Planning new travel adventures is one of my favourite things. At this stage the possibilities are endless. I get to delve into Lonely Planets (my travel book of choice) and absorb wonderful ideas and photos.
I was planning an adventure with a friend who always has wonderful ideas of places to go. It is her I have to thank for sending me a link to The Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. “We could go here!”
In the end it was only me that could make it and I was lucky enough to spend a wonderful week volunteering there…
I was overwhelmed to arrive and find that there were 60 volunteers this week. Great for the elephants but daunting for this introvert! As it happens the group was split into 4 work teams. I had great people in my group; including someone who I know I’d see again after an in-depth final night “what I’m doing with my life” chat.
We had a very relaxed time on our first day. A general orientation tour was followed by heading down to the river to wash the elephants. They were pretty good at doing that themselves and getting us soaked in the process!
It poured with rain the first night. As I splashed my way through the night-time puddles I found myself wishing for gumboots. I like splashing in puddles in jandals as much as any 5 year old but the adult in me was wondering how clean those puddles were with the number of free-roaming cats and dogs. My feet received a through washing that night.
Our chores for the week were preparing food, cleaning sleeping quarters, cutting bamboo grass and a “get to know the elephants” tour. On the whole it was a very relaxing volunteering experience as there were plenty of breaks between the chores for relaxing and getting to know my fellow volunteers.
Food preparation was first up; washing watermelons in a water and baking soda mix to get rid of chemicals and chopping pumpkins up with machetes into elderly elephant size chunks. Just your everyday kitchen experience.
We got to feed the elephants too. Boy are they impatient and greedy! It’s fascinating to watch how they curl their trunk around the food and draw it into their mouths.
Cleaning the sleeping quarters, or picking up the poo, was way more fun than it sounds. Although the Elephant Nature Park’s aim is to have the elephants free roaming all of the time it’s not possible at the moment due to the size of the land and the fact that the neighbouring land is full of tasty crops grown by local farmers. This means that the elephants are put into huge enclosures at night. It was those enclosures that we were cleaning. Armed with wheel barrows, shovels and rakes we were on a mission.
Team work was the name of the game as our hosts showed us how a team of 3 or 4 could make quick work of a pile of messy straw. With a 3…2…1… we aimed for the wheel barrow. Not always successfully! Occasionally an elephant would wander by to say thanks and see if we had any hidden snacks.
Our Thai leaders laughed cheekily at us, not quite understanding why tourists would pay to pick up poo.
The elephant tour was a wander between the different family groups, learning more about the elephant way of life.
If I had to pick a favourite elephant it would be Navaan. Very cheeky and full of playful adventures.
The food was fantastic. A buffet was laid out for each meal so I never went hungry and got to try something new each meal.
Women from a neighbouring village had learnt how to give a traditional Thai massage. They were fantastic! On the second night I joined other volunteers upstairs. You are fully clothes for the massages. My masseur didn’t speak much English and I very little Thai; but that didn’t matter at all. Lying in the open air; with the rain pounding down on the metal room and off the edges a metre away from where I lay and all the knots were soothed away. I was in heaven.
The next day. The best my back had felt in ages. I went back to my masseur every night after that.
While I was there we were given the opportunity to learn more about how elephants are treated in Thailand. While the wild elephants are protected, the domestic elephants are classed as livestock. There are no animal cruelty laws in Thailand. We watched videos of how elephants are trained for the shows that are put on in parts of Thailand. Some had to leave the room as the cruelty inflicted on the elephants was too much for them to watch. I made myself stay but had to look away at a certain point. We came to understand exactly how some of the elephants at the Park had lost their sight. I was sickened that a human could inflict such harm on another being. My heart was wretched to pieces by the pain that the elephants had endured simply because they hadn’t done what their human “masters” had wanted.
The Elephant Nature Park also had a dog sanctuary that houses about 300 dogs. Some are local. Some came to live here because of the 2011 floods in Bangkok. There were only 3 volunteers for the dog sanctuary. That didn’t seem right to me so I wandered down the long drive each break I had to walk the dogs that were recovering from injury or operations. I wanted to do more so, after chatting to the Australian vet who is currently running the sanctuary, I made time to into the dogs’ runs and socialise with the dogs. In each run there is a large pool, a 2 storeyed wooden platforms, grass and trees and a pack of about 20-30 dogs.
I sat in the shade by pool and before I knew it I had a dog on my lap, one at my back and 3 in front of me all wanting pats and attention. Heaven for me!
On my next visits to the dog runs I got a bit braver and ventured into one of the runs that led off the front run as I figured the dogs in the back might get overlooked. As I approached the gate a pack of 20 or so dogs run over. That gave my bravery a moment’s pause. Then all I saw were wagging tails and barks of “Me, Me, Pat Me!”
I’ve never been around grown dogs that were so eager for human contact. They all wanted to be as close to me as possible and needed eye contact before they would let another dog close.
1. Take gumboots.
2. Get a traditional Thai massage from the wonderful women upstairs.
3. Take a spare memory card.
4. Visit the dog sanctuary and give a dog a hug.