Recently I found a photograph of a young woman I once knew. Her hair was professionally straightened and styled, her make-up immaculate and her body clad in the latest designer clothes.
It took me a few minutes to realise that the girl staring out of the photograph was me.
Seven years ago, when the snapshot was taken, I was a career girl who spent every penny on clothes and going out. I was the sort of girl who spent hours making sure my face and body looked perfect before I would consider leaving the house.
Today, I live in a pair of cheap plastic flip-flops. Instead of cleansing my face with Clarins, my beauty regime consists of standing underneath a hosepipe of freezing cold water, then tying my hair back to dry.
My face is free of make-up, and my wardrobe consists of a tatty pair of jeans and several threadbare T-shirts. And yet I couldn't be happier.
Because here - sleeping on the floor of a wooden hut in the Thai jungle that has become my home - is where I have found true peace, happiness and love.
When I think back to the days when this photograph was taken, it seems like a different world.
I was a merchandising manager for Gap, and my life revolved around my career - and clothes. Our store was based in a fashionable area of London and I couldn't wait to walk up and down gazing in the windows of all the top designer clothes shops during my lunch breaks.
Every penny I earned was spent on must-have outfits and accessories. Handbags were another obsession.
Meanwhile, my bathroom was crammed with make-up and creams. My family joked that I couldn't leave the house without spending two hours getting ready. I would wash my hair, straighten it, paint my nails and apply my make-up like a professional.
Life seemed perfect. I worked hard at my job and played hard with a bunch of like-minded, fun career girls.
But then, in April 2002, when I was 21, I decided to take a break. My plan was to fly to Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and Australia, before returning home and working my way up in retail management.
It all seemed so simple, a relaxing holiday before returning to give my all to my career.
I sold my house and used some of the money to buy a round-the-world ticket. At first all went to plan. It was a dream holiday, and by the time I arrived in Thailand, I was in good spirits.
Then one day I decided to join some other tourists I'd met on a visit to an elephant conservation centre in northern Thailand.
I had always loved seeing pictures of elephants as a child, but this was my first chance to actually see elephants up close. I watched some of the elephants perform in a show, and then took an elephant ride.
It was a lovely day and I was on my way out when I saw a sign for a baby elephant. It pointed up a hill to a steep track. I had never seen a baby elephant before and suddenly I felt excited and curious.
I walked up and found myself in a clearing. Then, standing behind a fence, I saw a small grey baby elephant. He saw me straight away and ran to the fence.
As I stood, mesmerised, he raised his trunk and blew warm air softly into my face. And in that instant my life changed.
As the baby elephant began to tug at my shoelaces, tears rolled down my cheeks. I had never even met an elephant before - but suddenly, every instinct in my body was telling me I had to care for this one.
I had never experienced love at first sight - until now. I'm not sure what the other tourists thought of me as I stood there weeping, but I didn't care.
I loved the elephant's little grey body covered in soft downy hair, and his twinkling eyes. I loved the powerful mother who stood watchful by his side.
That evening, I didn't leave with the rest of the tourists. Instead, I went to find the owner of the sanctuary - and begged him to allow me to stay for a few weeks to work, unpaid, with the elephants.
He was astounded. They had never had a volunteer from outside Thailand - let alone a young girl who knew nothing about elephants. But to my delight, he agreed.
That night, I went for dinner with my mother, who had flown to spend a week with me before my trip to Australia.
When I told her I wanted to stay and work with the elephants, she was stunned. But, like my friends, she assumed it was a whim and I would continue my journey after a few weeks.
Perhaps I might have moved on eventually, but then fate took a hand. I had been helping out at the sanctuary for a few weeks when the owner of the baby elephant, Boon Lott, announced he was going to be sold to a tourist animal show in Thailand, where he would have been forced to wear outfits and beaten mercilessly to perform in sick acts like standing on his head, walking a tightrope and riding a bicycle.
After pocketing the money for the baby elephant, Boon Lott's owner could put his mother straight back to work logging in the jungle, because she would be no longer breast-feeding.
For Boon Lott - who had been born three months prematurely and was weak and undersized - apart from the brutality he would suffer, separation from his mother when he was still suckling could have killed him.
It may sound strange, but I felt I had no choice but to buy the baby elephant who had turned my life around.
I caught a bus from the small hut in the jungle which I had made my home, and travelled for miles to find a town with a telephone and an internet café.
There, I contacted my parents, friends.....................
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Out of the zoo - into a sanctuary?City officials ponder elephants' futures in wake of Tara's death
The recent death of Tara the elephant at the Toronto Zoo leaves three remaining females – a number the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums describes as the minimum needed for the well-being of these herd-oriented, social animals.
That leaves the zoo facing a decision: Import one or more from somewhere like South Africa, where the government has lifted a ban on culling? Borrow a breeding elephant from another facility, such as the San Diego Zoo? Or get out of the elephant business altogether, a route for which some wildlife activists are arguing?
Tara died of natural causes at 41, leaving behind Thika, 29, Toka and Iringa
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AYUTTHAYA WORLD HERITAGE
AND RED CROSS FAIR 2009
KRUNG SI AYUTTHAYA – THE GREAT KINGS
Miss Chutathip Chareonlarp, Director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Office said that, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya province, in cooperation with the Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Provincial Administrative Organization, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Municipality, Fine Arts Department, TAT Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Office, and relevant public and private agencies, will arrange the “Ayutthaya World Heritage and Red Cross Fair 2009”, during 11-20 December, 2009, at Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Historical Park to celebrate the occasion that the UN World Heritage Committee announced the Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Historical Park as a Cultural World Heritage Site in 1991.
Visitors should NOT MISS to experience the peaceful atmosphere of the ancient people’s way of life in the imitation marketplace of the Ayutthaya Period and use a replica of an ancient coin, Phot Duang, to exchange for food and desserts.
Admire the light and sound performance, “Krung Si Ayutthaya : The Great Kings” (15 rounds; 10 days 10 nights). The opening ceremony will be arranged on Friday,11 December, 2009. The ticket costs 200 baht and 500 baht.
Mahouts training for the light and sound show
KRUNG SI AYUTTHAYA – THE GREAT KINGS
Ayutthaya World Heritage and Red Cross Fair 2009
December 11 – 20, 2009
At Wat Mahathat, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Historical Park
11 December (Friday) 19.30 - 20.30 hrs.
12 December (Saturday) 19.00 - 20.00 and 20.30 - 21.30 hrs.
13 December (Sunday) 19.00 - 20.00 and 20.30 - 21.30 hrs
14 December (Monday) 19.30 - 20.30 hrs
15 December (Tuesday) 19.30 - 20.30 hrs
16 December (Wednesday) 19.30 - 20.30 hrs
17 December (Thursday) 19.30 - 20.30 hrs
18 December (Friday) 19.00 - 20.00 and 20.30 - 21.30 hrs
19 December (Saturday) 19.00 - 20.00 and 20.30 - 21.30 hrs.
20 December (Sunday) 19.00 - 20.00 and 20.30 - 21.30 hrs
For further information, please contact TAT Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Office at Tel: 03524 6076-7 or the Provincial Administration Office (Chief of Finance and Accounting Group) at Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya City Hall, 2nd Floor, Four-storeyed Building, Tel: 0 3533 6563.
Or check out http://www.elephantstay.com/
PETA ELEPHANT LINK