I wanted to spend some of my travel time volunteering. For me, it was a chance to “give” to a noble cause, gain a deeper travel experience (not just beach hopping) and to be a responsible traveler. Typically, the volunteer schemes can be split into one of Animals, Teaching, Community.

Being an animal loving vegetarian, it was clear that my preference was for an animal related scheme. I decided upon one called the Elephant Nature Park. which I’ve booked for one week starting 5th November.

The Elephant Nature Park is a scheme I heard about through a number of channels – friends/blogs/travel companies. It’s an elephant sanctuary and rehabilitation centre, which looks after dozens of elephants that have been abandoned, abused or exhausted through entertainment. I’ll be a park volunteer doing everything from bathing elephants, basic health care to harvesting their food – probably clearing the huge mess they can make too.

Responsible travel should be an important part of a traveller’s mindset. I’d rather be helping the animals, than have them pre-sedated and cruelly trained so I can get a nice picture alongside them.

My practical thoughts on the scheme were:

  • group of helpers – I wanted to take part in a scheme that would involve lots of people (both experienced and not). The park takes up to 50 volunteers each week and you work alongside the permanent staff there.
  • somewhere on my route – To keep costs low and not lose too much time either side (by getting to/from the scheme). The park is 60km north of Chiang Mai and with my travel route doing a loop through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam (either clockwise or anticlockwise), it makes a nice stop off for me through Chiang Mai before heading to Laos.
  • something i can’t do in London – hopefully and obvious one, but helping wild animals in the wild is not something you can easily do in London.
  • something i can do for 1 or 2 weeks max and still make a difference – there are numerous schemes which you need to commit for a month or two, and some as short as one or two weeks. For me, for my first time, I wanted a short scheme – one or two weeks max. Some flexibility is nice, but not a must have for me. The benefit of the ENP, is that you can extend it assuming there is space (and with their permission).
  • doesn’t blow my travel budget – a surprise to the ignorant is that volunteer schemes actually cost. They cost because they often feed you, transport you and put you up in convenient accommodation. They also use the funds to keep the schemes running. In the case of the ENP, it’s huts in the park (sharing with one person), breakfast/lunch/dinner each day and transport to/from Chiang Mai. The office where they pick/drop you from is nice and conveniently in the centre of town.

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The schemes / web sites that I came across for inspiration were:

  • STA Travel (www.statravel.co.uk) – lots of information on their site – a real community. Travellers who book with them are given sections on their site to blog, so if you want security with your scheme about what you’re getting yourself in for, you can normally find some blogs on there. If you go into the shops they have, your friendly representatives can bounce ideas, give you a clue what schemes are popular/new/old and even check how many people have booked so far. They’ve come up with the concept of “voluntouring” which is a combo of volunteering and touring in a single bookable trip. Their brochure is highly recommended and well laid out.
  • Real Gap (www.realgap.co.uk) – all their schemes have lots of descriptions to get a real sense of what you’ll be doing with your time. lots of past reviews are helpful too. They cover non-volunteer schemes too in case you want to have a peek at stuff like martial arts camps, scuba diving etc.