Last week, I volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP), just outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. I did my best to manage my expectations leading up to it, but I have to say, a week at the park is going to be one of the highlights of my trip.
Watching elephants roam free in front of you all day, meeting an absolutely awesome bunch of people and learning some new skills was a great experience.
I recommend ENP highly. Even if you can’t volunteer for a week, a day trip to the place should be on every Thai traveller’s itinerary.
The first day started from the ENP office in Chiang Mai. Having stayed just down the road at Julie’s Guesthouse for the last three nights, finding the office was easy as pie. As I entered, I was handed a volunteer T-shirt and a water bottle and waited for the other 60 or so people to turn up. I was told the week I had booked was the busiest yet.
A mini bus transported us in groups to the ENP which was about an hour away, during which, we learned some background about the park and elephants. There are currently 33 elephants at the park, including 4 males and 29 females. In the last week, the park has also had its first birth, with Navaan a new-born elephant which is by far the cutest thing on four legs I’ve ever seen. At just 100kg, gaining 4kg per day, he rarely left his mother’s side.
We were given some advice about elephants – being told not to stand directly in front (not to be hit by a trunk), behind (kicked) or in between (squished). Without going into too much detail, we learned that almost all elephant training except for this park is insanely cruel, resulting in blind, disabled and mentally scared elephants. Warnings aside, although these elephants have all got a history of cruelty and disability, they are remarkably calm due to the positive training by the mahouts at the park.
The stories of Mae Do, Jokia and Mintra are great examples of how many elephants have been treated for the sake or work or tourism and what kind of elephants this park adopts. It was amazing to see blind elephants having formed friendships with physically handicapped ones and use each other to lead as normal a life as possible at the park.
ENP was started by a woman called Lek, whom, having grown up from a young age around elephants, has devoted her life to caring for these enormous beasts. Her life story and how the park was started is a truly remarkable story, told to us in person by Lek herself one night.
What’s the Elephant Nature Park like?
The ENP is a site within the forests of Thailand about a one hour drive North East of Chiang Mai. For the first couple of days, I can safely say I was in awe of watching the elephants strolling passed the whole time with a background akin to something out of Jurassic Park. You can safely stay up on the decking where big tables would be used for the breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet. An elevated “skywalk” decking extending into the park was used at night for socializing. Out the back, contained the living quarters where volunteers would be paired in same-sex rooms with shared bathrooms.
Various feeding times, baskets of fruit would be handed across the railings by the volunteers or day visitors from the decking to the elephants, who would carefully take the fruit off you and throw it into their mouths. Sometimes, you could join the mahouts down on the ground and feed them straight up.
Although the park was predominantly started for Elephants, Lek decided that no animal should be turned away, so in time, the park adopted cats, dogs and bison too. With the chaotic floods in Bangkok in 2011, Lek and her team independently obtained boats and rescued as many dogs as they could. At the time of writing, the park houses 350 dogs, most of which are in a designated dog area being neutered, vaccinated and nursed to full health. Plenty of volunteers fell in love with the dogs here and spent time walking, playing and entertaining the attention demanding ones. There were even mentions of taking some home in future for adoption.
What Tasks did I do as a Volunteer?
Everyone was split in to four groups, A-D and various tasks were split between them. Each morning and afternoon, we’d meet with our designated volunteer coordinator to start them. They included…
All the volunteers did this task on the first afternoon we arrived. Taking buckets and standing alongside the elephants in the river, we’d throw buckets of water over them to cool them down. Told to avoid the eyes so we didn’t give them eye infections from the water, they absolutely loved it – flapping their ears and tails the whole time.
Cutting Corn and Grass
For this task, we were through into the back of a truck, hurtled down the road for an hour to a corn field, given machetes and chopped them down for the elephants to each.
Preparing Elephant Food
Unloading fruit deliveries (bananas, watermelons and pumpkins) and scrubbing the food in a big bath of potassium permanganate to kill germs. After cleaning them, they’re chopped then put into baskets ready for the elephants meals, who graze for most of the day. #fact about the amount of food an elephant eats.
In order to allow the elephants to roam freely in a designated area, volunteers are building 1500 pillars around the park. These pillars need to be big and strong enough to withstand an elephant back rub so are built using steel wires foundations with stone and concrete combination built up to about head hight. As volunteers we collected stones from the park’s river, mixed concrete and carefully built up the pillars layer by layer.
Cleaning Elephant Poo
I expected this to be one of the tasks, given we were enthusiastic volunteers and the amount of food an elephant consumes. Thankfully, the task isn’t as bad as it sounds. Believe it or not, as long as the poo is more than an hour old, it’s not that smelly at all. Armed with wheelbarrows, pitchforks and shovels we would stroll around the park picking up as much as we could and dumping it in one massive mound.
After the daily bathing in the river, the elephants stroll to the mud pit and cover themselves in the natural sunscreen of mud. In order to have the mud in a form that they can grab, volunteers need to rake, chop and mix the mud with water. Naturally, it would end in a one big volunteer mud fight.
By far the favourite task of volunteers, involved walking around the park and seeing the elephants grazing. We’d carry a basket of food to distribute round. This was by far the best opportunity for photos of the elephants with amazing backdrops.
3 Best and Worst Things About the Park?
- Quality of the Food – Vegetarian buffet food three times a day. Incredibly tasty mixture of Thai and western food. I bought a few snacks with me just in case the food wasn’t great and never had to use them. Plenty of meat eaters were debating whether to turn vegetarian after seeing what could be made.
- Volunteer Coordinators – The guys on the ground directing the volunteers are truly unique. They have a laugh, create a great atmosphere and are always ready to answer questions. They most definitely went above and beyond their roles when they spent their own evening times teaching everyone about Thai culture, how to do the ENP dance and how to play Uno with “Thai” rules. Great bunch of guys.
- Tubing – Having a river on your door step meant, two tubing trips for the volunteers, without the danger stories of the ones in Laos these days. Drifting down the river in the sun is enough to cure any symptoms of hard work.
- Sleep Deprivation – Either staying up socializing too late or dogs barking in the night meant some mornings were tough to get up for the 7am breakfast call.
- Timing of the Food – If you weren’t around 15 mins after the “serving” bell was sounded, there was a good chance you wouldn’t get to eat some of the yummy dishes.
- Dogs – If you’re not fond of dogs, you’ll have a tough time not bumping into one or several during your daily routines. No one ever got bit by one during my time there, but seeing them growl at each other for territory or attention was a little overwhelming.
What Advice Would I Give to Someone About to Volunteer at the Park?
- Buy a few cheap plain t-shirts – In Chiang Mai, on the Sunday before you start there’s a great night market. Buy two or three cheap plain t-shirts and light short trousers that you can get messy without worrying about too much. In the market, you’re looking at 100 THB for t-shirts or short trousers.
- Take lots of small notes – There are masseuses and a small bar used in the evenings that only take small notes, because it only takes one volunteer to need change for a 10,000 THB note to mess things up.
- Take a dry sack – You’ll want to have your camera on your most of the time, but with messy jobs, the odd thunderstorm and jobs around the river, you will want to make sure you’re camera is safe. It’s only a couple of pounds but worth its weight in gold there.
- Combo lock – Take a thick numeric combo lock to replace the key padlock on the doors of the bed rooms. Sharing with another volunteer and not having to worry about who has the key was something adopted by many volunteers by the end of the week.
- Wifi – If you’re having trouble getting on the wifi at the park, you many need to set your phone/laptop/ipad to use static IP addresses. The wifi router was struggling at times with the volume of volunteers and waiting for the route to designate an IP address through DHCP meant that you wouldn’t’ get a look in on the wifi unless it was early or late. Ask the nearest techy to set the right IP addresses statically for you.