There are dozens of elephant-themed adventures to choose from in Chiang Mai. Some advertise that you can become a mahout—an elephant caretaker—for a day, some that allow you to ride the elephants, some that are retirement homes for older elephants. It is overwhelming how many different options there were. I did my research before I arrived in Thailand and I learned quickly that not all ele’ adventures should be treated equally.
I chose to volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park because they are against the riding and “breaking” of the elephant. The treatment of elephants in most of the other places is dismal. In order for a tourist to be able to ride an elephant, the elephant’s spirit must be broken, which means that they are beaten with sharp hooks until they submit to humans. The elephants used for work such as illegal logging also have to go through this process. Some of the work is so hard that their backs or hips break. Some of them have their eyes blinding by an angry mahout with a hook.
The Elephant Nature Park tries to rescue as many of these elephants as possible. Currently, they have 44 elephants, including four babies, some of whom are injured or just elderly.
My week there was not an easy one. There are chores every morning and afternoon that include unloading watermelon, pumpkin, and banana trucks, washing and cutting fruit, making banana and rice balls for the elephants that can no longer eat whole food, cutting down corn fields, and (of course) scooping a lot of ele’ poo! There was even one day where we had to put out a slash-and-burn fire that was approaching the park.
While work was not easy, especially in 100-degree weather, it was satisfying. After four years of working in a cubicle, it felt good to be working with my hands and actually seeing the results of my work. I was happy to know that we were supporting an organization that was educating people about what elephants are having to go through all over the world.
In our free time, we were allowed to walk the over 400(!) dogs they have rescued, play with kittens in the Cat Kingdom, or just to sit on their beautiful skywalk and enjoy a hard-earned beer while watching the elephants and water buffalo roam below.
If you are looking for a worthy volunteer project, I would recommend checking out spending a week or more at the Elephant Nature Park. I definitely hope to make it back there before my SE Asia trip comes to an end.
Check out their website here to plan your trip or donate to their cause.