As I may have said in blog posts previous, I left Europe for Asia because of how quickly my Euros were becoming fewer and fewer. This meant I left in a bit of a rush and had no clue what I was really doing when I landed in Bangkok, even less so when my money was all but gone in Bangkok. I knew that I very much wanted to see animals. Who doesn’t want to see an Elephant in as close to it’s natural habitat you’re going to get without working for National Geographic? My search lead me to Elephant Nature Park. Elephant tourism in Thailand, alongside any other sort animal tourism, is very popular. This is for a very good reason, of course. They're adorable, they're gentle and they are there! However, it's not that simple. Nothing ever is.
While I could highlight why you shouldn’t go to various other sanctuaries because of their unethical treatment of animals which can include starvation, emotional abuse, physical torture, riding, and over breading just to name a few tragic points there are really more reasons than this to go to Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. I’m sure if you looked you could find hundreds of blog posts all about the bad parts of animal tourism from other sanctuaries as well but hey, let’s stay on here instead!
There are many different options you could take when deciding to volunteer or visit Elephant Nature Park but I took the two week volunteer opportunity with the elephants because it’s been a dream of mine since I was ten to see them and when I was seventeen I even got a tattoo of an elephant. I felt incredibly lucky not only to take part in it but also because originally they didn’t have a spot open for me until I was due to be in a different country but someone had cancelled so I jumped at the chance, quickly getting to the other side of Thailand as fast as I could, a pretty difficult feat at the time because the trains were all not working and a flight would’ve cost far to much. With a boat, a bus and a little bit of hitchhiking I made it to Chiang Mai and stayed for a few days before until I was picked up outside of my hostel and driven, alongside other volunteers, first to the headquarters where we got t-shirts and information packets. From there we were driven the the sanctuary.
During the drive up, we saw elephants that were owned by a different park and saw them being ridden while the riders wielded bull hooks. The staff taking us to Elephant Nature Park pointed out as well that they were underfed, a gross truth about most of elephant tourism which was plain to see when we entered the gates to the park and saw the first elephant. It looked much more robust and even happier with her herd. From there we were given our rooms and when we had all dropped our bags off, the fun began with the a meal for the elephants. We gave them fruits and veg - they were eating healthier than I had in the several months of travel - into their trunks except for the babies, which were still incapable of using them entirely. Try as the little guys did to be like their matriarchs so the softer fruits we gave them, as well as the senior elephants, were put onto the ground or carefully into their mouths. It was great fun to watch them all eat and see how different they each were, in looks and personality.
Shortly thereafter it was our own dinner and the food we were given was nothing short of spectacular. It was an all vegan diet, grown locally and all absolutely delicious. I’m not a vegan nor a vegetarian (sorry!) but I actually had to ask if certain dishes contained meat because I simply could not tell. It got dark quickly and on our first night as volunteers we were invited to a ceremony where a local shaman would bless us and give us protection. If anything can be taken away from that it was how touching it all was.
Afterwards we went to bed and rose early for breakfast, equally as good as dinner was, and then went on to our tasks. We had a lot of work to be done to help the elephants. Some was less than spectacular: shovelling poo. While others were more fun: preparing meals for the food but whatever the task was it was all done. We cut old banana trees down, we built scratching posts, collected hay and grass. Everything we did was to help the elephants and the huge collection of rescued animals they have too. We all spoke as we work, getting to know each other and why we wanted to be here and took breaks whenever an elephant and their mahout came by to learn about the individual elephant and the hardship that had befallen it before they'd ended up at Elephant Nature Park. We even got to take photos with them without taking an "Elphie" (Just so you know, that's a part of cruelty. How many animals do you know interact with cell phones normally?). We disturbed them as little as possible and the elephants whose backs hadn't been broken by over-breading or heavy labour we were able to take them into the surrounding mountains so they could be as close to natural life as they should be. The views were beautiful too and you really got to see how much elephant and mahout bonded. During our breaks we helped bath and feed them but we also got to see the kittens that were rescued, the oxen and the dogs too. The dogs are mostly all adoptable too as they were rescued after a terrible wet season which destroyed too many homes in Thailand. All of this is just the most peaceful place on Earth as far as I can tell.
The two weeks ended faster than I ever would have liked, with some people even getting tattoos during that time, but after seeing how sustainable it was and helping fund local communities and rescued animals we all left happy and wanting to go back to Elephant Nature Park. You should see it for yourself too!