Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand is a sanctuary for rescued elephants that have been tortured, abused and injured from tourism such as circus, festivals and street begging, trekking (elephant riding) and logging companies from all over Thailand and Asia. They come here to live their lives as free elephants after a life of quite literally hell. There are 70 elephants at this park along with rescued wild buffalos, dogs and cats from slaughterhouses, labs or those that have been abandoned, that all live their life here in peace. The volunteers provide the funds to support this beautiful refuge but also support it with their work for the elephants. That might be preparing food or actually feeding, maintaining the shelters, cleaning up the park, collecting sand and hay or bathing/socializing with them.
Take a look into what our week here looked liked.
Today was really just a lot of hype to get you excited to see the elephants. This “hype day” is pretty much where they build the anticipation so much that you are at your highest level of excitement almost to the point of question “are we ever actually going to be with the elephants?”. You do a lot of looking at the elephants but nothing hands on today and you learn some information about them including how they got here, their history, etc. You have to sit through a very emotional documentary about elephant abuse, which I could stomach for about 5 minutes before having to look down and subtlety cover my ears during it.
Although I just told you how terribly upsetting the movie was I think it’s important to be informed on these types of issues mostly because, in my opinion, the more you actually know about a subject the more interest and passion you have in stopping that said activity. The more people that understand elephants in tourism is not okay, the better chance these elephants have at a free future. So if you can, check out the documentary here. Fair warning it is graphic and extremely upsetting so if you can’t make yourself watch it, the next best thing is to read up on the abuse of elephants in tourism and the logging industry.
Day 2: A Hard Day’s Work
We got stuck with the toughest job during day 1 of work which was “cutting corn”. If you’re confused on what that means … you literally drive out to a field of corn that’s already been husked, get a blade and cut fields of corn… in the blazing heat. Then, when enough corn has been cut, you carry it to the trucks to get hauled back to the park. The funniest part of the day was just the image of 14 girls and Daniel pack in the back of an open truck driving to go cut corn in Thailand. Exactly the opposite of what you would expect to see here. Also, the immense amount of corn we cut you would think the elephants could eat for a week… but no it was only one day worth of food for the 70 elephants here.
Later, because of our hard work efforts, we got to go on an elephant walk to meet some elephants and then bath them in the river. Pretty much just throw buckets of water on them while they eat… they literally are living the dream but hey they definitely deserve it.
Then we eat, hang, drink a well deserved Chang beer (chang is the thai word for elephant- very fitting) and head to bed around 8:30.
Day 3: The Ultimate Pooper Scooper.
Today we shoveled elephant poop for about 2 hours. Although it seems unideal, it actually was quite fun.
In the afternoon we took a nice elephant walk to meet some of the elephants, learn their stories and most importantly watch the babies play in the water with their family.
Day 4: 4 Tons of Watermelon
This morning we had a job that we’ve been looking forward to all week mainly because it’s out of the heat, it involves food and you get to feed the elephants at the end .. so ya, totally worth it. The job is “elephant food” and you pretty much unload the food trucks of all the food for the elephants. An elephant eats 10% of their body weight and an elephant can weigh up to 3-4 tons. So the truck we unloaded was 4 tons…. of watermelons. We, in true Henry Ford fashion, made an assembly line and got to work.
Right when we were thinking we were done and excited to feed the elephants another truck full of bananas pulls up and so we continued to unload that in hopes that no more trucks would line up behind it. To put in context, the whole ordeal took 15 people 2 hours to complete.
Thankfully no more food trucks were there so we got to feed one of the elephants, Pekun, who escaped from a neighboring camp to come be free! She doesn’t have many elephant friends yet because elephants are herd animals and the other elephants already have their herds but she definitely loves watermelon. 🙂
Our afternoon job was not as glamorous as our morning job, it was called “clean up park”. Which pretty much means collect the corn that we just cut that the elephants didn’t eat because it wasn’t up to their “standards”. Needless to say we got some pretty picky elephants here because there was a lot of clean up.
The craziest part about this job was that when we were taking a water break, a stones throw away across the river, we could see tourists riding elephants and being thrown around in the water by them. It was a very solemn afternoon because even though we were cleaning up after the rescued elephants, seeing the other enslaved elephants being forced to pick up tourists just like us and swing them around in the water put everyone in a sad mood.
After clean up we got yet another bath time with the elephants which is probably more enjoyable for us then them. But they don’t seem to mind too much.
Eat, sleep and repeat.. on to day 5!
Day 5: Poop and Rice Balls
Today wasn’t anything crazy different in the morning, we shoveled poop but faster than last time so that’s a win.
I then went to the dog rescue part of the park and socialized with the puppy/dogs so they can be adopted for an hour which was amazing. The dogs here have been rescued because of three main reasons: a major flood in Bangkok which left the dogs abandoned and alone, puppy mills and slaughterhouses.
Side note: I seem to keep falling in love wth dogs that share a shocking resemblance to Baloo… so I guess I miss him a little.
In the afternoon we made rice balls for the elephants that are too old or sick to digest other food. It was very enjoyable combining sticky rice, corn, and coconut together to make giant rice balls for the elephants that we later got to feed to them.
Day 6: All the Feels
Today we woke up to watch the sunrise around 5:45. Then we had a different task today called “enrichment” which means decorate the elephants shelters with food for the animals who are blind or have to see the vet. The purpose of this task is so they are happy and distracted when they come home for the night. This activity was really fun and felt good because we were making the elephants feel better.
At night, Lek the founder talked with us for a few hours about elephant cruelty, the purpose and history of the park, and the future of her vision. To put it blankly, it was inspiring. She started when she was 16 and is now 56, and has never given up on her dream of “respect for all animals”. She’s kinda a total badass.
This volunteer experience has opened our eyes to many things including animal cruelty, the tourism industry, the food we eat (this place is completely vegetarian/vegan) as well as just having good morals and ethics to all. But most importantly it reminded us that we have a voice and no matter how small or insignificant we feel at times, that voice matters and it might be the only thing that will make a difference. I mean 40 years ago there was one girl who saw elephants suffering and decided to devote her life to end that.. now she has 22 sanctuaries around Asia and 2,200 rescued animals living there…..so nothing is impossible.