the Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in Northern Thailand where you can visit or volunteer. they have been involved in dozens of rescues which have created a thriving elephant herd. the park provides a natural environment for elephants, dogs, cats, buffaloes and a few other animals. volunteers and visitors contribute to the healing while learning about elephants. there are projects in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar and visits can be arranged to any location. all the revenue from the ads on this site for this month will be donated to the ENP to support their work.
there are many places in SE Asia where you can get up close to elephants. i've chosen to go to the ENP because of the phenomenal work they do there. it is 100% funded through private donors and it is the first sanctuary for elephants in Thailand. i visited in 2010 and always planned to return when i had a week to spend as a volunteer. i get asked a lot about the favorite places i've visited and since 2010 i've always replied 'Elephant Nature Park'.
the park van picks me up at my hotel and up until this point i wasn't sure i had been booked correctly. there is another volunteer going a day late and they put us in the van with a few overnight guests. the volunteer program runs Monday through Sunday but they are quite flexible about people showing up late or leaving early. they have day trips from Chiang Mai so it's easy to get back and forth to the city if needed.
volunteering in SE Asia comes in a lot of flavors. there is a bit of an industry around volunteering and research needs to be done in advance to be sure it's a good match. in general i'm not a fan of paying to do volunteer work but in this case the charge covers food, housing, insurance and volunteer coordinator costs. there are plenty of organizations that do not charge and some even provide room/board or a stipend to volunteers.
back to the elephants. on the ride out to the park which is about an hour we watch a safety video because the elephants roam freely on the property and it's important to understand and respect their space. we arrive at the park in time for the morning feeding. the elephants are fed twice a day from the platform area. the first day at the park is an orientation day so there aren't any assigned chores. after the feeding we get a tour of the health clinic and meet a few elephants before lunch.
after lunch we watch a short video about the sanctuary then head down to the river for a swim and elephant bath. in the afternoon we do another elephant walk to meet more of the herd and run into Lek, the founder, down by the river. we have a short chat and i ask for a photo. i've only just arrived but already i can see that there has been so much work done in the last four years. it's blazing hot and after we are back at the main platform we are handed over to the volunteer coordinators. we get moved into our rooms and they are a little bit scary. i'm in the original volunteer housing which probably hasn't been updated since it was built. it's a block of rooms - two beds per room - with a row of shared toilet/showers. we affectionately refer to this housing as the ghetto.
there's a volunteer meeting before dinner and Q&A with Jodie. Jodie is from Detroit and has been with the project since 2003. she is an elephant nerd for sure and because she's a westerner she is the go to person for asking questions about culture, etiquette, etc.. she talks more about safety. there are elephants here who have hurt and killed humans so it's important to be aware at all times when around them of the potential dangers.
dinner and a short introduction to Thai culture by the volunteer coordinators. topics include Thai Royalty [loved and respected - no chance a woman can be monarch], Feet & Head [keep your hands off Thai heads and your feet off the furniture], Wai [appropriate Thai greeting], Clothes [women need to cover their shoulders and knees - men don't need to bother] and lastly a brief tutorial on Thai language. turns out there are 42 letters in the alphabet, and multiple tones, which means 1] the same word can have a very different meaning based on the tone used and 2] there is a diminishing possibility i will ever learn this language.
that's the end of the first day. i crawl under the mosquito net and try to sleep but the bed is rock hard and i keep waking up. still, i am so happy to be here and looking forward to seeing more of the elephants.