A few years ago, a friend of mine spent a week at a great organisation in northern Thailand called Elephant Nature Park, and for the following weeks and months, she continued to shout her praises for the founder and has been back a couple of times since. I knew straight away that I’d love to spend some time there. Then Amanda from A Dangerous Business visited last year and had a lot to say about it, which made me even more keen to go.
So in December, I was hugely excited to finally put down our deposit and book in for the middle of April!! Our entire Thailand schedule was based around Songkran and our week here.
Elephant Nature Park was set up by the inspirational Lek Chailert, who has dedicated her life to rescuing elephants from the tourism and logging industries. Even though elephant logging is now illegal, there are many practices particularly around the Burmese border, where elephants are injured by mines, forced breeding programs, and the work itself.
It was an incredible yet sad privilege to see some of these elephants, to feed them, bathe them and even cut down their feed and shovel the resulting poop.
But most of all, it was totally eye-opening.
The elephant tourism industry in Thailand is booming, and with it comes cruelty that not many people are even aware of. Lek promotes awareness and I think this is one of the most fundamentally important parts of this organisation.
I used to want to ride an elephant. It was one of those quintessential experiences that is on many people’s bucket lists. But, I said, I’d only do it if I found a reputable place that didn’t mistreat the elephants.
What I didn’t realise, and I’m sure this is true for most of you, is that it’s not just how they’re treated now. It’s how they came to be part of the industry in the first place. Babies are taken from their mothers; elephants are put into a cage that barely surrounds them (known as “the crush”) where they are beaten into submission until they listen to their trainers.
This horrific torture can go on for days, usually three or four, and involves starvation and sleep deprivation techniques. Hooks and nails are used, and eventually the elephant loses its will and becomes, essentially, a slave.
Every elephant you see being ridden, every elephant in a show, every elephant who can be led through crowds of people; they have ALL been through this. And watching the video footage Lek has of this very thing happening had me in tears.
And that’s why ENP is so important. Not only does it provide sanctuary for injured elephants (many of them blind from the hooks used in these processes, like the beautiful lady above), it shows people what they are (or could be) supporting, and also gives tourists a NEW way to enjoy elephants in as close to a natural environment as possible. It’s a win/win situation for the tourists AND the elephants.
I spent intimate time with these amazing creatures over the course of my week there, and knew that I was doing so in a way that was helping them, not harming them. We bathed and fed them every day, we made banana mash balls and fed them to two elderly elephants, we watched two families interact and bathe in the river. And we worked hard to earn it.
What The Volunteering Involves
Every day each team would be given two jobs; one for the morning and one for the afternoon. It ranged from shovelling poop to raking the park to cutting down corn plants. Corn cutting was the hardest; we chose the hottest time of year to visit, and 4 hours of cutting plants with a machete in 40 degree heat is NOT easy. But for the most part it was fun, and where we had tough jobs, we would moan together – the corn cutting was one of the best team bonding sessions we had, and we got to ride on top of the corn truck on the way back which was a lot of fun!
There were odd jobs too, like unloading watermelons from the truck and sorting the feed room.
We also ADORED our 4 VCs (volunteer co-ordinators) who would lead each session. They were funny, helpful and super friendly, and loved kicking a ball around with Ash! It was Johnny’s birthday while we were there and he offered us all Thai whiskey and got very, very drunk, and we spent another evening watching football with them.
We had buffet vegetarian food provided every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and throughout our lunch breaks there would be elephant feeding sessions from the platform. We had a Thai culture lecture evening which was one of the funniest things ever, we indulged in Thai massages one night for 150 baht (£3) from some local ladies, and we were given a welcome ceremony where we were blessed by a shaman before we watched kids from a local school dancing.
Our room was great too; it included a basic bathroom but we had our own, which is more than a lot of people got! Our bed had a mosquito net, and one of the many dogs at the park made itself at home.
In fact, not only does Lek help elephants, in 2011 she rescued many dogs from the floods of Bangkok and there are now over 400 dogs at the park. This side of the sanctuary is also looking for volunteers, and you can sign up for half the price of the elephant volunteering project, but still enjoy the elephant experience.
And if you don’t have a week to spare, you can always visit for a day or an overnight trip where you still get to interact with the elephants on an ethical level.
So next time you think about riding an elephant, please, please consider visiting ENP or a similar park instead, or even sign up as a volunteer. It’s a totally remarkable place and I feel so honoured to have been a very small part of it.
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Elephant Nature Park’s office is based in Chiang Mai, and the park is an hour away. Volunteering is 12,000 baht per week (£240) and includes EVERYTHING: accommodation, 3 meals a day, and free tea/coffee. Work is generally 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon. You can also visit the park for the day or overnight, but I HIGHLY recommend one or even two weeks for the full experience. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done!