As a veterinary student with a keen interest in wildlife and zoological medicine, and an aspiration to pursue a career in this field, I have always been looking for opportunities to expand my knowledge in this area.
I was extremely fortunate to be able to arrange a placement at the Southern elephant hospital, based in the Krabi province of Thailand.
The centre is government funded and provides free healthcare for working elephants in the region. Two onsite specialist veterinarians, and a team of able assistants provide high standard care to the animals.
The hospital is equipped with a set of stocks suitable for treating and restraining elephants, ample undercover space for the elephants to stand and be treated, and grass areas where they can be walked and bathed. There is a large dispensary with an array of medications available for the animals and a conference room where educational meetings and staff briefings can be held.
A cultural experience
My experience started when the head veterinarian picked me up from my hostel in Krabi town. An acquaintance made through the social media site LinkedIn, this was probably the most daunting part of the experience, as we had never previously met in person, but as expected he was very kind and accommodating.
I was able to stay on site, which was amazing, and I was given a very spacious guesthouse complete with bedding and bathroom, which was more than adequate. I did put my mosquito net up but that was more of a gecko deterrent than anything else, as they enjoyed sleeping in my bed and I didn’t want to accidentally squash them in the middle of the night!
I was able to get food with the staff for lunch and dinner, which was one of the highlights of my whole trip in Thailand. The food was amazing and the food they cooked for me at the hospital with very minimal equipment compared to what I am used to in the UK, was truly delicious. It was lovely to be able to go and buy the ingredients with the staff at the local market and help prepare the food despite the fact verbal communication was very challenging for all of us. I was unable to converse in Thai and most of the staff shared my challenge when trying to speak to me in English, other than the head vet, who was fluent.
The Market we brought the food from
The amazing food created!
The language barrier resulted in a lot of laughing, sign language and incorrect use of google translate!
I did try to learn the language before I arrived and during my stay, as I felt ignorant for not being able to speak in the local language, but only managed thank you and polite gestures as the English-Thai dictionaries did not account for the alphabet change. In the future I will look for a language dictionary that takes into account pronunciation!
I was able to treat two elephants every day whilst working at the hospital. These were effectively inpatients, but they went home every evening, as there were no facilities available on site to house them.
The photo below shows an elephant being transported home from the hospital.
After initially being shown how to clean and dress the wounds on the first day of my placement, I was then left to treat the wounds daily by myself with a hospital assistant to prepare the equipment for me, and a supervising veterinarian available should I require assistance.
Overall it was a very eye opening experience, and having come to Thailand with a very basic understanding of elephant training, welfare and work, I do feel this experience opened my mind a lot.
I would really love to return to the institution again if I am ever in the area and hope to stay in contact with the people I met there, who were all very friendly, knowledgeable and accommodating.
This was truly one of the best experiences of my life, and was definitely the highlight of my travels in Thailand. If you are travelling anywhere this year and are wanting to do something a bit off the beaten track, getting involved with the locals, volunteering and steering clear of tourism for a while will probably be the best decision you could make. I went from feeling like I visited Thailand to feeling like I had experienced Thailand.
Let me know if you have had any similar experiences or want advice with your future plans in the comments below! 🙂