The Surin Project

Two weeks ago, I had that sinking feeling again – the lump in my throat, pain in my heart, dread at an impending farewell. Only this time, that farewell wasn’t to my grandparents, or to Chase – it was farewell to an elephant named Nonglek and to her mahout, Suchard.

Suchard (mahout) and Nonglek (elephant)

Never in my life did I think I would cry after saying goodbye to an elephant, but I guess that just shows how special the Surin Project became to me after those six short days. It’s honestly hard for me to put into words even now, so I’ll cheat and insert an excerpt from what I wrote in my journal the day after I left the project on April 3rd:

“…Calling it volunteering is a bit of a misnomer, if you ask me. For the little bit of work we did throughout the day – cleaning shelter/enclosure, cutting sugar cane, building the bench for project work – we got to spend so much more time interacting with the elephants and their mahouts, and that time was so incredibly special. 

Yesterday, I went to spend time with Nonglek and Suchard for the last time before I left later in the evening. I can’t explain what it’s like to be so close to such a magnificent creature. Looking into Nonglek’s eye, leaning my cheek against her trunk to say goodbye – these are the moments I love and treasure the most from my time in Surin. 

I miss Nonglek and the other elephants and mahouts so much already. This was a trip where I truly despised the language barrier, because I just wished so much that I could talk to and get to know all the mahouts better…

My heart is full at least from all the connections that were still made despite the language barrier. Even though I wanted to ask more questions about the elephants or the mahouts’ families and lives, I also learned that genuine kindness, playful affection and love for the elephants could be perfectly expressed without words. 

I will forever cherish those peaceful mornings I had just enjoying time with Nonglek and 73-year-old Suchard, whose playfulness belied his small old man’s frame. I can’t believe that for five straight days, my daily routine consisted of going on walks with ELEPHANTS and getting as close to them as I wanted…

I cried yesterday after saying bye to Nonglek, and again after saying bye to Sarote who rustled my hair in affection & comfort as I cried about Nonglek. Surin was something so, so special.”

Looking back, my time at the Surin Project feels incredibly surreal. For nearly a week, I was lost in the village of Ban Ta Klang – totally immersed in the slow routine of village life, I spent almost no time thinking of my “real” life. It’s laughable to me how much I thought I “loved” elephants before the Surin Project, because nothing can compare to the absolute adoration, utmost respect, and fervent love I have now after having spent time with them face-to-face.


There are so many things that I didn’t write down in my journal – the warm breath of air the elephants blew from their trunks; evening discussions about meditation and life philosophy with Prom; bonding with Ocha over Teresa Teng (also, Ocha’s cooking); the gorgeous scarves from M & A to comfort me after a tearful farewell. For these memories, I owe the biggest kop khun ka to Ocha, Prom, my fellow volunteers; to the mahouts, of course, and to the elephants.

I’ve certainly left a piece of my heart in Ban Ta Klang – thank you so much to the Surin Project for an incredible experience and the most meaningful week I’ve spent in Asia.


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