“Just like giant puppies” – how Utah Tech University students spent spring break with elephants in Thailand

By Jake Harber

A group of nine Utah Tech University students had the opportunity of a lifetime over spring break, participating in Utah Tech’s Alternative Breaks trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, and helping out at a local elephant refuge.

The group met up on March 9 in Chiang Mai, where they were picked up by members of Friends for Asia, the group with which Utah Tech University coordinated the trip. After receiving some information at the office, the group of students was taken just up the street to the house where they would be staying in Chiang Mai.

The students spent their first weekend in Chiang Mai diving into Thai culture – observing cultural shows, experiencing authentic Thai food, and going to an enormous market, a chronic shopper’s dream – the likes of which kept the group busy for hours without even seeing every vendor the market had to offer.

On Monday morning, the group headed to their next destination, which was the elephant refuge an hour and a half northwest of Chiang Mai where the students would stay until Friday. After traveling through the deep jungles of northern Thailand, a break in the trees showed the students their bamboo homes for the next five days and the company they’d have – 10 elephants.

Upon arriving, the students were put right to work, feeding the elephants with bananas. Sporting Friends for Asia uniforms, they were tasked with taking the elephants on hikes every day to get food, giving baths, cutting tall grass and gathering more food, and helping with other chores, like cleaning up after the elephants and building a dam out of rocks.

“They’re just like giant puppies,” Brenna McCue, student life and engagement coordinator at Utah Tech, said.

“The Thai people were some of the most kind, accommodating and respectful people.”

Each elephant had a mahout, an elephant trainer or keeper, that came from a village in northern Thailand. Most mahouts were in the age range of 12 to 17 years old, and didn’t speak Thai or English, yet the students and the mahouts still found ways to communicate.

The students had a bonfire after dinner every day to look forward to chatting with the mahouts and relaxing after a hard day’s work.

The students also helped out in the kitchens, learning Thai phrases and how to cook local foods.

“I’m really proud in the sense that we all immersed ourselves in the culture, and we just absorbed as much as we could of the culture, the people, and the language,” McCue said. “The Thai people were some of the most kind, accommodating and respectful people.”

On Friday night, the student’s last night at the refuge, Friends for Asia coordinated a riverside dinner on the boat, where the students enjoyed their last meal and saw some of the Thai nightlife alongside the river as they traveled up and down.

Utah Tech University’s Alternative Breaks trips are great opportunities for UT students to travel, serve diverse communities, and make a difference in the world. These students embody Utah Tech’s tagline “active learning. active life.” To learn more about Utah Tech’s Alternative Breaks opportunities, visit utahtech.edu/utsa/service.