Where do I begin with Hoi An? It is a city that makes your soul feel good. Historically a port town, the city’s architecture is a beautiful mix of French colonial buildings, Chinese temples, and an ancient Japanese covered bridge and pagodas. Then there are the Chinese lanterns that are illuminated each night and cast a romantic spell over the old town. I can’t imagine anyone strolling through the city at night, with the myriad of riverfront restaurants and cafes, street artists, floating candles, and bicycle rickshaws carting tourists up and down the street, and not falling at least a little bit in love with the place. Even when it is jam-packed with tourists, as I’m sure it always is. Vietnamese and foreign tourists alike seem to flock to Hoi An. It is like a precious gem set in the center of the country.
Many months ago, when I decided that Thailand would be included on my trip, I booked a week-long volunteering gig at Elephant Nature Park. ENP is a brilliant organization in Northern Thailand founded by Lek Chailert. Lek has made it her life goal to rescue and rehabilitate as many elephants (as well as dogs, cats, water buffalo, and monkeys) as she can from the tourism and logging industries in SE Asia. She is an incredible woman who works extremely hard for animal and human rights. She fights back against inhumane practices, educates locals about better ways to treat/train animals, and works closely with the Thai government to try to enact laws of protection for elephants. When you hear her speak about these issues, you realize that Lek herself is the embodiment of love, strength, perseverance, and determination. She is an inspiration to everyone who meets her. She spoke to our group for about two hours one afternoon about the abuses that elephants face here in SE Asia, about the struggles she encounters when trying to fight against these abuses, about the slow but positives changes that are being made, and about how horrific animal tourism is. For two days following her presentation, I would just burst into tears every time I thought about it. I still, as I’m writing this, feel on the verge of tears. But I’ll get more into the awful truth later. For now, I’ll tell you about what is was like volunteering at ENP.
Animal Aid is an incredible place. The description on their website describes it as a “vital rescue center, hospital and sanctuary for injured and ill street animals in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India” that “rescues thousands of hurt and sick animals each year and provides sanctuary to those who need life-long care.” It was started by Jim Myers and Erika Abrams, an American couple who began living on and off in India in the early 90s. They felt sorry for all the street animals they saw and wanted to do something to help. In 2002 they founded Animal Aid Unlimited in Rajasthan.