After arrivals at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi (BKK), landing at Chiang Mai is a throwback to a different, simpler era of air travel, and also a welcome breath of fresh air. The airport taxis are regulated here, so feel safe while remaining inexpensive, and will cost you your quoted amount whether or not the driver takes his time getting you there. I have always been of the opinion that taxi drivers are some of the most interesting people to talk to, and this is particularly true of airport taxis abroad – my driver was full of interesting stories about passengers from all over the globe. We made good time, and I arrived at Chiang Mai’s famous Elephant Nature Park only an hour or so behind my original schedule. ENP is an organisation heavily involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of various animals, primarily the Asian Elephant, from the abusive industries they are often subjected to; from tourist rides and circus performances to street begging and logging. It is run by the inspirational Lek Chailert, a Thai lady who was the first woman of the hill tribes to leave and seek an education, who risked being disowned by her family and tribe in order to fight for elephant rights when no one else would, and who ultimately penned the very first Thai animal right law herself, after receiving multiple death threats and suffering multiple arrests. The park also houses rescued buffalo, dogs (mostly survivors of the Bangkok floods), cats and horses, and this section of the park is left in the hands of Lek’s Canadian husband, who we often saw around the park getting his hands dirty building a fence or moving in a newly rescued animal.
The landscape here carries so much natural beauty, and this paired with free roaming elephants makes the whole experience magical – I felt like I’d stepped into a different world entirely. I was to volunteer here for a week, living in specially built huts with very basic amenities and spending my days cleaning out stalls, preparing feed, cutting corn, building fences, planting trees and bathing the elephants.
The park provides meals for its guests and volunteers, a buffet of traditional hot Thai dishes, every one of them vegan and delicious. This buffet varied throughout the week, so that one dinner would be predominately rice based with dishes like mie goreng available, and tofu curries, and the next dinner we’d be building our own noodle soups with the help of the Thai women on site. In our down time we had a range of massages available to us which were incredibly cheap yet provided an extra income to the thai women of the community – these were more than welcome after a hard day of manual labour in intense humidity. There was also a small shop on site selling snacks, drinks, and Chang (Thai beer of varying alcohol percentage), and a gift shop which sold wood carvings made by the mahouts themselves in the image of their elephant. Mahouts (essentially elephant handlers) are a greatly under appreciated work force in Thailand, they work incredibly long and physically dangerous shifts every day of the week for very little pay, and are often under educated. Even here at ENP where elephant welfare is high on the agenda we were encouraged to pull up day guests (non volunteer tourists who can visit the park to see the elephants as an alternative to the abusive rides) whenever they did something dangerous/disrespectful (eg. stand between two elephants, touch an elephants trunk/ear, throw water into its face) as the mahouts saw themselves as too below wealthy visitors to chastise them. Buying their carvings from the gift shop and the massages from their wives and daughters helped to support the community and boost their meagre incomes.
Everywhere we went on the park we were followed by a selection of rescue dogs and cats that have been vaccinated and deemed safe to roam free. We had constant furry companions for meal times and in the evenings, and often had to chase them out of bedrooms before we could sleep.
There was nothing more rewarding than being immersed in an environment full of happy animals, an oasis in the valley – when we travelled outside of the park we saw emaciated street animals, exhausted buffalo pulling heavy tourist carts, elephants shackled and scarred from the bull hook, and we realised again just why we were there. Thailand still has a long way to go before its animals are safe, but it was great to see the determined faces of Thai and volunteer alike here on the front lines. This Jurassic park-like place felt like home. I would have been happy to never leave, and I will definitely be back again, this time to volunteer with the hugely understaffed dog project and, if they will have me, to lend a hand in their new controlled release project, an attempt to regenerate safe rainforest and return elephants to their natural environment.
If you would like to learn more about ENP or sign up to volunteer yourself, click here!
If you or someone you know are considering paying for an elephant ride, or watching a show or parade containing elephants, whether in Thailand or elsewhere in the world, please watch this video first, read up on how these tourist elephants are trained and treated, and consider alternatives such as safaris and volunteer opportunities. Thank you.
& As always you can follow me on Instagram @hollzwanders for more pictures of my travels past and present.