Having been on the road for over a year now, we’ve gotten the chance to see and experience many incredible things. However, the week we spent volunteering at ENP is one that we agree will stick with us forever.
Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation sanctuary just north of Chiang Mai that’s been around since the 1990’s. In addition to over 30 elephants, the 250 acre park is home to thousands of dogs and cats, hundreds of water buffalo, and a handful of horses and pigs. All of these animals have either been rescued or born at the park.
We found out about ENP from my older sister, who visited for an overnight stay with her family when they were in Chiang Mai and called it an “unforgettable” experience. She recommended that we do the volunteer program if we had the right amount of time. Safe to say, we made that time happen.
ENP’s Work With Elephants
Since its creation in the 1990’s, Elephant Nature Park has provided a home and sanctuary for dozens of abused and mistreated elephants from all over Thailand. These elephants are rescued from street begging, the tourism industry, and from the logging industry, all of which horrifically abuse these fantastic creatures in order to make them tame enough to ride and control.
The park was founded by Lek Chailert, who has been campaigning for the better treatment of elephants for most of her life. Its primary function is the rescue, rehabilitation, and ongoing care of the animals it rescues. As of 2016, over 200 elephants have called this sanctuary their home.
The park has an open design, with only the most aggressive elephants separated from the rest of the herds. The elephants live freely in family herds that can consist of anywhere from two to eight animals. Each herd lives in a separate area of the park and is carefully watched over by mahouts, men whose entire job is the care of just one elephant.
In the park, the elephants are given any necessary medical attention, fed and watered, provided with shelter, and allowed to roam freely around the park and through the bordering river. The guest sleeping quarters and main Platform, where guests eat, relax, and gather throughout the day, are separate but overlooking the park’s expanse.
ENP’S Work With Dogs
ENP’s rescue and rehabilitation work might begin with elephants, but it doesn’t end there. In addition to the park’s 30+ gentle giants, ENP is home to thousands of cats, dogs, water buffalo, horses, and more. In fact, one of the park’s biggest operations is the rescue and adoption of its dogs.
It began when Thailand began suffering heavy damages due to a number of natural disasters. Locals either couldn’t take care of their pet or abandoned it in the face of heavy flood and property damages. ENP organized rescues and began bringing abandoned pets back to the park to care for them. The rest is history.
The dogs at ENP live within large kennels in different packs, or are allowed to roam the park. Some are more wild than others, some love people and some don’t, but they’re all given love, attention, and care by the people who work and volunteers at the park.
Every dog at ENP is up for adoption. They come in every color, breed, shape, and size imaginable, and they’ve all been spayed or neutered and vaccinated. ENP also assists with international transport for owners who are looking to bring a dog home overseas!
Fair warning, if you go visit, you WILL want to bring one home.
Volunteering and Visiting
ENP offers a number of volunteer and visiting opportunities.
To visit, but not volunteer, you have the option of coming for a short visit, single day visit, or an overnight visit. Our friend Anna, who was with us Chiang Mai before we began the program, did an overnight visit on our last day at the park and definitely recommends it!
To volunteer at the park, you have a couple of options. The minimum stay is one week, but you can stay for an additional week(s) if you’d like. One volunteer program includes a cultural exchange in a nearby village, one involves spending a week volunteering with elephant care on the park (this is what we did), and the third is a week-long volunteer program with ENP’s dogs.
To learn more about the availability, cost, and details of each program, check out their website.
Daily Schedule as a Week-Long Volunteer
As an elephant care volunteer at ENP, you’re provided with accommodation at the park and three huge, delicious vegan meals a day (seriously, it doesn’t seem like you’re eating vegan - it’s so good and filling!).
The entire group is broken into four teams that rotate tasks from day to day. Each team consists of about 10-12 volunteers and is assigned two tasks each day.
The day-to-day at ENP as a volunteer looks a bit like this:
6:00 - 6:30 am: Get up! Time to start your day.
7:00 - 8:00 am: Breakfast time
8:00 - 10:00 am: Morning chore
10:00 - 11:30 am: Downtime
11:30 - 1:00 pm: Lunch
1:00 - 3:00 pm: Afternoon chore
3:00 - 6:00 pm: Downtime
6:00 pm: Dinner
8:00 pm: Evening activity (optional)
There are four different kind of chores you’re assigned as a volunteer. There’s elephant food, elephant poo (very glamorous), cleaning the park, and fire break.
'Elephant food' is definitely the best. During this chore, you help organize and clean an absolutely insane amount of watermelons and bananas and then you get to help feed them to some of the elephants! We loved this chore, it’s such a fun experience and it’s really not very difficult.
‘Elephant poo’ was probably everyone’s least favorite job. As the name suggests, you spend this time cleaning out the elephant enclosures, which really means shoveling shit and cleaning out their water tanks. It’s not very glamorous, but that’s not what you signed up for!
‘Clean park’ was great, because you get to walk to park, and awful, because it’s really just ‘elephant poo’ all over again, just all over the park. Hop on the back of the truck and get to work!
‘Fire break’ was probably the easiest job. It involves crossing the road from the park and creating a break on the bush line that’s cleared from all leaves, twigs, and debris. This is so, in the event of a fire, there’s a smaller chance that it can spread to areas of the park.
The chores all vary in length depending on whether or not you have one or two groups working at a time. In total, you don’t do more than about four hours of volunteer work a day, which is really not that bad.
On your downtime, you can rest by the river and watch the elephants wander down for a drink or a bath. You can nap in your room or have a beer on the platform.
You can also wander down to the kennels and help out the dog volunteers by walking or socializing the hundreds of dogs that need love and affection. Like I said, it is very, very hard to walk away without one. We met a man from Scotland, who had volunteered with the dogs the previous summer, who had returned to ENP to pick up a dog that he couldn’t get out of his head after he left. He was doing a couple months of volunteer work before returning home to Scotland, dog in tow!
Once during the week, each group gets a chance to take a walk throughout the park with the founder of ENP, to hear the history of the project and learn about the Asian Elephant’s plight in SE Asia. This valuable experience will help you understand why places like ENP are so important, the impact volunteer work and ecotourism has in countries like Thailand, and will teach you about the social systems of these incredible animals.
Each night at ENP, volunteers are invited to learn a bit more about the culture and history of the locals who live around ENP in Northern Thailand. Some nights are music demonstrations, some dance demonstrations, and some are cultural/history based. It’s a fantastic way to sink a little deeper into the lesser known aspects of Thai culture.
What else? There’s soccer (sorry, FOOTBALL) going on almost every day, and guests/volunteers are invited to try their luck against the locals (good luck..). There’s movie nights and you can even get massages from local Thai women on the upper levels of the Platform.
The entire experience of staying at a place like ENP for a week isn’t one you’ll soon forget. We made friends from from all over the world, learned so much about elephants and the invaluable work that these kinds of projects focus on, and got to contribute to a fantastic place.
Even if it’s just for the overnight experience, don’t miss out visiting this special place and getting up close and personal with elephants and Thailand’s ecotourism at its finest.