When travelers are heading to Southeast Asia, many things come to mind. A plethora of options on things to see and do. However, one of the experiences that everyone (including us) seems to want is an elephant experience! The idea of spending a day getting up close and personal with beautiful, gentle giants is one that will sure to be cherished and unforgotten. We’re here to tell you all about the best elephant sanctuary to volunteer at in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
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Choosing The Right Elephant Sanctuary to Volunteer At In Thailand
First things first, when deciding which organization to go with, educate yourself!
Why wouldn’t you want to find an organization that not only makes it the best day for YOU but also the elephant. “How can it be a good day for the elephant,” you ask??
Hmm, how about you DON’T RIDE THEM!
Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants
An elephant’s skeleton is designed to carry a lot of weight however, it is designed to carry this weight from underneath, not on top of its back.
In the wild, elephants don’t let humans ride them. It’s literally not in their physical make up or their nature. So why do tourists expect visiting them in a camp would be any different?
Like we talked about in our Responsible Travel post, tourists don’t understand the impact of their footprint. When tourists visit a country, that country will do everything they can to provide experiences the tourists want.
In this example, elephants are illegally captured and taken out of the wild away from their home and family. From here, they are broken. What do we mean by broken? They are beaten, starved and chained for days on end until their spirit is shattered into submission.
This process is called the “Phajaan” which translate to “to crush.”
After the Phajaan has been complete, the mistreatment of the elephant doesn’t stop. The mahout (elephant trainer) uses bull hooks to poke an prod the elephant to ensure the elephant behaves while the tourists are riding it.
The elephant listens to the mahout out of fear of the bull hook and the memories from the Phajaan. Remember, elephants never forget.
We’re not going to continue to belabor the point. Instead, we’ll let you watch this video.
We will warn you the video is graphic but it will give you an idea of what elephants are put through for the sake of the tourism dollar.
The Best Elephant Sanctuary to Volunteer At In Thailand
Three words, Elephant Nature Park.
We really dove into finding an ethical and sustainable program that works to rehabilitate abused elephants.
While researching, we stumbled upon a post from Matador Network and in the post, Elephant Nature Park was mentioned. Of the three in the article, Elephant Nature Park really spoke to us.
We ended up researching more and more into it and decided this place is 100% for us and an organization we want to donate our time and money too.
Another consideration, outside of riding the elephants, is to find out where the organization is getting their elephants from and what their cultural sustainability efforts are.
For example the Elephant Nature Park partners with Thai families who in the past have used elephants for logging. We know what you are thinking, “why would they partner with someone who is so cruel?”
Let’s open our minds for a moment and see the bigger picture.
Elephants being used for logging has been in Thai culture for hundreds of years as a means of income to support villages. It is the only thing they have known for generations.
Ripping out someone’s lively-hood does not create a very sustainable economy. So when we say “partner”, this means that Elephant Nature Park “rents” these elephants on a permanent basis from those families who used to use them for logging while also educating them on treatment of these beautiful creatures.
They even go further into employing these families to assist with the park. It’s a win-win, saving elephants and creating a sustainably economy!
About Our Day At Elephant Nature Park
We had to change vehicles a few times until we were eventually in the back of a pick-up truck cruising up the bumpiest hill road known to man. Finally, we arrive to a Karen Village where we are greeted with warm welcomes and smiling faces.
We were given clothes to change into as well as a briefing so we knew what to expect for the rest of the day.
All of a sudden one of our guides started yelling into the forest. We all turn and see the trees starting to shake! The guide calls out again and through the shaking trees arrive four BEAUTIFUL elephants who are making their way up the hill towards us.
The guides smile and laugh seeing how happy our group was. They ask “do you want to feed?” DUH! We ran off to meet them as the guides handed us baskets of bananas.
We spend the next 20-30 minutes feeding them all while the elephants are trying to give us sloppy wet trunk kisses.
After a snack of bananas, we set off for our jungle walk. (NOTE: Not a trek, a walk. Trekking is bad and usually means riding).
We walk and walk and walk and the elephants follow and try and rustle through our pockets to see if we have any more bananas hiding somewhere.
They basically use their trunks as a massive way to fruit pick-pocket! The elephants walk around us, find some trees to lean on and get in a few solid butt scratches.
They take a break from scratching their butts to take a little dirt bath. After the dirt bath they come back over to us to give us one final check to make sure we have no bananas stashed away.
Talk about a sweet life these elephants are living. After what they’ve been through, they sure deserve it.
After our jungle walk, we head back to the village where we have a beautiful lunch waiting for us. We eat lunch in a bamboo hut that overlooks a beautiful valley. After lunch, it’s mud bath time!! Yes, mud bath!
We make our way down to the mud pool where a few of the elephants are already waiting for us.
In we go and begin splashing and throwing mud all over the elephants. To say they are happy is an understatement!
They were rolling around in the mud and making, what we call, happy elephants sounds. Ha, of course the elephants had a few bathroom accidents in the mud pit. The guides would just laugh every time the elephants would pee and they would say “Hot Chang Beer! Hot Chang Beer!”
Super gross but we had a good laugh and that’s all that matters.
After the mud bath, we all head to the river for a rinse. We jump in the cool refreshing water and the guide give us bucket and brushes.
We begin to scrub these lovelies down to get them squeaky clean. After the elephants are clean, it’s our turn! The guides hand us soap and shampoo and we hop right in under the waterfall and wash all the mud away.
We can now safely say, we’ve taken a bath with elephants.
The day ends, we say goodbye to these sweet gentle giants and we head back to Chiang Mai. Spending the day with these amazing animals is something we’ll never forget. We could not recommend Elephant Nature Park enough.
A great organization that concentrates on the rehabilitation of abused elephants.
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– Lauren & Jesse Stuart (The Stüs)