Sag Harbor Photographer Hits a Road Less Traveled

Michael Heller with “Pookie” as part of the Surin Project in Baan Ta Klang, Surin Province, Thailand on November 10.

By Annette Hinkle

Visiting new and exotic places while on vacation is always a thrill. But for some, the trip is less about being a tourist and more about being a traveler in the truest sense of the word. This means going beyond the superficialities of souvenir shopping and museum hopping and immersing oneself in the life of a country by connecting to its people and culture through real experiences.

That’s the kind of journey Michael Heller set out to have in November when he traveled to northeast Thailand to volunteer with the Surin Project, a program in which visitors spend a week or more feeding, bathing and caring for captive Asian elephants.

In recent years, Mr. Heller, a photographer, has taken other trips abroad in pursuit of experiential journeys with an altruistic bent. Ecotourism is the more common term for it and because it’s about using visitor dollars to preserve environments and species while creating meaningful experiences for travelers, it usually represents a win/win for all involved.

For Mr. Heller, it’s the only way to go.

“I’ve traveled a lot. I started traveling when I was 8, and flew on planes by myself,” said Mr. Heller. “Because of the way I was raised, the idea of going somewhere and staying in a sterile hotel or in resort environment where you get a dog and pony show of what the locals do just leaves me completely flat.”

“It doesn’t tell the story at all or give a sense of the country,” he adds. “I find it much more rewarding when I travel at the local level — live with the locals and experience what day to day life is like for them.”

One such trip came a few years back when Mr. Heller traveled to Peru with an organization called Earthwatch where he helped scientists collect data on water levels in the rainforest and take a census of animals living there. It was a great experience.

“The thing I love about NGOs [non-governmental organization] is you’re working side-by-side with locals in their environment,” he says. “In Peru, we were in an area the public was not allowed into. That was fascinating. We weren’t being given a tour, which bores me silly.”

Ecotourism is about changing attitudes and replacing damaging or negative behaviors with positive experiences that travelers are willing to pay for. Ideally, locals will come to realize that by shifting the way they use their resources, they can preserve the environment and create a reason for tourists to visit and bring the dollars needed to support the economy.

Mihael Heller gets an affectionate push from 6-month-old “Namfun” as momma “Maliwan” keeps watch.

In Thailand, that economy has largely centered on elephants, which have traditionally been used to do the heavy lifting on construction sites or logging projects. Historically, the money earned through elephant labor has not only supported the animals but their human caregivers, called mahouts, as well.

But now, elephant labor is no longer permitted in Thailand and the lives of its captive elephants and the mahouts are in transition. The Surin Project in Ban Ta Klang is just one of many programs redefining and improving the lives of elephants in Thai society by providing mahouts with a new income source based on ecotourism.

“At the Surin Project, we volunteers who are paying our weekly fee of $750 pay for the upkeep and treatment of seven elephants,” explains Mr. Heller. “I was one of only 10 on the trip, and I was the only American.”

“We took walks with the elephants twice a day, and twice a week we walked down the highway to the river where we’d bathe and scrub them.”

The volunteers were also assigned chores alongside the mahouts. These included cutting sugar cane to feed the elephants and loading it onto trailers, cleaning the remnants of the previous days food from enclosures, and restocking stalls with fresh food.

During his time at the Surin Project, Mr. Heller became friends with a mahout named Sarote, and his fellow volunteers, who ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s and hailed from the U.K., Germany and Australia. He also came to appreciate the affections of a six-month-old baby elephant who enjoyed head-butting him with all of her 500 pounds.

But the world is a complicated place, and as Mr. Heller learned during his visit, cultural transitions do not always occur smoothly. Participation in the Surin Project is voluntary and mahouts, who don’t always treat their elephants well, may opt to make money elsewhere by having their elephants perform or give rides to tourists.

“Ba Ta Klang has the Elephant Village, which has a circus. The Surin Project is at the same compound, but it’s at odds with the mission of the circus,” explains Mr. Heller. “By the third or fourth day, we learned the Thai government was moving the project off-site and razing the mahouts’ shacks to create Elephant World, a tourist attraction.”

As seasoned travelers know, even the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry. That ended up being true for Mr. Heller, given not only what was happening at the Surin Project, but in terms of his own health as well. Though he had planned to spend two weeks working with the elephants before heading to Phuket for a little R&R on the beach, toward the end of his first week in Ban Ta Klang, it became clear that was going to be a problem when he began showing signs of illness.

Michael Heller joins Sabrina Steudt to help feed and bathe elephants in the river.

The living conditions didn’t help. Mr. Heller describes his accommodations as sparse. His room was in a wooden shack with a floor mat for sleeping, a single bulb, and an outhouse with buckets of water that were used to flush the toilet.

“It was close to 90 degrees every day, and it 80 at night,” he says. “It was muggy, hot and uncomfortable.”

Being sick didn’t help, and though a local doctor gave him some medicine and herbs to provide a modicum of relief, Mr. Heller ultimately decided to forego his second week at the Surin Project and left early, taking the six-plus hour bus ride back to Bangkok.

In hindsight, it was probably a good move.

By the following day, he was shaking uncontrollably and had been checked into a Bangkok hospital.

“I had a fever of 104 degrees, was dehydrated and my heart rate was ridiculous,” says Mr. Heller. “They put me on an IV, did an ultrasound and they discovered that my gall bladder was inflamed and infected with a gallstone.”

That was on a Monday. On Thursday, Mr. Heller underwent surgery to have his gall bladder removed. He was released from the hospital the following Monday, and while he never made it to Phuket, Mr. Heller did end up with a lot more time to explore Bangkok, using Facebook to connect with friends of friends living there who could show him around the city.

At a Bangkok restaurant he even ended up running into two young British women who had volunteered with him at the Surin Project. They told Mr. Heller that after he left, there was quite a bit of drama at the compound.

“A mahout was using his elephant in the circus when the volunteers were not around,” says Mr. Heller. “The organizers were upset to find out about that. They also witnessed another elephant being traumatized.”

“They said it was bad scene,” adds Mr. Heller. “The organizers were also traumatized. In many ways, they’re fighting an uphill battle. For some of the mahouts, it’s all about finding a way of making a living.”

While transitioning pains will no doubt continue in Thailand for some time to come, for those concerned about the fate of the worlds’ elephants, there are some small victories to be had. Just last week, China announced it was shutting down its vast and lucrative ivory market, the largest in the world. That’s good news for African elephants which have been the primary target of ivory poachers and purveyors, but it also means it is now more important then ever to protect Asia’s elephant population so it doesn’t fall victim to the illegal ivory trade as a result.

In the meantime, organizations like the Surin Project will continue to do what they can to improve the situation … and travelers like Michael Heller will continue looking for the next great adventure to take him off the beaten path and onto a track with other trailblazers hoping to make a difference.

In the end, that is a win/win for us all… elephants included.