Volunteering in Thailand: Journey To Freedom
An hour outside of Chiang Mai lies a very special place. It’s a land where elephants roam free and fear nothing. Part paradise, part sanctuary, the Elephant Nature Park created by Phi Lek-Sangduen is home to over 30 elephants, water buffalos, hundred of dogs, and many other creatures that need saving. Her goals of preserving endangered species and the Thai forests are paired with creating education for those unfamiliar with Asian elephants, as well as preserving the culture that has such a strong bond with them.
Volunteers have the amazing opportunity to come learn and work with elephants. Between bathing, feeding, and helping with the day to day tasks, the majesty of these giants overwhelm you. It’s breath taking just watching them be as close as they can to a natural environment, just roaming and interaction with each other. Lek’s program has been so successful over the past decade, that she’s begun to expand. Her next goal: returning the elephants to true freedom.
Mae Joom Sam and two other Karen hill tribe villages have now joined Lek’s journey, and from October through April, volunteers can join the cause. Different from other aspects of the nature park, a home stay is set up in the area rather than the park. For a week, you work, live, eat and sleep in the home of the mahouts, the traditional name for an elephant owner. The work varies depending on the season, and what the village needs. Some days you could be teaching and serving lunch in the nearby school. Others, it’s chopping banana trees for the elephants to eat. A newer project includes planting coffee beans. This provides additional income to the tribe, making it less likely that they’re return their elephants to work.
For a village to be able to work with the Elephant Nature Park, they form an agreement. The elephants are no longer used for work like illegal logging, or in touristy trekking camps. They are not meant to be chained or tied up, and can roam free in the surrounding land. The Journey to Freedom project is creating a sustainable solution for these endangered species: their owners still gain an income from their elephants, without preventing them from being the animals they are. And the elephants couldn’t seem happier than to be back in their forest home.
It can be a bit of a shock to first come into a village. After a long van ride, followed by a trip in the back of a pick up, you’re welcomed into your new temporary home. It’s a hard adjustment for some. Volunteers share a sleeping space, and can be frequently woken by farm animals in the night (or worse, snoring!). Electricity is used sparingly, because gas for the generator can be expensive. So yes, that means no wifi, no cell phones! Bathrooms are clean, but they are outside. But in the end, none of these things phase you. The beauty of the village, and the kindness of the people blow you away. The Volunteer Coordinators are kind, knowledgeable, and go above and beyond to help you and the tribes. If that wasn’t enough, every time you make your way into the jungle, tracking down the elephants, the interactions you have with them will steal your heart again and again.
The groups are small, less than a dozen people. These are people who are there for many reasons, and all of them good. Some come for the animals, but then embrace the amazing bonds made. Others, the cultural exchange with the villagers is made all the more life changing by engaging in labor and activities, like helping to build new bathrooms or fire breaking, that can genuinely help benefit their lives. Whatever draws you to this project, start planning your trip there, and the rest of Chiang Mai with Trekeffect today!
If you’d like the learn more about Lek or the projects at the park, their website is:http://www.elephantnaturepark.