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Memories of moments that will last a life time - volunteering with turtles in Thailand

By Nicola Gray 1 year ago

The indescribable feeling of working with baby turtles

It’s very difficult to describe the first time you pick up a baby turtle and hold it, tiny and wriggling, in your hands.

This is what I remember the most clearly from my time in Thailand – a lot of turtles. I remember being on my hands and knees to scrub their tanks, and trying to fill the tanks back up with more water than they had before without anyone noticing. Holding these tiny creatures in my hands, that definitely don’t want to be held and trying to accurately put purple splodges of medicine on very small areas while they simply refuse to hold still. Spoiler: they ended up being almost completely covered in purple instead. Another spoiler: so did I.

Arriving at the right time, at the best place

A turtle hatchling heading off into the oceanI know that we ended up being exceptionally lucky in our first week. There are only a handful of turtle releases held every year at the Navy Base turtle sanctuary we went to, and somehow my arrival in Thailand fell perfectly right before one. As if simply holding a turtle wasn’t enough, all of us there got to release one turtle into the ocean as a part of celebrations for the New King’s birthday; and trust me, there is nothing that can compare to the absolute joy of seeing your little turtle make it across the beach and through the tiny waves that are able to knock them back easily (wherever you are, Tommy, I hope you’re loving your free life in the ocean). I don’t think I’ve ever felt prouder of anyone or anything before.


paddling in the thailand jungle

The start of my time in Thailand was actually very calm. At the beginning of the first week, we took part in a boat tour at a place called Little Amazon, which took us down an incredibly tranquil mangrove forest that created a canopy of green above our heads. I’ve always loved rivers and any kind of river trip, but this was such a magical atmosphere that I almost felt like I should start meditating in the boat. If they were looking for a calm way to transition us into life in Thailand, they certainly found one.

In contrast, my first weekend in Thailand definitely did not make me feel like I should start meditating. We went on a group trip to Krabi, where we would then head on by boat to Railay.

The best parts of volunteering in Thailand

buddhist statue thailandI think the best part of the weekend was Tiger Cave Temple. I have absolutely no idea why it’s called Tiger Cave Temple; as far from a cave as it can possibly be, it sits at the top of a 1237 step climb, and instead of tigers you get greeted by monkeys who are more than happy to run off with your water bottle. Slightly hungover, and already sweating profusely from the heat and humidity, we started the climb. This is the hardest workout I think I have ever done – and I know that isn’t exactly a difficult record to beat, but this was extremely tough. I must have genuinely sweat out half my body weight, and I was only very slowly inching my way up the steps to the top. I know, I said this was the best part of the weekend, and so far it sounds like hell, but reaching the top was euphoric – probably partly induced by sweat-loss and exhaustion, but mostly brought on by the views from the top. The temple itself wasn’t really a temple, but a huge structure built incredibly high up housing a huge Buddha statue and a mixture of viewpoints. And I could see for miles – absolutely stunning Thai landscapes that stretched out in front of me endlessly. There’s nothing quite like it.

After getting back and packed, and finally making our way by boat across to Railay, it was equally as beautiful to reach. We spent the afternoon and evening having a very relaxing swim, and a wander down the touristy streets. It’s a very small island, and it’s definitely built as a tourist community, but the landscape itself is definitely worth seeing.

Phang Nga's jungle wildernessIn the morning, a few of us decided to attempt a small hike to what I think translates to The Holy Princess Pool. Hidden in the island behind a relatively steep climb both up and down, the pool is enclosed at all ends and light shines down from above. It’s definitely a magical view first thing in the morning, after the climb, when you’re the only people there; and it would be a completely perfect swim as well, if it weren’t for the deep, muddy ground in the pool, and what I can only describe as lots of very tiny splinters or spikes that took a few showers, when we got back, to finally get rid of.

Hiking and exploring Thailand’s nature

My second week in Thailand was even more eventful than the first. The first three days were incredible – we went to two islands, Koh Rah and Koh Prah Thong, which are almost completely undiscovered, and I feel like these were the most exciting few days of my entire trip. The islands are covered in jungle, and the idea was to recover camera traps and then set up some new ones to try and track what animals are there. Maybe I’m just naive, but how is it possible there were two whole islands with this much wildlife and diversity that we knew nothing about?

What we do know comes from what we’ve been told by local villagers. The most exciting – and verifiable – of which is that there are pangolins on the island. We were told enough about them that I could definitely write a small fact file about them here for you, but instead I’ll just say that they’re very heavily illegally trafficked, and try my best to convince you to do research on them and their situation yourself. In short, it is very exciting that there may be a large (or even a small) population of them on these islands. And while they’ve seen less solid evidence such as tracks left by them, what they really want is a photograph; hence – camera traps.

When we arrived at the islands, after a long boat journey, it was to a small village in the north of the bottom island. The village had been completely wiped out during the tsunami, and afterward, it was rebuilt by different aid organizations, who built around 130 houses – all identical – for villagers to move back into. However, the tsunami made people very wary of moving back. When we arrived, there were about 25 villagers there. The rest of the houses sat abandoned, as did the village hall, and the local school – where there still lay old, slightly rusted playground equipment, and rooms littered with books and chairs and tables. It was definitely a little unsettling.

We stayed in one of the few inhabited houses for the night – each of us with our own room which consisted of a mattress on the floor covered by a mosquito net. I woke up in the morning feeling stiff, but also excited.

This is where I tell you about the best hike I have ever been on. So we set off, and it is absolutely pouring. The-sky-has-decided-to-dump-an-entire-ocean-on-our-heads pouring, where it’s so bad I actually regret wearing a waterproof jacket because after five minutes it’s soaked through and is just sticking with me in that horrible, wet way. On the bright side, it’s wet enough that you get used to it super quickly and it no longer bothers you that there’s water dripping from your nose and your ears and down through your clothes.

Now when they said it was going to be a five-hour hike I was actually quite excited, and I know I’ll get a lot of funny looks for saying that. But it wasn’t the sort of five hours I was expecting. Instead of taking so long because we had a long distance to travel, or because it was hard, uphill work that left you panting, it took so long because even without the rain the ground was a literal slip-and-slide that you had to navigate extremely slowly if you didn’t want to slide the whole way. Even at that pace, I managed to unsurprisingly slip too many times to count, and far more times than anyone else in the group – but it didn’t bother me, I’ve always loved slip-and-slides.

That’s not even the best bit though. Thanks to the constant rain, we managed to re-enact what I’m almost certain has to be a scene in some jungle explorer movie somewhere. The banks of this pool of water that sat beside the ‘path’ had completely broken by the time we tried to make our way back, which left the water flowing too fast to even consider getting across at the same point. In the end, we waded through further up what was now a river, the water up to our chests with our bags balanced on our heads, looking completely ridiculous. Or completely badass, depending on your opinion.

We had one more hike the next day before we headed home. A much smoother hike, we successfully set up a new camera trap and headed back to the village where we got a quick cooking lesson before leaving. Coconut Balls – they are delicious, but I almost wish I’d never found out how much sugar was in them…

Mid-week through week three, we had another interesting day on one of the islands. This time, we took a boat to another village on a different side of Koh Prah Thong. We took a few hours to get there where we stopped for a drink and, as with everything in Thailand, took our time before starting to set up. What we had to do today was help them float out and set up two sign-posts in the water, which would mark out a marine protected area. Sounds easy enough, right? Except the signs were huge and filled with concrete, and we had to float them out right before the tide started to get low because it gets too shallow to take a boat out. We dropped the posts into the water roughly where we needed them, and once the tide had dropped we took the boat out close enough to walk on the newly-exposed ground – with the posts lying in the mud. Digging the holes for the posts was a lot harder than it sounds, and one of the signs definitely looked wonky by the time we left it, but it’s fair to say we didn’t do too badly. I have been left to wonder whether the signs are still there now, or whether they collapsed fairly shortly, but let’s just think positive.

My last weekend with everyone wasn’t too hectic, thankfully. We didn’t venture too far for the first night and decided to explore a Lantern Festival held in a town that was just a short taxi-ride away. We spent the day there – and not really feeling like a trip to the beach, a couple of us went a walk through the town while everyone else sunbathed. It was actually nice to just go for a wander for once, and we managed to make our way down to a small weekend market that was interesting to look around a little before we made our way back.

Participating in Thailand’s culture

A thailand festivalIn the evening, we headed towards the Festival. Yes, we almost thought we were lost, but we didn’t actually go in the wrong direction and we made it in the end, and the festival itself was an amazing set-up. There was a stage at the front, but the street behind it was where it came alive – lined with little tents selling street-food and showcasing a small collection of painted lanterns. It was very much a colorful festival and to top it all off, the food was delicious. We ended up spending a lot of time just looking around. We were waiting for the lanterns to be set off, but to our slight disappointment, we’d arrived on a wrong night to witness that.

We made up for it though, by finding a very small wine bar on the way back that doubled as an art gallery. I’m not sure how we lost track of time as much as we did in there, but I’ll blame the paintings – I don’t remember being so easily enthralled by a painting as I was that night. I know two of us fell in love with two of the artworks there that night, and apologies to everyone with us because I also know we spent longer than any sane person would just contemplating those two works. It was a lovely way to end the night.

Patong beach signThe Saturday ended up being a busier, if only marginally. We successfully (and actually very easily) caught a bus to Phuket and then to Patong, where we had somehow scored a hotel with a private rooftop pool and sauna which we spent the rest of the day making use of. It reached the evening, and we went out for pizza – very Thai, I know – before having a very small party back at the hotel to start off the night.

Patong beach signIt took a while, but we finally made our way to Bangla Road, famous for its bars and nightclubs, and I could see why. It was the liveliest street in Phuket, I think – filled with loud music and flashing lights and, we counted, almost thirty bars packed side-by-side along it. We made it back from Phuket for Sunday night, as planned, and had dinner in the first town before heading back “home”. I woke up on Monday feeling ready for my last week here.

Saying goodbye to Thailand

The last week was, whilst not at all less exciting, back to the normal Thailand routine, if there is such a thing. We spent a few days with the turtles – who were just as beautiful as ever – and took part in a couple of beach cleans to try and make even a tiny dent in the trash washed up on the beach. We also had a few other volunteers come join us at the turtles for a day, and there was a very large group of us all making our way around the different tanks for a little while. On our last day in Ban Nam Khem, we went to the nearby school and as a group, we helped dig and landscape a small garden in the back, where the kids can hopefully start to grow things.

I don’t think it really hit me that I’d miss it in Thailand until we were in the taxi heading away from what had been my home for a month. After heading to Phuket one night early, closer to the airport before leaving, we went out the night before I flew back and found ourselves back on Bangla Road. One last night before I would leave Thailand behind me…

And here I am, in one piece, having made it home – already wishing I could do it all again 🌞.