Phana Monkey Project April/May 2013
I flew into ¨Ubon¨ two weeks ago, and was met by Lawrence and Pensri, the organizers of the Phana Monkey Project. Straight from the beginning, they made me feel welcome and relaxed, as having never done a volunteer project before, at the age of 52, I was a little bit nervous of what I would find.
We drove to Phana, a village, about an hours drive from the main city, Ubon Ratchathani , and I met my host in a homestay, where I would be spending the next month and a half. The homestay is a fantastic teak wood house, with individual bedrooms, and a bathroom, with shower, or the traditional tank and water scoop, which is the most refreshing, plus western toilet and basin. The host ¨Mother¨ (and she really lives up to that) Galiani, is an ex school teacher, and treated me really well.
The following morning, Lawrence came to meet me at 8.00 am, to introduce me to the monkeys in the forest, and later to the other volunteers, who were living over the study centre. We started by giving water to the monkeys, and I was lucky that I saw nearly 500 of them from the 3 packs which live in the forest during the day, (about 700 in total) They are wild, long tailed macaques which although are right around your feet, are still people shy, which is a good thing, and run away if you move too quickly or noisily. Giving water to the monkeys is the highlight of every day for me, and I have spent hours watching their antics around the water troughs (which although is another duty, I have enjoyed doing on my own too, allowing them on to the cart and letting them drink directly from the buckets, and use the cart as a climbing frame) The monkeys do get very close, but never enough for me to feel threatened.
After watering, it was time to feed them. Rice is provided by the town council, and either when there aren´t many visitors to the forest, or for study and recognition purposes, we give some rice to them. Once again, they do surround you, but this time they are much more interested in the food than in you. It is wonderful to be so close that you can hear the cracking of the rice as they husk it before eating it. It is also a valuable time, to start recognizing various monkeys, unfortunately generally due to some deformity, which makes it easier for us to track them, and understand their movements.
After lunch in one of the local huts (generally around 30 baht) we headed back to the forest to do a visitor survey. This is important for Lawrence, to understand, and keep a record of the number of visitors, type and quantity of food being given on a daily basis. It also leads onto the next duty of litter collection. The very kindly visitors, giving food to the monkeys, also drop a lot of litter; as in Thailand, whatever one buys, the shop keepers like to put ones items in individual plastic bags, and unfortunately the general Thai population has no awareness of conservation, so drop the bags after emptying them of the foodstuff. These are then played with by the monkeys, and dragged off into the forest where they are abandoned as boring toys. Slowly the local people are learning the reason for putting rubbish bins around the forest, but we cannot get annoyed, as they are giving food.
During the week, we also teach English to some of the local children, who come to the Study center. There are two groups, one of infants and one of juniors. The teaching is fairly basic English. Reading from flash cards, playing educational games and conversation, giving the children the opportunity to hear English, spoken by native speakers, whilst still having fun.
Two monkey bodies had been found in the forest, so we helped clean the bones and reconstruct the skeleton. I did come across a skull whilst litter picking on my second day, but this is a very rare occurrence.
There have been reports of monkey activity in the local hospital grounds, so we ride out to keep a check on that. I have seen up to 100 monkeys on one evening, as there was a party going on and so there was lots of food scraps around.
The evenings are spent generally together with the other volunteers, eating dinner, playing cards and chatting, although being a Ballroom Dancing teacher, I have been giving dance classes, which has led to a good social atmosphere, getting to know the local people, who are so friendly and have put themselves out to make us welcome. Close by there is a lake, where we go swimming, …
… a karaoke (most songs in Thai), and the local bus station for buses to Ubon. Generally the village is very relaxed, and not much happens after 8.00 at night, as everyone gets up early for work. Phana is a typically rural Thai village, far removed from the bright lights and nightlife found in the cities.
I have really loved every minute of my time here, and highly recommend volunteering with the Phana Monkey project to anyone who enjoys working without an attitude, in close proximity to animals, and doesn´t mind getting their hands dirty.