I spent a week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai in Thailand, and it was one of the best weeks of my trip so far. Despite the fact that I am neither a big animal rights activist nor remotely useful in manual labor, I decided that this was how I wanted to contribute something useful while on my trip. I read up on the volunteer experience on blogs and decided I could handle the work, and I don’t know anyone who’s immune to the charms of elephants, myself included.
This week is all Elephant Nature Park (ENP), all the time. Every day will be a detailed post on a day or two of the seven days I spent at the park in February 2013. I hope that those researching volunteer opportunities will find the detail helpful in determining if this is a week and $400 they want to sign up for. In my opinion, it’s totally worth it! Once again, thanks so much to donors who made this week possible. For more info on the ENP, you can visit their site here and learn more about the individual elephants here.
I got myself to the ENP office in Chiang Mai at 8am, filled out the paperwork and finished paying, and then packed into a minivan for a little over an hour drive to the park. We watched a documentary by a couple of self-serious North Americans, about the park and founder Lek’s work.
Once at the park, we got to meet elephants almost immediately (and we learned that workers often abbreviate “elephant” to “ele,” so I’ll sometimes do that in these posts too). The first day fairly closely resembles a day trip visit, and work begins in earnest on day 2. We walked out below the skywalk that leads to the main platform, and the mahouts (ele trainer/handler/friend) led their elephant friends up to us. You’re supposed to stay on one side or the other of their trunk, not right in the middle, because it agitates them and one swing of the trunk can knock you out—or worse. Also, don’t stand behind them, obviously, just as you wouldn’t with most any animal.
Gosh, they’re beautiful! Smaller ears and smaller stature than African elephants, but still 6-8 feet tall, and massive. One of the ones we saw had a broken leg and ankle from illegal logging, and apparently it can’t be fixed so she limps, and looking at her from behind, her hide looks like an ill-fitting suit with the bones jutting out at odd angles. Very sad.
Next, we helped feed the elephants snacks—chopped watermelon and pineapple, whole bananas still in their skins (although some baskets have food a little more prepared, if the ele is particularly picky). You stand behind the red line so the ele can’t grab you along with the food, and you lean down and hold out the fruit. The eles are on the ground beneath the concrete platform, so their head is about level with your hand. They curl their trunk around the fruit and pull it into their mouth. One ele insisted on taking two pieces at a time. The trunk was super strong—don’t hold onto the fruit!—and had tougher skin and harder general feel than I’d expected.
Now it was lunchtime for humans. Employees laid out a large buffet, and there were no labels on the dishes, so I just took a bit of everything. It’s all vegetarian here. Some stuff was better than others, but it was generally good (which is a relief, because it’s a small rotation of the same dishes for the whole week, so you want to like it). I sat with some volunteers and chatted. It’s an overwhelmingly female volunteer group, with the men mostly halves of couples.
After lunch, we got our room assignments and put our stuff away, then we went straight down to the river to bathe the elephants. There were several groups of day trippers bathing pairs of elephants, and the large group of volunteers was assigned a pair as well. Take a bucket and heave the water into the air with it, and don’t get water in the ele’s eyes or they might get infected.
This was the first time I touched an elephant’s side, and I was surprised by how much flesh I could feel beneath my hand; all the wrinkles and the way the skin hangs, it seemed like it would feel much looser, but the muscle is right there on the surface. Also, the skin is covered in bristly black hairs. Their ears are a lighter brown/almost pink color on the lower half, with little brown dots on them, like freckles.
We watched a National Geographic documentary on the park and other elephant conservation places in Thailand. Then we helped unload a truck full of watermelon, tossing the fruit out and passing from person to person until it reached a pile in the corner. Also, we picked out the yellow bunches of bananas from the huge shelves full of them and passed them along for storage too.
We worked with four volunteer coordinators during the week. They all chose Anglicized nicknames for us to use—Jane, Mix, Chet, and Toby (all men). At around 4, Jane sat us down on the main platform of the skywalk and told us the rules of the park and the basic schedule for the week: 7am breakfast, 8-10 work, 11:30 lunch, 2-4 work, 6:30pm dinner. He emphasized the importance of keeping clean during this week of dirty work, and said, “No shower, no dinner. Save water, save the world, but not here—shower 2 times a day, 3 better.” We would all come to agree wholeheartedly with these sage words over the course of the week.
At 6:30 we gathered for a welcoming ceremony. Some young kids played traditional instruments for a little while, and the assistant manager of the park welcomed us and explained the ceremony about to take place. The shaman of the local village would take all the bad luck in the group and put it in a little arrangement of plants and flags in a banana leaf container, and then he would put good luck on a larger floral arrangement and a collection of white threads. Elder women of the village would then tie those threads onto our wrists—left for women, right for men—and we should wear them for at least 3 but no more than 7 days. Do not cut the thread to remove it, but pull it apart (or I just slid mine off), and then keep it in a good place, rather than throwing it away.
The shaman chanted rapidly during the first part of the ceremony, then transitioned into a song that he kept going for almost as long as it took all 55 of us to get threads, and then he walked around the room, singing and tossing water on us with a collection of grasses that looked like a large paintbrush without the handle (similar to the kind I’ve seen Buddhist monks use).
We all stood up with our extra luck and met in the conference room to introduce ourselves—name, country, how long in Thailand—the usual traveler details. Chet asked if anyone wanted to try naming everyone after we’d all gone ‘round twice saying our names, and I gave it a go. I’m pretty good with names and faces, at least in the first few days of meeting someone (might not be if I see them again weeks later). There were about 50 names for me to repeat, and I got all but four. People seemed to regard this as a minor miracle, and for the next three days any time I talked with someone new, they made jokes about taking me to Vegas so I could count cards. Good grief!