When I visited Phuket, Thailand for the first time in 2015, I was horrified to see tourists riding depressed, overworked elephants on the sides of busy roads. (Oh, the things people will do to get “cool” Instagram photos…)
During that trip, I started to learn more and more about the suffering that Asian elephants go through daily, for the enjoyment of oblivious tourists and to the benefit of heartless (or sometimes just ignorant or desperate) mahouts.
After that, I started to look into the issue more and finally stumbled upon an organization that works tirelessly to rescue, support, and conserve the Asian elephant.
And that organization would be the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
About the Elephant Nature Park
If you haven’t heard of the Elephant Nature Park, then please, allow me to introduce you.
This amazing organization is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation sanctuary in Northern Thailand for Thai elephants, as well as other rescue animals such as cats, dogs, and water buffaloes.
The Elephant Nature Park (ENP) provides sanctuary for endangered species and contributes to their welfare and development; works on rain forest reforestation by planting trees around the park; attempts to preserve the cultural integrity of the surrounding villages, while also creating jobs for local villagers and sourcing local agricultural products; educates others about the plight of the elephant and other endangered species; and lastly, the ENP acts independently of political and social movements and pressures that do not have the animals’ well-being in mind.
There are many organizations in Thailand that claim to be ethical and to always act for the elephants’ best interests, but sadly, that is not always the case. Often, these “sanctuaries” are in it for the tourism dollars, not for the conservation of the elephants’ well-being and dignity. However, after spending one week at the ENP, I can confidently say that this is not one of those organizations.
The love, care, and respect each and every one of the rescue elephants receives couldn’t be more evident, and when you’re at the park, you really feel as though this place is making a difference — a positive change — in the world. You’ll also feel like you’re making a change, too, by being there, discovering the atrocities that elephants face daily, and learning how you can help.
As a tourist, you can get involved by visiting the park for a single day to observe the elephants and feed them — or you can stay there for a week and volunteer.
Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park
In March 2018, my best friend, Diana, and I decided to head to Thailand specifically to volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park for one week.
During that time, we learned so much about the plight of the Asian elephant, at the hands of humans, in the tourism, logging, and circus industries (among others), and what we can do to help.
We spent a week cleaning, sorting, and cooking elephant food, feeding the elephants, shoveling their poop, cleaning up the park grounds, and clearing brush to prevent fires, among other chores.
We even celebrated baby elephant Dokmai’s 5th birthday with a giant fruit cake, which was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.
An Overview of the Experience at ENP
Each morning at 6 am, Diana and I would do yoga up on the main platform with views of the elephants roaming around and having breakfast. While this isn’t part of the program, it’s certainly something you can do on your own – and I’d highly recommend doing so.
Sunrise yoga among elephants doesn’t really compare to any other yoga practice.
After yoga, we’d scarf down our vegetarian breakfast, and report to work by 8 am.
Our workdays always consisted of two different tasks: one in the morning, and one after lunch. Like I said before, we’d be assigned to tasks such as elephant poop, elephant kitchen, fire break, or park clean up.
When we first arrived, all of the volunteers dreaded being assigned elephant poop, but I actually think it’s the most fun task! The trick is to not throw out your back when scooping the poop, though, because each pile is heavy and huge.
After about three hours of work in the morning, we’d have free time to drink (very good) local coffee and relax (or go walk and play with the rescue dogs) until lunchtime.
Then, the cooks would spoil us with a huge vegetarian buffet of Thai dishes like pumpkin curry (the best!), pad thai, pineapple curry, fried rice, som tam, khao soi, massaman curry and so much more.
After lunch, we’d relax for a while longer, and then begin our afternoon task, which usually only lasted for two hours. Overall, the work we did wasn’t very strenuous, and it only took up about 1/3 of the day.
Then, we’d have more time to relax, drink beer, get a $5/hour Thai massage up on the platform from one of the local village ladies, play card games, or simply elephant watch.
Dinner at ENP was also always a giant vegetarian Thai buffet, with the occasional Western dish thrown into the mix – like pasta or French fries.
Side note: I love the fact that all of the food served at ENP is either vegetarian or vegan. It is an animal sanctuary after all, so serving any other food just wouldn’t be right. This just goes to show that ENP truly is committed to working for the welfare of animals, and not just there to give into Western tourists’ desires.
And another side note: Diana and I both weren’t vegetarians at the time of volunteering, so going without meat for a whole week was a different experience; however, we actually found that we didn’t miss it at all. The food was so tasty, nourishing, and filling that we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Since ENP really forced us to open our eyes to the environmental and moral issues associated with eating meat, we’ve both cut back heavily on our meat consumption. (In fact, at the time of writing this, I haven’t had meat in five weeks!)
After dinner each night, ENP would organize some type of activity for the volunteers to enjoy. Between cultural talks, movie nights, traditional dance performances by local villagers, or Thai language lessons, there was always something to do.
And there was also always jenga, heads up, card games, and plenty of beer!
If it hasn’t become clear yet, I’ll say it straight out. Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park consists of a whole lot of fun and relaxation, and only about five-ish hours of work per day.
The Cost of Volunteering at ENP
Aside from your manual labor contribution as a volunteer, it seems that the money you pay for the volunteering experience is really what matters. Buying more land for the elephants is expensive; keeping up the park is expensive; buying elephant food is expensive; paying the salaries of dozens of mahouts is expensive.
Volunteering for a week will cost you ฿12,000 (or roughly $360 US). This price seems steep for one week in Thailand, but when you see where your money is going, it all makes sense, and you’ll be happy to pay that price to actually make a difference in these elephants’ lives.
When our week at the ENP came to a close, I didn’t want to leave yet. Helping elephants, enjoying the serenity of Northern Thailand’s jungles, eating yummy Thai food, doing sunrise yoga, and hanging out with new friends was such an amazing experience that I could’ve stayed for another week.
In fact, five volunteers from our group actually decided to stay on for another week! We probably would’ve done the same, if we weren’t on such a tight travel schedule. And anyway, we can always go back…
Spending One Week Volunteering at
Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai
I could go on and on and on about how incredible the experience of volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park was. I could go on about everything we learned about the Asian elephants’ lives of suffering and agony. And how great of an organization ENP is. And how much your decisions as a tourist matter, even though you’re just one person. But I won’t. (Read my Instagram captions below for some more insight.)
The reason why?
Because I think you should go to the Elephant Nature Park and experience all of this for yourself, first hand.
I promise it will be an eye-opening, potentially life-changing, experience.
You’re going to love working toward the conservation of the Asian elephant, while also having a blast.
So just do it, do it, do it. Spend a week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park and you won’t regret it!
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Have you ever visited or volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments below!