Some of you will know from the copious amount pictures and stories that I posted on my FB and Instagram a few weeks ago that Rich and I spent a week volunteering at Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand. It was an incredible experience, and by the end of it we were both pretty ready to sell the house at home and move in with the elephants for good 😂 Alas, that’s not in the cards for us, but I will share some of our experience with you.
I’d always known that if I ended up in Thailand, I wanted do something with elephants – they are my favourite animal after all – but there were so many options and conflicting messages that I didn’t really know what to do. There’s a big debate in Thailand (and indeed, all over the world) about the ethics of ‘Elephant Tourism’ which I’m not going to get into other then to say: do your research before you go so that you know just what happens when you ride an elephant or watch it perform. You can make your choice after that based on what you feel comfortable doing, and know that there is a wide, wide range of options all over the country. I’d also recommend reading other people’s reviews of sanctuaries and parks, as what places state on their websites is not always what happens in real life, and you’ll quickly be able to see which are legit and which ones just try to put on a good front.
I knew I wanted to experience the elephants but I did not want to ride them, so set out to find something that suited what I was looking for. Whilst doing some research online about the various companies and sanctuaries around Chiang Mai, I kept coming across the same place – the Elephant Nature Park – where all the reviews were positive and everyone said what a good experience they had there. I checked out their website and liked what I saw, and after speaking to Rich about it, we decided to change our plans and do a week volunteering, rather then the 2 day experience like we originally thought we would do. Best idea ever! If you’re thinking of visiting and have the time, go for the week. The 1 and 2 day programs are amazing in of themselves; however, you get so much more out of the week long one that makes it so worth it.
ENP is a rescue and rehabilitation park, where they predominately rescue old, female elephants who have endured years of trauma and abuse whilst being made to give rides, perform, or illegally log. There are currently about 85 elephants at the park, with only about 8 males. Most of the elephants are old (the oldest one being over 100 years old!) and come with some form of physical or mental handicap due to their lives and what they have been through. ENP buys these elephants and gives them a place to ‘become elephants’ again, and once they are recovered enough, the elephants have free range to roam around the entire park. Interaction with guests is pretty limited, with only a handful of the most docile elephants that guests are allowed to feed. Other then that, there is no contact from visitors, which is fine as I could spend hours just watching the elephants roam. ENP also has a cat and dog rescue shelter, as well as rescuing water buffalo, horses, sheep, pigs, and numerous other animals.
We were picked up from our hotel in Chiang Mai on Monday morning, and spent the roughly 90 minute journey on a mini bus with about 7 other people who would be part of our group for the week. Upon arrival (at approximately the same time as about 8 other identical mini vans also carrying people from our group), we were given a quick tour of the main area before being taken over to the lunch area for food. ENP is completely vegan, so no meat, milk, cheese, or eggs at all. To make up for this fact they make delicious food with a wide variety to choose from at each meal, although it was good to have a burger at the end of our week there! After lunch we were shown to our rooms – couples on their own and singles in with other singles – and given a few minutes to unpack before reconvening for our induction.
Our group for the week probably had about 55 people in it, all various ages and from all over the world. Within our big group we were then divided into 4 small groups – A, B, C, and D. Rich and I were in group A, and we spent our working hours with them, and got to hang out with everyone else during free times and meals. Our days were divided the same every day:
- 7 am breakfast
- 8-10 am work
- 10-11:30 am free time
- 11:30-1 pm lunch
- 1-3 pm work
- 3-6 pm free time
- 6 pm supper
Work was various different tasks such as: picking up elephant poop, helping prepare elephant food (lots of fruit), gathering hay and distributing it, cleaning the park, and cleaning elephant enclosures. We were lucky that it only rained on us one morning (although it did pore), and the rest of the time we had sunshine and/or clouds which was great. The work was a bit physical, but it was a nice change to what we’ve been doing over the past couple months and we both enjoyed it! There were a few people in our group A that we really clicked with, as well as a few people from the bigger group, which meant we had a lot of fun whether we were working, enjoying free time, or eating. In the evenings, ENP put on various different activities for us to participate in such as a movie night, a Thai culture night, and a Thai dancing night.
We got to meet the founder of ENP, Lek, and her husband Derrick, both of whom spent time with the group to teach us about the work that ENP is doing and why it is so important to the elephants. Lek also works with a number of other people and agencies to try and improve living and working conditions for the captive elephants all across Thailand, with her main goal being to stop mahouts using hooks and for the elephants to be ‘saddle off’. It was an eye opening experience, and I give them my utmost respect as it is not easy fighting against a military government to change a system that benefits the country.
We met a lot of great people during our week at ENP, and we both came away with great memories and a different outlook on animal tourism in general. It was a great experience, and one I would recommend to anyone in Northern Thailand, although there were a lot of people who flew to Thailand to just do this week before flying home again. Check them out and I hope you consider going in the future, even if it is only for the day.