If people from back home were to compile a list of things that James and I shouldn’t do whilst in Asia, I’m fairly sure that our antics from the last few weeks would be somewhere near the top.
First of all, we got open water certified on Koh Tao which was as childish an experience as you’d imagine. With that ticked off and us being all ‘islanded-out’, we decided to spend our last few days in Thailand volunteering at a safari park just outside Kanchanaburi – a few hours south of Bangkok.
I’d heard about the safari park a few months earlier from a friend that I’d met in Chiang Rai and he had nothing but good things to say about the experience. With just a few days to go before our flight to Ho Chi Minh we were only able to sign up for the minimum three day program which was a bit of a shame, but by this point I was just happy to experience something other than beaches, buckets and YOLO warriors in Jack Wills vests.
Monday morning blues bruise
Upon our arrival at the meeting point we were given the opportunity to jump straight in at the deep end to feed and play with a leopard cub. This was part of the safari park’s advertising stand in the town where customers were charged 200 baht to feed and take pictures with it – perks of the job you could say. It was at this point that the first injury of our safari park experience occurred as the leopard ‘playfully’ bit James on the head…rather him than me!
We got to the park itself just as everything was winding down for the day so we were introduced to the rescue animals and helped out with the final feed. James and I were given the task of feeding a couple of the monkeys: Gramps and Laura and it was here that the apparent theme of the animals hating James continued. Whilst Laura ate everything I put in front of her, Gramps wasn’t quite as receptive as he near enough threw every carrot back at James! We later found out that this was because Gramps’ teeth weren’t strong enough to eat carrots, although I prefer to go with the story that he hated James which – I’m sure you’ll agree – is much better.
Day two rolled around and while James was sent back to the rescue animals for another day of being terrorised by Gramps, I was assigned to work on cubs for the day. These roles would be reversed for our final day. This meant my time would mostly be spent with two pairs of leopards aged between 4 and 7 months but not before the first task of the day: walking a tiger.
Yes, you read that correctly. When most people rock up to work they tend to do the small, unimportant tasks to waste away the first half hour or so (right?). I know my old routine used to involve making countless cups of coffee, sifting through a bunch of mundane emails and generally doing anything I could to get away from doing proper work. Here, my first task of the day was to put a bloody big tiger on a lead and walk him to the other side of the park. Talk about a contrast!
Fluke was a seven month old tiger, although you could have told me he was a fully developed seven year old and I wouldn’t have known any different. Either way; he was big enough for me to want to stay in his good books which is why I was ever so slightly on edge when walking him. At one point, Fluke decided that enough was enough and he’d earned a sit down. My attempts to get him to move on didn’t go down too well and he lashed out at me for my first war wound of the safari experience. It was more of a nip than a full-on chomp, but I’m still looking forward to telling people about ‘the time I was bitten by a tiger’.
The duties for the rest of the day were fairly straightforward; keep the cubs entertained and don’t let them bite any customers. This obviously applied to every customer, but even more so at the end of the day when a camera crew rolled into the park to film a couple of celebrities feeding the cubs. Now, I had absolutely no idea who these people were but I’ve since found out that the chap was a professional golfer, whilst the lady was an actress. Regardless, I didn’t fancy being the guy who let a couple of celebrities get bitten by a pair of leopards. No pressure.
Thankfully, the recording passed without much incident and they both emerged from the cage unscathed. What’s more; they asked for a picture with me and my fellow volunteer Becca. That’s right – two celebrities asked for our picture. All in a day’s work.
Perks of the job
Throughout the course of their stay, all volunteers are offered the opportunity to ride on the safari bus – the main pull for the park’s customers. The bus drives you through the safari park whilst you dish out fruit and veg through the window to deer, giraffes and zebras amongst others. Whilst the deer and zebras are fairly straightforward to feed, the same can’t be said for the giraffes. I probably won’t do it justice with words, so I’ll let the video do the talking.
Undoubtedly though, the highlight of almost every volunteer’s stay at the safari park is Salapong’s tour. This is a service that isn’t offered to the public as Salapong – a park employee – drives volunteers through the safari park in the side cart of his motorbike. Throughout the tour you get to go behind the scenes and see a number of animals up close and personal and feed them on foot. It’s only when you’re stood next to a giraffe that you realise just how bloody big they are. I mean, I’m not exactly a giant but I looked absolutely minuscule in comparison! As a side note; getting head butted by a giraffe hurts – take my word for that.
Want to know more?
The safari park are always on the look out for volunteers and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to work up close with a wide range of animals on a daily basis. Ned and Tat do a great job with the volunteer program – you can read more about them here.
The minimum sign-up is for three days like James and I did, but there were many people who’d been there for months. All your accommodation and meals are included when you sign up too – can’t grumble! To read more about the volunteer scheme, click here.