When the van pulled up at our hotel, I nearly jumped for joy! I had been patiently waiting to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park a mere 7 1/2 months. The day had finally arrived.
We drove around Chiang Mai picking up a few more volunteers before a brief stop at their office. After finishing up some administrative stuff we grabbed our water bottles with holders and volunteer shirts. Then we were off with our coordinator Aek, who promptly put on a video for us to watch. It involved some basic rules about our interactions with elephants, but then the heavy stuff came. We both knew we would learn a lot regarding the plight of the Asian elephant in the coming week. But still, it’s hard to stomach the realities once presented with them.
The elephant population is dwindling at an alarming rate and most wild elephants are losing their land due to logging for farmland and construction for increased tourism.
Elephants that are not wild but listed as domesticated have no rights or legal protections. They are classified as livestock and treated as slave workers. Often beaten and kept in small cages they are used for logging, tourism, and street begging. Elephants in tourism have to do back breaking work providing rides, circus-like shows or even painting on command. Baby elephants are separated from their parents at a very young age to go through Phajaan, a spirit breaking ceremony. It is reprehensible, there is no other way to put it.
We were about to see some results of the lifelong work of Lek Chailert.
She is the founder of Elephant Nature Park and one woman savior of Asian elephants.
After about an hour and a half, we arrived at ENP. The last half hour was spent winding up some narrow roads into the mountains and past several elephant “camps” although we saw tourists riding them, which is a huge no-no.
Arrival was a bit surreal.
We climbed out of the van and were shown around the elephant kitchen where other volunteers were unloading a huge truck of watermelons. They go through several tons a week and anytime a truck was parked there we could chip in to help unload. Lovable dogs and cats were lounging all over. We saw the platform, a wooden sky walk that extends out into the park area for viewing the elephants in their natural habitat. Then we had lunch in the open air dining area, a huge vegan buffet we would come to find very familiar over the course of the week. Lots of options are available including curries, salads, noodles, fresh fruit, and desserts. The volunteers eat upstairs from the buffet. It’s pretty cool up there with a view of a good portion of the park and the river.
The elephants are just out in the pasture chilling with their respective herds.
I couldn’t believe it. My last encounter with elephants was at a Portland Zoo Concert a few years ago. It was bad enough for me to vow never to see a concert there again. They were housed in a temporary area while a new environment for them was being built, but you could tell being located next to the stage was incredibly awful for them. The noise was too much, as they have very sensitive hearing. Todd and I didn’t even enjoy the music that night, it was too horrible watching the poor animals who were clearly upset.
We had orientation after lunch, learning about the various other projects the park does including a huge dog and cat rescue operation.
And then we watched another documentary, equally as gut wrenching as the first. Several people had to leave the room during some of the more graphic scenes, while I was in tears by the end. After the orientation, we were shown to our rooms. Some of the volunteers were in rooms with 3 or 4 other people, but since we are a couple we lucked out and had a private room. It was nicer than we had imagined, with a comfy bed with mosquito netting, some end tables and a dresser for our clothes. We had our own bathroom across the hall that was a little more rustic, but still totally doable.
To wrap up our first day there was a welcoming ceremony put on by a local shaman.
It’s a traditional one to wish family and friends good luck and healthy life in the future. We all got blessed and women from the nearby village tied bracelets on each of our wrists. It is neat that they add on Thai cultural aspects to the week of volunteering. We also had Thai etiquette, culture and language lessons one night, traditional dancing two different nights, a band performance another night and a trip to the local school. The culture lessons were definitely a plus to the program that we were not expecting!
The next day we were up early, as breakfast is served promptly at 7!
We learned quickly to get there early to get the good stuff on the buffet. While we were eating, the elephants paraded by with their mahouts on their way out to the pasture for the day. Each elephant in the park has their own mahout, or caretaker. Some have joined herds since coming to the park and hang out together all day, others prefer to be alone and go to a quiet area. Likewise, some of the elephants are good with people but not other elephants while some are still scared of people because of their past, but bond with other elephants. They all have unique personalities and quirks just like humans. It is really interesting to observe. They are such beautiful animals.
Our work detail was explained to us after breakfast and would set a schedule for us to live by for the next five days.
There were seventy volunteers this particular week and we were broken up into four groups. We had volunteer coordinators who accompanied us to our jobs. Basically, we had a morning job from about 8:15-11 and then a lunch break. Then we met back up at 1 and worked till about 3:30. The evenings are free, although you can participate in the cultural programs previously mentioned. These were loose guidelines, depending on the jobs. Some of them were done quickly and others took longer. In addition, each group had a one-day field trip out of the park to help cut corn. We were in group B for the week and obviously thought our group was the best one! But I’m pretty sure everyone thought that.
Our volunteer guides were incredible and each had their own personality to lend.
Jane, Aek, Wat and Johnny are the main guides while Alex was still in training. The week was definitely made by them as they kept it light when we were working! Jane and Aek are the two we worked with the most and I won’t forget Jane’s sense of humor. Aek is more reserved, but if you ask him something he will go on and on with information and stories for you. We found that most of the workers there had been employed for a long time, and you can tell they really enjoy their jobs.
Jobs included poop detail, elephant kitchen duty, working on a firebreak, cutting corn and general clean up of the park.
The jobs are broken up fairly so each group gets to do them all. I have to say that surprisingly, poop detail was my favorite of the week. Mostly because we got to walk through the park and be amongst the elephants the whole time, observing them with their herds bathing, playing and eating. Plus, although large, the elephant poo is not that foul smelling since they mostly eat plants.
Kitchen duty included unloading truck deliveries, cleaning watermelons and squash and breaking up large bunches of bananas. In the afternoons they make rice balls for the older elephants who can’t chew well. The bonus of this job is feeding the elephants at the end!!
Firebreak was by far the hardest duty, mostly because of the amount of dust involved.
We trekked a bit outside of the park and up a hill in the woods to clear brush. We made an area that was just dirt so if there was a fire, it wouldn’t cross. It involved lots of hacking of weeds with hoes and sweeping up the debris on a super steep hillside. The dry season can be brutally dusty so covering your mouth and nose with something is highly recommended as are long pants and sturdy shoes.
Although the corn cutting was supposed to be the worst job, we didn’t mind it that much.
We got to ride in the back of a large truck about 45 minutes away from the sanctuary. We were given machetes and scythes and had to hack down corn stalks in a huge field. The sun was blistering for sure but we were covered head to toe having been told the corn stalks are scratchy and will cut you. After a break where field hands bundled the stalks, we loaded up a truck. I couldn’t believe how many stalks we fit in the back of one truck. It was ludicrous!! And then we were done and enjoyed lunch in the shade plus a bonus stop at 7-11 for ice cream and other refreshments on the way home.
A few of the afternoon “jobs” were really just fun time disguised as jobs, such as elephant bathing and elephant walks.
For the bathing, they bring down several elephants to the river. They stand placidly munching on fruit while we soaked them with buckets of water. Fun and entertaining, plus it cools the elephants down and cleans them up a bit. The walks are information fests. Each group heads out in a different direction with a guide to visit the multiple herds. This is where lots of picture taking occurs! Mae Jan Peng, in particular, is gentle and you can totally walk up and hug her, which I did several times over the week.
Some of the herds have baby elephants in them such as the Dok Mai (3 years) and Dok Rak (9 months) herd. The babies are just so freaking cute, I can’t believe people actually rip them from their mothers and try to break their spirits for work. It’s so sad. They can be rather mischievous and will go for your camera if you aren’t careful, mostly because they are curious. The mama and nannies of these herds will protect the babies as well, surrounding them if there are too many people about.
At each of the herds, we learned the stories of the different elephants, some who have horrific injuries from logging and stepping on landmines.
Several are blind from circus lights. The guides are a wealth of information and get at least a month of training before being allowed to take visitors into the park. As always, the mahouts are there as an extra precaution. Never turn your back on an elephant, they can move faster than you would imagine!
In the late afternoons, we lazed about watching elephants from different areas of the platforms.
The parade back into the shelters occurs around 4:30 and everyone gathers to watch. There was definitely lots of live FB and Instagram going on as well as video calls to let friends and family join in the viewing fun! One of the younger ellies, Navann, likes to run and it was always fun to watch his mahout try to keep up with him. I don’t think I saw him walk once during the week, he was always going at quite a clip.
There is also the kitty kingdom to visit if you want to indulge in playing with the cats or their affections. Unfortunately, the dog park was closed the week we were there.
We met and got to know other volunteers, most of whom share a similar outlook on life.
There were a lot of long-term travelers there, so we picked up lots of tips on other places to go on our trip. Some volunteers were repeaters, one fellow was on his third trip there. The ages varied from young to older and there were many different nationalities. Some people came with family, in fact, there were two mother-daughter combos in our group B.
Other people had come specifically for this experience, perhaps throwing on another week or two exploring Thailand before and after. One group of Canadian women were there celebrating a 50th birthday! Another couple that was in our group B came from Germany and were planning to write a story for some local press back home. She was in charge of the details and he took thousands of pictures with some impressive equipment.
Several volunteers are in Vet school and aided the onsite vets during the day as an internship of sorts.
It was always interesting to hear their take on things since they got a different experience than us. We clicked with a bunch of Americans in our group – it was refreshing to hang out with people from back home for a week since we had not run into many at all up to this point. And now we have friends to visit in Texas and Massachusetts when we return!
Another evening highlight was when Lek would show up and take us to watch mud bathing with her.
Some of the shy elephants would come back to the main park after the rest had been sheltered and take their mudbaths then. What a joy to watch, they have such a ball playing in the mud. One of the smaller herds we watched was like peeking in on best friends at a spa date. Seriously. They also love to scratch – there are many scratching posts around the park for them to indulge. Total amusement.
The woman is an elephant whisperer.
Watching Lek interact with the elephants is something I will probably never again experience. She just exudes love for this animal out of every pore of her body. She is an inspiration. I felt lucky to be in her company. On our last evening, she spoke to the volunteers about the organization and its plans for the future. About the future of the Asian elephant and many other things, including how we all can help. Awareness is the first step.
Our week flew by and before we knew it, it was time to leave.
We hugged our new friends and caught final glimpses and photos of the elephants. Then we were on our way back to Chiang Mai just like that. It is a week neither of us will ever forget.
If you want to learn more about the plight of the Asian elephant, visit Elephant Nature Park’s website and Facebook page.
They have information on the park and also links to other organizations and a wonderful documentary. And please do your research when traveling to SE Asia. Do not support the camps that still include rides and shows, instead look for one where you get to observe these wonderful creatures in a more natural environment.
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