When I was 30, I decided to quit my job to explore the world for 6 months. Whilst I was excited to travel I was also looking for some volunteer activities to make my trip more meaningful. One of my friends had introduced me to the Elephant Nature Park and after browsing their website, my instinct said “Go!” so I did!
ENP is a sanctuary and rehabilitation centre for elephants in northern Thailand, about 90minutes from Chang Mai, that rescues injured and tortured elephants by humans. Elephants were used for logging until the Thai government banned this in 1980s. But after the ban, lots of elephants were then forced to work in shows or used for street begging, this meant elephants were made to live and work in the city with the mahouts or owners selling food for the elephant to tourists and make profits.
Street begging elephants usually work in the night when they are supposed to sleep, and some of them are given medicines to keep them awake during the night. In many cases, mahouts use whips or arrows to train so that the elephants follow their orders. Due to the above reasons, many elephants can be injured or suffer trauma against humans.
The founder of ENP; Lek has been working to improve the situation for elephants since 1995. I arranged my stay at ENP as a volunteer for a week. There were a total of 30 volunteers from different countries who started working on the same day. During our stay the volunteers were provided a room to stay (two persons in one room) with shared shower and toilet and 3 vegetarian buffet meals (which is tasty!) were also provided.
Each bed had a mosquito net so there was no need to worry too much about mosquito bites, but please remember you are likely to encounter insects or bugs as the park is in a jungle. One morning, I was terrified by a huge grasshopper on my mosquito net. (If it was inside the net, I might have had a heart attack as grasshoppers are my least favorite!!)
Park life started early as the elephants start to rumble around 5am, followed by dogs barking and sounds of cicadas which were enough alarms to wake me up! (The park also rescues other animal such as dogs and cats.) We were divided into 3 groups, and each group had different chores in the morning and in the afternoon everyday.
The chores included:
- Cleaning elephants’ shelters
- Feeding elephants
- Bathing elephants
- Letting elephants play in mud. The mud protects elephants’ skin in general as it can act like a sun protector for humans, whilst also deterring bugs and flies.
- Preparing food for elephants. Some of the elephants are old and sick so their meals need to be washed and cut
- Lychee picking. These lychees are both for elephants and for humans!
- Planting banana trees. These bananas are for elephants.
- Unloading fruits from the truck. They buy 80-85% of the fruits from local market and for the rest(15-20%) they grow by themselves in the park.
- Collecting bamboos. Bamboos are used to build necessary shelters throughout the park.
- Smoking the bamboos. To keep it bug free before using for shelters.
I enjoyed every single chore, but my favorites were feeding and bathing elephants for the very simple reason of getting closer to these adorable creatures!
Aside from the everyday chores, the park also offered lectures to get to know about the elephant related environment and elephants. It was shocking to discover I knew nearly nothing about them before coming to the park. The lecture was very educational and I learned a lot about historical treatment of elephants around the world as mentioned earlier. I agreed with what they said… elephants are not to be worked, but to live peacefully in nature.
Since then, elephants related tourist activities don’t appeal to me. If any of my friends consider these activities, I suggest they don’t take them for the elephants’ sake and try to educate them on the reasons why. I believe this is the one of the missions for volunteers who have worked at ENP – spread awareness!
Working at ENP was also a great opportunity to meet wonderful people from different countries. If you are like me, a non-native speaker of English, it’s a good opportunity to improve/ brush up your language skills as the common language at the park is English and 25 out of 30 people were from English speaking countries! A week sounds too short to build a friendship, but due to the intensity of the experience, our bond became stronger and closer quickly.
Through my days at the park, I realized that I took many things in life for granted such as hot shower, air conditioner and no bugs in the room. I have to admit that I so enjoy luxurious places when I can afford it, but from different perspective, seeing and working for elephants surrounded by nature is a more luxurious experience than staying at a nice resort. It made my heart warm inside and it was truly one of my treasures in my life.
Please also read our recent post Why You Should Never Ride An Elephant.