I spent a week volunteering with Asian elephants in Northern Thailand. It was the highlight of my Thailand trip and an experience that will stay with me for a long time. I share my adventure here to inspire you to do the same!
Journey to Freedom is Elephant Nature Park’s premier volunteering experience.
Day 1 From the office to the mountains
I made my way to the Elephant Nature Park offices located in the old city of Chiang Mai. Registration was a lengthy process, but each station was clearly marked and the friendly staff members were there to direct me. Have your passport and departure card ready. After registration, I received two awesome gifts: a water bottle with a carry pouch and a t-shirt! You can choose the colour, design and size of your t-shirt.
Then I waited until everybody in our group was checked in. We were a small group of 15 people from all over the world.
We were split into two groups and transferred via mini-busses from the office in Chiang Mai to a Karen village in the mountains. Lunch was served at a local restaurant in the village. After lunch we drove to our camp located a couple of minute outside the village in the back of a pick-up truck.
The accommodation is jokingly called Hotel California. I shared a room with four other ladies.
We met the three awesome guys that took care of us for the week: Dan, Non and Yo. And Pad Thai, the resident cat at the camp.
Later that afternoon, we met the elephants! Four elephants, three females and one male, belong to the Karen people in the village.
Mai Yui is 30 years old and mother to 5 year old Mai Boi. Mai Boi was taken away from her mother at a very young age, but after both of them were rescued, they were reunited again and now they are practically inseparable.
Mai Boon Swi is 32 years old and at the time of my visit, she was pregnant.
Arawan is 7 years old and the only male in the group.
All four elephants were rescued from the illegal logging or tourism industries. Mai Yui was rescued from the illegal logging industry. At the time of her rescue, she was unable to bend her ankles. Mai Boi, her daughter, was rescued from the circus. Mai Boon Swi was rescued from the trekking industry, and when she arrived at the village she had an enormous infection on her back. Arawan was a ‘painting’ elephant before he was rescued.
Each elephant is cared for by a mahout, a person who stays with the elephant 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
After our elephant introduction, we enjoyed a delicious dinner, freshly prepared for us. Potato and tofu soup, a main course with rice and vegetables and fruit for dessert. All our meals were vegetarian, which suited me perfectly as I’m a vegetarian. Our dinners were always three courses and we always had fresh fruit with every meal.
After Yo made us honey and lemon tea, I went to bed and almost fell asleep immediately, exhausted after an exciting but long day.
Day 2 Walking with elephants
Today was the highlight of my week. We spent the whole day in the forest walking alongside the elephants!
Our trek started after a tasty breakfast. We walked through farm fields and rice patties to reach the forest.
We reached the elephants within an hour of hiking. We followed them closely as they moved through the forest, adjusting to their pace. When they moved, we moved. I loved observing them in their natural habitat, exhibiting ‘normal’ behaviour.
So what did I observe?
Elephants eat a lot! They spend the bulk of their time foraging.
They are constantly swatting mosquitos and flies away and covering their bodies, particularly their backs, with mud. Mud serves as a natural mosquito repellent!
Because of the bond between mother and daughter, Mai Boi and Mai Yui kept close together. Mai Boi would put her trunk in her mother’s mouth to learn which plants are edible.
We ate our lunch (wrapped in banana leaves) in the forest.
After spending a couple of hours with the elephants, we trekked back to camp.
We followed the same routine every afternoon: Going into the Karen village to spend time with the kids. We learned about Karen culture and in turn the children improved their English langue skills by talking to us.
For dinner we had cucumber soup, sweet and sour veggies and spring rolls. We also had birthday cake!
Day 3 Cutting grass and thirsty elephants
After breakfast, we drove into the village to cut grass for the elephants. It’s a particular species of grass with a high protein content that is very nutritious for the elephants. The grass grows next to the roads on the outskirts of the village.
The great views along the way made the hard work easy!
We filled up two pick-up trucks!
In the afternoon, the elephants came to the camp. They loved the grass!
The grass made the elephants thirsty, which led to the coolest thing! Three elephants simultaneously trying to drink water from one tap. It was the battle of the trunks!
After the elephants left, we went to the village again to spend some time with the children.
Dinner was pumpkin soup with tofu, baked potato with butter, cabbage and rice. And fresh fruit for dessert.
Before going to bed tonight, we played a couple of card games. It was so much fun!
Day 4 Planting coffee
What makes Elephant Nature Park such a great organization, is its holistic approach to Asian Elephant conservation. Yes, their primary concern is the well-being of the elephants, but they are also actively involved in the local communities and the preservation of forests, the natural habitat of the elephants.
After a phenomenal breakfast (the best pancakes with cashew nuts and pineapple), we planted coffee! We filled growing bags with soil that we collected from the river bank.
We then sowed coffee seeds in the bags. After a couple of weeks when the seeds have sprouted, the coffee plants are given to the local farmers. They grow the coffee plants instead of other crops.
Because coffee plants can grow in the shade of other trees, it can be planted without destroying the forest. Also, the price of coffee beans per kg that the farmers receive is significantly higher than the price for other crops. It’s a win-win situation!
Today was the only day we didn’t see the elephants.
For dinner we had french fries, followed by Thai curry with rice, a cucumber and scrambled eggs dish and fresh fruit to end our meal.
You will never go hungry!
Day 5 Children and elephants
Today was our last full day in the mountains. For breakfast we had pancakes again!
We spent the morning with kindergarten children, playing, dancing and singing songs. We also served the children lunch, sponsored by Elephant Nature Park.
After lunch, we visited the high school in the village.
When we returned to camp, the elephants were waiting for us. They ate the leftover grass from Wednesday.
As usual, dinner was great. After our meal, we drank punch made with local moonshine alcohol. It was our last night in the mountains, so we made a bonfire.
Day 6 A blessing before we left
This morning we attended a traditional Karen blessing ceremony. As a thank you for our volunteer work in the Karen village, we were blessed by the local chief.
After saying goodbye to the elephants and Dan and Non, we left for Elephant Nature Park. We stopped for lunch in the outskirts of Chiang Mai on our way to the park.
Once we arrived, Yo gave us a short tour of the facilities at the park and introduced us to a couple of elephants. There are currently 69 elephants at the park.
Each elephant has a story, but sadly, most of the stories are horrific!
Before dinner, we attended a talk given by the founder of Elephant Nature Park, Lek. The talk was very interesting and afterwards, Lek answered a few questions.
Dinner was a huge vegetarian buffet! The BBQ tofu was especially good. After dinner we just hung out as a group and exchanged social media info. It was great to be connected to the outside world again after six days without internet or mobile phone service.
Day 7 Elephant Nature Park
After a delicious breakfast buffet, Yo gave us a two-hour tour of the Elephant Nature Park grounds. We started in the kitchen where the food for all the animals is prepared.
In addition to elephants, the park is home to hundreds of cats and dogs as well. Yo showed us around the ‘cat kingdom’ and the ‘dog hospital’.
Next up was the mahout village. Elephant Nature Park provides jobs, housing and schooling for the mahouts’ entire family.
In the jungle behind the mahout village we met three elephants that are kind of the ‘outcasts’ of the park. They stick together, and each of them has a particular ailment. One is blind, the other one has a dislocated hip and the other one has severe emotional problems.
What followed was the highlight of our morning tour. We saw an eight-week old baby elephant. It was so small and clumsy, but so cute!
After lunch we said our goodbyes and left for Chiang Mai. We arrived back at the office around 16h00.
And just like that, my elephant adventure in Thailand ended. Now go and have your own!
The best part for me
- The elephants of course! Walking in the forest with the elephants, seeing them drink water from a tap and meeting an eight-week old baby elephant.
- The critters in our camp. Spiders and very loud cicadas.
- And the food! It was so delicious!
The challenging part
Getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. The slippery mud made it a little bit tricky. But nothing too serious. It felt like I was camping.
- Insect repellent is a must!
- Bring a set of clothes for each day. It can get pretty messy during the rainy season in Thailand.
- Remember to bring motion sickness medication with you. You’ll probably need it.
- Don’t forget your camera!