So, after serious, unforgivable delay (sorry!), I am finally writing this piece. I think the trouble I’ve had with getting around to it is because it’s just so incredibly difficult to put into words all of the lovely things I have to say, without simply exclaiming “ahhhmygoditwasamazingyoushouldtotallygothereandbtwsavetheelliesblaaarghhhhh”! I also really want to spread the word, which of course required a little research on my part, and the WiFi here at CNX is god awful.
Anyway, enjoy 🙂
Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is, quite literally, a sanctuary for animals. Founded in 1996 by Lek Chailert – a shaman’s granddaughter with a passion for animals and the preservation of their freedom and happiness – the park spans 250 acres of mountainous, forested valley that is surrounded by a river, and houses 36 elephants, over 350 dogs, a herd of water buffalo, a number of cats and a monkey (along with a few creepy crawlies).
Elephants in Thailand are sacred, but sadly there are no rights for domesticated ones. When logging (where people cut down massive chunks of the rainforest for logs and wood, destroying natural habitats) was outlawed in Thailand in 1989, workers of this kind had to turn to other means to make money – often using elephants as tourist traps and in roadside shows – to the detriment of elephants’ health and wellbeing. These ellies are usually taken from their mothers when they’re too young, and it’s not uncommon for them to be made to work at this point – not to mention when they’re sick, old or, worse, heavily pregnant – much to their distress. However, Lek Chailert has created this sanctuary (and will soon be creating another in Burma) – and constantly works as an activist to try to change the Thai laws, to give rights to these wonderful animals – to put a stop to the abuse that some have to suffer daily. She has single handedly tamed elephant upon elephant and, with the help of mahouts, let the ellies trust humans again. But with each elephant she buys – because that’s the only way the abusive owners will let them go – costing one million baht (about £20,000), it’s a tough battle. One that she fights single handedly day to day. To say that she is an incredible woman is a massive understatement.
To have been able to spend the week volunteering at this awe-inspiring place, with these majestic animals, was amazing. £389 for the week, including bed, breakfast, lunch and dinner, was a very small price to pay for the experience I had, the animals I got to see, and the people I met. The first day comprised of orientation (being guided around the site by out wonderful Volunteer Coordinators visiting ellies), documentary-watching (which was incredibly hard-hitting) and, in the evening, our beautiful welcome ceremony. This included Buddhist chanting by, and receiving a string bracelet we were forbidden to remove for three days for good luck from Lek herself! The second day began actual work and a Thai culture/language lesson (along with a little song and dance!). The work for the week was tough and quick – only working for 2.5 hours maximum in the mornings and again in the afternoons – including washing and preparing food for the animals, cutting and collecting long grass, weeding the gardens, collecting rocks for stone pillars and, you guessed it, clearing up poop (by the wheelbarrowful!). Considering the amount of free time given (about 10 hours a day), this was perhaps a little too reasonable! Our free time was mostly spent eating (operating with traditional Buddhist beliefs, Lek doesn’t believe that animals should be killed for human gain, so the only meat you’ll find here is still very much alive – even the dogs are vegetarian!), with the evenings being reserved for socialising around a campfire with a couple of beers 🙂
When the end of the week came, I think I can speak for my entire group when I say it was heartbreaking. Although some of us were craving a steak, a plate of ribs, or a triple hamburger with EXTRA ham, it was always going to be difficult leaving after such a fantastic seven days, and strange to go back to every day life. Not feeling like I was on the set of Jurassic Park anymore, or surrounded by elephants and dogs wherever I went – especially our most beloved pup, An (JOHN!) – was particularly hard once I got back to the city.
Staying at the ENP was such an enriching experience, I am so grateful for having the opportunity and would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone. How many people can say they’ve spent the week tending to elephants?! And besides, it feels great to help out with a single lady’s dream. These gentle giants will change your life; they have certainly changed mine.
Please do visit www.elephantnaturepark.org for more information 🙂 And, as always, please ask if you have any questions!
Incredible Naomi. Truly inspiring read x
What an incredible experience. Such a worthwhile thing to do. Thanks for sharing.
beautiful, I’m going to add a link to this from my article about Elephant Nature Park. Thanks for sharing!
I’ve been looking into volunteering for ENP for a few weeks now and came across your blog today that describes your experience. I’m more excited than ever to pursue this, but was hoping to ask you a few questions regarding safety before I commit:
I will be traveling alone, and as a young woman I am a little paranoid about my safety while maneuvering the airport/ground transportation to that park. I saw on their website (under FAQs) that a private vehicle can be arranged that will pick me up at the airport and transport me directly to ENP…was this something that anyone you volunteered with chose to do instead of getting a hotel the night before? Are you aware of any particular safety issues that I should be aware of? Also, do you know of any way to get in touch with other volunteers that will be traveling from the US during my same volunteer week?
What was your communication like with ENP leading up to your visit? I am having a hard time retrieving many details about safety, etc. from them by email or phone…I was just curious as to how I would arrange this private transportation or have any of my other questions answered prior to my trip?
Thanks in advance SO much for your time, I really appreciate it!!
Hi Sami, thank you for your comment!
I travelled alone myself so totally understand the hesitance to just jump in. I actually booked into the Eco Resort in Chiang Mai the night before (about $17 per night), and then arranged a taxi through the hostel to the ENP office first thing in the morning – I found this way so much easier, and it was lovely to see a little of the city (ie the famous night markets) while I was there, too. I don’t know if you’ve travelled alone before, but you’ll find you’ll meet so many other travellers that will be SO friendly and happy to help out!
Regarding safety, no, Thailand can be pretty scary for a first-time traveller (purely due to culture shock) but I never had any issues walking around alone, just be sure to keep your wits about you. If you’re not 100% confident, it’s better to try to keep somebody with you 🙂 I actually don’t know if it’s possible to find fellow volunteers prior to your visit but you’ll bond instantly over the amazing shared experience – really, don’t worry about that!
I didn’t actually communicate with them at all as I booked through an agent, but rest assured, they’re pretty sharp when it comes to safety – the most dangerous things are probably the mosquitoes 😉
I hope that’s helped! If you have any more questions, I’ll be happy to answer! Feel free to email them directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org 🙂