Monday morning we finished packing and jumped on a mini bus that collected us from our guest house. We stopped off at 5 other guest houses/hostels then headed to the Elephant Nature Park Office in the Square. At the office we paid our outstanding balances for the week and received a volunteer tshirt, a water bottle and a bottle carrier with a little shoulder strap and an elephant tapestry style design. Very cute!
We hopped back in the minibus and headed out of Chiang Mai. The journey was approx 1.5 hours, during this time we chatted with the other travellers/holiday makers on the mini bus. Our bus was made up of 3 couples (ourselves included) and 3 single females (2 of them on holiday and 1 traveler). After a little while we were told they had 2 short videos for us to watch before arriving. The first one was all about the rules, where not to stand when in close proximity to an elephant, that you should always listen to the mahouts, do's and don'ts while around the elephants, water buffalo and dogs...! It was only a short video and had been animated with some humorous clips of the narrator being flipped in the air by an upset elephant. It made its point. The second video was not humorous, not even light hearted. I have written a separate post about the footage, if you wish to take the time to read it you will find it on the blog page titled 'Behind the scenes of the Elephant Tourist Trade'.
Once we arrived we had a welcome brief, we met our guides for the week, ours was named Eak. We were told a little about the projects ran by the park and how they work. And told they currently had 71 elephants, approx 520 dogs and approx 300 cats (although they had difficulty keeping track of the cats) the park also housed water buffalo, horses, monkeys and a few stray travellers that had fallen in love and become long term volunteers!
We were then shown to our rooms. Little raised wooden huts with relatively comfortable beds, mosquito nets, a fan, and a bathroom. Needless to say we had lots of geckos keeping us company!
We were broken down into 4 groups A, B, C and D. When we booked we were completely unaware that a huge group of 55 flight attendants (plus some family members) from American Airlines had booked on together... so they made up group B, C and D, and the 14 others (couples/single travellers) made up our group A. We obviously all hit it off as the Americans thought we had travelled together as a group.
Each day consisted of 2 jobs. One morning shift and one afternoon shift. Each shift lasted up to 2 hours. The days were as follows-
- Mon - welcome brief and unloading of the watermelon van.
- Tues - Elephant poo/ Elephant walk
- Wed - Elephant food/ Park cleaning
- Thurs - Fire break/ Dam building
- Fri - Elephant poo/ Trip to local village school/ Enrichment
- Sat - Elephant poo/ Group pictures
- Sun - Elephant food/ Say goodbye
Some jobs were self explanatory and believe it or not the elephant poo job was not as bad as it sounds. Some of the funniest moments where while we were scooping elephant poo.... honest.
The watermelon van was an epic job but Eak provided some interesting music and we all pitched in to get a rhythm going!
The elephant walk was lovely and relaxing, we got to tour the entire park and meet each of the groups of elephants that had come together to create their own little families at the park. (When a new elephant arrives it is given any treatment it may need and is kept in an enclosure while it adapts to the new surroundings, it is the introduced to some of the elephants and allowed to bond with them before it is released to join a 'family', they create such amazing bonds with each other and you can clearly see the friendships between them.) We met the babies of the groups and were told that these young ones had never and would never be used for any form of trade. The walk meant that elephants were left in peace, we didn't get to close, if they wandered away they were not forced to come back, and all of the mahouts were clearly interested in the well being of 'their' animals. Not a stick, hook, or chain in sight!!
Elephant food meant different things on different days, you either unloaded the melon van (if they had a delivery) made rice balls, washed watermelons, or peeled corn. Once you had completed one of these jobs your group would take baskets of food out to the elephants and you could feed them. Their trunks would sniff out the food, they would awkwardly collect it from your hand or allow you to place it on the end of their trunk then they would throw in into their mouths. If food was dropped we weren't allowed to pick it up incase the elephant thought you were teasing it or trying to steal its food. Generally they would pick it up themselves, although one particular elephant was very fussy and she refused food if it had been on the floor!
Park cleaning was a tough one as we had it as an afternoon job for our group, meaning it was baking hot and we were walking, sweeping and shovelling all over the park with no shade! But we got to see the elephants playing in the river, having mud and dust baths, rolling huge tyres around and teasing the dogs and water buffalo.
Fire break was one job I particularly enjoyed, even though it didn't involve contact with the elephants it was a real sense of achievement knowing what we had done for the park. The park is positioned in a valley with the most amazing views of the mountains all around you. It has acres and acres of forest land which is fantastic for the elephants to roam, but can be disastrous if a forest fire was to catch. With it being dry season the risk is high. So the mahouts and workers spend time in the forest by the park boundaries creating pathways and clearings. They chop back the trees, bushes and plants, sweep away the leaves, twigs and dry earth, and leave a clear patch of land. This means that if a fire was to break out, it would pause at the clearing they had created, giving the park workers a little extra time to get to the fire and attempt to put it out before it destroyed the parks land.
Dam building was possibly my favourite 'job' of all. We spent the afternoon in the river creating a man made dam with flour sacks, sand and rocks. The idea was to create a funnel effect to prevent sections of the river drying out completely in the dry season, meaning the elephants would still have somewhere to bathe and play and keep cool! The current was quite strong meaning plenty of people got swept down stream, and the narrower the funnel got the stronger the current got. At one point the current broke the dam and we had a mad rush to fix it, in the rush people didn't realise how difficult it would be to stand in the current, so many people fell or got dunked, the hubby broke both of his shoes and took a little trip down stream, and all the laughing and panicking turned into a ridiculous water fight. It was great fun.
On the Friday the whole volunteer group took a trip out to the local village to visit a school. The American Airlines group had brought toys and sweets and gifts to give all of the children. The children were so friendly and welcoming. We spent time in the classroom with them, seeing how they learn English and what sort of things they enjoy, the boys all played football and rounders, the girls had a table set up to show us how they make traditional bracelets and some of the young girls did a dance performance. We had so much fun we could of stayed there all day!
As well as the jobs, the volunteers got to enjoy a variety of entertainment through the week with something different each night. We watched the Jungle Book on our first night which seemed quite apt. The park workers provided a Thai culture night, to allow people to get to know what Thailand is all about. We had a performance from the mahout band which was impressive. They played 'flutes' and 'drums' made from thin bamboo and water tubes, water containers and oil drums. They played all kinds of songs, even some we recognised, and their rendition of Amazing Grace had all 70+ of us singing together. The children from the local school came to perform dances they had been practicing for weeks. The women from the local village also did a dance performance, but this turned out to be rather eventful. The coordination was not great, you could tell it was more of a social group rather than a proper dance club. 2 women stood out as the 'leaders and you could see all the other women copying them.... until they decided they wanted to do different dances to each other! Neither one would give in to the other, they could be seen staring at each other, one laughing and the other looking like her head was going to explode with frustration!! Eventually, after the 2nd dance turned into a free for all, the frustrated woman packed up her things and left mid performance. When the women had finished they got volunteers up dancing which turned into a full on rave to Thai music, a dance off between a flight attendant and our new friend from down south Nick, and some jaw dropping dance moves from the 80+ year old lady that was part of the dance group!
On a few days we were invited to help at the dog sanctuary. We love dogs so we jumped at the chance! We went to the dog runs and we're all given a dog and a lead. The dogs where so excited. We walked them on a safe section of the road outside the sanctuary. The hubby had a super excited dog that was almost choking pulling so hard on his lead, so they ran the route....in the baking heat!! We visited the dogs on a few occasions through the week, meeting two amazing long term volunteers Jack and Lucie, who live near the sanctuary and have about 10 dogs staying with them! We got to visit the poorly dogs and some lovely pups that were still going through the vaccination process. At this point things took an unexpected turn..... we fell in love with a pup! The sanctuary have an adoption programme that takes these rescued dogs all over the world.... all I can say at the moment is keep checking for updates on this little guy 🤗
The day we left the park was tinged with sadness. We woke up to a lot of activity in the park. When we arrived at the meeting point for our morning job we were told that one of the elephants had passed away in the night. Tubtim was a female elephant over 60 years old. She had been rescued from the logging trade and had terrible injuries to her back legs. Despite her age and physical frailty she was a feisty character. We had been told she was ill a few days before and they were keeping a close eye on her. We were told she had fallen and after X-rays they had found a fracture to her front left leg. She was put on fluids and medication to try and ease the pain and make her comfortable while being visited by vets but unfortunately they could not help her and she passed away late that night. We were told a service would be held for Tubtim, the elephants are buried on the park grounds and gardens are planted in memory over them. We were all told we were welcome at the service and it would be a great show of respect if we attended. I'm not ashamed to say I cried my eyes out. I don't think a single person there could say they kept a dry eye. The heartbreak you could see looking at Lek and Tubtim's mahout was raw. The service was beautiful and had a real sense of celebration. A Monk carried out the service, blessing Tibtum and the ground she was laid in. Tibtum had a beautiful cloth laid over her and everyone was given bright flowers to lay for her. Once the service was finished Lek took the time to speak to everyone, she explained to a few of us how she would plant beautiful, bright flowers in the soil once it was laid over Tubtim so people could always remember her.
There is so much to say about this place! This blog entry would last for ever if I tried to get it all in, its already long enough. It is a place I would recommend to anyone, for a day visit, over night, or as part of the volunteer programme. (Book in advance, it fills up fast!!) It is just incredible. And your money is put to exceptional use which is so very clear to see. We are already considering another week here later in our trip to volunteer with the dogs.