks.
Big thanks to Aislinn, Jasmin, Cristina, Kerri, Laura, Sebastian, Lars, Nee, Gae, my homestay amily and all the other villagers to make my stay here unforgettable!