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As part of our Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang adventures we visited an elephant part in Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is known for its elephant parks, drawing a lot of tourists. I love elephants, always have. It has been my dream for a long time to ride an elephant so I was very excited at this opportunity. We were cautious about visiting a park that treated the elephants well, so we chose one recommended to us by a vet. This seemed a pretty safe option.

We were picked up from our hotel in a minivan and driven out to the park. There were about eight of us in total. We started feeling awkward from the beginning when we saw the elephants chained by one ankle. We were given a talk on the history of the park, and an explanation as to their practices. Only bareback riding is permitted as the use of the box on the elephant’s back is damaging. They never separate a child from it’s mother. They have a policy of accepting and caring for orphaned elephants…

But they also showed us a stick with a hook on the end of it that they used liberally. Apparently previous participants had expressed anger at the use of these sticks, so we were given a long talk about why they are used. They are for our own safety, elephants are large animals that can cause a lot of damage. They are chained to stop them from fighting one another and trampling people. We all looked at each other uncomfortably, suddenly unsure as to whether or not we were doing the right thing.

We fed the elephants bananas and were given kisses by a baby elephant. We were then trained in getting on and off an elephant, how to direct (useless, as the mahouts did all of the directing anyway). After lunch we went on a short trek, two people to an elephant.

Each elephant has a mahout who has worked with his elephant for some time. My elephant’s name was Mae Moon, and her Burmese mahout had been with her for about seven years. He sang to her, chatted away to her, when we paused for a break she allowed him to have a nap on her back (pictured above). Their relationship seemed quite touching and he appeared to genuinely care for her. He hit her with the stick a few times, she was cheeky and kept stopping to eat along the trek. It didn’t look hard, and she seemed to barely notice.

After the trek we walked into a large pond and proceeded to give Mae Moon a good scrub, which she seemed to enjoy. Inevitably it also turned into a water fight with the mahouts which was quite fun.

I tried to keep an open mind. I don’t really understand the process of caring for an elephant day to day. A lot of the practices were to keep us safe. Which made me wonder if it were right for us to be there in the first place. But if we weren’t there paying for this experience, would they have the money to care for the elephants. Questions zoomed ’round and ’round my head. I still don’t know if we did the right thing or not.

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I am now officially unemployed (or funemployed to steal a phrase from a friend)!  Yesterday was my last day of work.  I had been at this job for just under 16 months, which in my five and a half years working as a social worker is a record for me.  For someone as restless as I am this is a testament to my wonderful team and the passion I have for the humanitarian need and human rights of asylum seekers.

One of the benefits of working with such a wonderful close knit team as I have, is the perfectly tailored farewell gifts I received.  A bottle of red wine, and a voucher for a photographic day trip in Cambodia with Nathan Horton Photography.  This includes a half day workshop and then an afternoon putting our new skills into practice.  I have bought a beautiful new camera to take with me so I can document my travels and improve my skill.  But what I loved the most about this gift, and what touched me with the realisation that my colleagues really do understand me, is the ethical photography component of this course.

While I do not expect that people who don’t know me will bother reading this blog, I am very aware of the public nature of blogs.  In this age where everything is public, one has to be very careful of what photos they post online.  I have been wondering for a while if it is OK for me to take photos of strangers and post them online.  If I photograph interesting people and situations during my travels, am I exploiting them, particularly if I am photographing children or vulnerable persons?  Do I need to obtain consent before photographing strangers, and if I do, are they really able to provide informed consent?

I had never voiced these concerns to my colleagues but they have been plaguing me for some time.  So either I am very transparent, or they just know me extremely well.  Actually, it doesn’t hurt that the individual responsible for this amazing gift is one of my best friends of nearly ten years.