Exactly when or where I heard about Elephant Nature Park slips my mind, but as soon as I booked my ticket to SE Asia I signed up with them to volunteer. I feel like I was always supposed to end up there.
Seven days of volunteering consists of working alongside people from all over the world, focusing on tasks that help the park and the animals. This type of tourism allows folks to experience elephants by bathing and feeding them, as opposed to riding them or seeing them perform. By coming to ENP, you are supporting kinder practices.
Long story short and from my way of understanding and condensing it: 50 years ago, elephants in Thailand were used for logging, then logging was banned. People then purchased the elephants, (seen as livestock) and used them to make money in other ways: street begging, shows, rides etc. In order to get the elephants to comply with these working conditions and orders, their spirits must be broken. This is called the Phajaan, google it to learn information, because I will cry if I have to explain one more goddamn time.
ENP is a rescue center that lets elephants live out the rest of their lives recovering from previous horrors experienced. The volunteer coordinators showed us a video about Jokia, an elephant who was blind because her owners punished her by stabbing her in the eyes with sharp objects. It was hard to watch. Then we went outside and met Jokia. She lives at the park now. We also got to meet Mae Perm, the elephant who unofficially adopted Jokia and leads her around, never leaving her side. We all cried.
Lek founded the park in 1996. She is a huge deal. Besides elephants, the park houses over 400 dogs and 300 cats. We asked Lek what the deal was with the dogs and she told us that she never set out to found a dog sanctuary, but in 2011 Bangkok FLOODED big time leaving many pets and strays stranded or worse. She said the dogs looked into her eyes and she couldn’t leave them. Oh god, I’m crying again.
This is my friend and fellow volunteer Ellie Tian, animal lover, photojournalist, and rebel (by which I mean she doesn’t like following rules.) The rules are there for safety, but she’s the type of kid who will take a risk to get a good photograph. She even got nipped by a dog. I enjoyed meeting all the volunteers but Ellie was my favorite because we drank beers after work and talked talked talked about everything.
The jobs we participated in were as follows: washing and chopping up melons, pumpkins, and bananas, arranging them in baskets according to each elephant’s dietary needs, unloading trucks of produce, scooping poop, bathing elephants, light construction, and cutting corn. Cutting corn involves using a machete (and every muscle in your body.) After the jobs are over for the day, there are sometimes special meetings, for instance: learning Thai culture and language, even songs.
The food was delicious and all vegetarian. Surprisingly, I was the only vegan in the group of forty+ volunteers that week. Volunteers are fed three times a day buffet style. I ate cornflakes every morning for breakfast and chatted with two kids from Australia/New Zealand. It was a memorable routine.
Culture is an important part of volunteering at ENP. Local tribe members blessed us with good luck and we wore these white bracelets for three days, then tucked them into our pockets for the remainder of the time.
I enjoyed being able to hold so many cats because I missed Huxley, Zelda, and Brian dearly. The cats at the park were friendly and loved attention. Oh cats! Oh love.
One chore we performed was gathering rocks at the river to build these mortar statues. They protect growing trees from elephants stomping them down before they can grow large. The actual building process was wild, and something I’ve never done before. Thank goodness for Steve and Caroline from the U.K. They were amazing builders and so strong. And they were on their honeymoon.
During the week, there was a demonstration in Bangkok to voice protest against the ivory trade and ENP planned to take as many volunteers as wanted to go. There are instances of poachers drugging elephants then tying them to trees and chainsawing off their tusks. Some people buy ivory because they see it as good luck. Many volunteers chose not to go to Bangkok because they wanted to stay at the park and do their jobs. The van ride was 12 hours one way, from Chiang Mai. I didn’t want to go because my protesting days are behind me (crowds, anxiety, loudness.) Then I changed my mind, because Ellie was going and she seemed so brave. I realized silence is collusion, and I could not stand to be silent.
Arriving back at the park the next day, we were exempt from afternoon chores, which meant paling around with these kids.
On Sundays, there are no chores. But the week I volunteered was special, we planted trees. Mix had to help me dig my hole because I was rubbish at it. (U.K. influence for the win!)
This is a picture of me and volunteer coordinator Dew. When I went to Bangkok he sent me off with a hand on the shoulder and said “safe travels, my friend.” It meant a lot that these VC’s were so wonderful. Sometimes if we got tired, the VC’s would say WORK HARDER, ELEPHANT NEEDS YOU, in a cute way. And yeah, I’m in my underwear. It was totally acceptable because everyone thought they were shorts and the weather was so hot. I will miss that.
My take away is that elephants are majestic and special. They live in my heart now. I’m glad ENP exists. If you are reading this and have questions about volunteering, please ask.