I'm so happy to hear how much you guys have been enjoying my elephant-themed posts this week - it's been such a highlight of my trip to become a part of the work at Elephant Nature Park and I'm glad to know reading the posts have been a highlight for you. I really hope that by reading my posts on the background of elephants in the tourism trade has helped to teach you something, and that you enjoyed the interview with founder Lek Chailert. This post is something that has been requested over and over again by friends, readers and travellers met have met along the way - this one will focus on my time spent as a volunteer at the sanctuary. I spent a week volunteering at the centre in Chiang Mai back IIn the middle of March and to say it was life-changing would be an understatement. I know so many people who would love to have the same experience but worry it is not worth the money you have to pay to get there. Well I'm here to put any questions and worries to rest, to assure you that including a volunteering placement in your travels is one of the best decisions you could possible make.Along with around 70 other weekly volunteers, I was picked up from my hostel in the city and taken straight to the charity's office where we paid the balance of the placement, picked up our t-shirts and water bottles, and met some of the other volunteers. Once loaded on to the buses, we were shown a brief video giving us some background on the Park and the work that goes on there, along with a quick chat from the guide. When we arrived at the Elephant Nature Park, we were taken straight out on a tour of the property, given a talk on what work goes on there, the history and the plans for the future. We were given a talk on safety and good practice around the elephants, plus an outline of our jobs over the next few days. After a delicious and huge vegetarian buffet lunch, we were moved into our dorm rooms which held three people each and were right next to the elephant shelters where the creatures would sleep at night. To say we were all excited was an understatement. Later that afternoon we got to watch the elephants being bathed and fed, and spent some time unloading huge trucks full of melons - one of the funniest jobs as we ended up making up songs and turning it into a game/competition. That first night we were invited to a special welcome ceremony in which we were blessed by the local village elders and a priest who gave us blessing bracelets for good luck and safety. After a delicious dinner, we all headed to bed so we would be ready for our 7am start.The early start didn't agree with most but I actually had the best night's sleep I'd had in ages and woke up feeling refreshed and excited for what lay ahead. Surprising considering we had all been woken up at 5am by the elephants in the shelter behind our dorm when one had a bad dream and started trumpeting, but the others soon calmed her down. It was amazing to be sleeping so close to these stunning creatures, and even more amazing to have them walking around just metres from where we ate all of our meals. I've heard some volunteers complain about the lack of time spent with the elephants but I have no idea where they could have got that from, we're with them constantly from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep. After breakfast, Team C were taken off to the fields a bit further away from the sanctuary where we would spend the first morning on the hardest job of them all - corn cutting! We were given machetes and were told to cut down the corn, arrange it in piles and once it had been bundled, to carry it to the truck. It wasn't an easy job, but it wasn't as bad as we expected. Our group was amazing and we really worked together and put all of our energy into it, we had the job done quicker than any other group and celebrated with a picnic and a ride back on top of the corn before getting to spend an afternoon tubing on the river that ran alongside the Park. We also took the opportunity to help bathe the elephants in the river afterwards which was just lovely to be so close to them and to play in the water with them.It was a pretty awesome first day and we were all riding high until we headed to the communal areas that evening to watch a film put on by the staff. It was one of the most devastating and shocking things I have ever watched and within minutes most of the room had tears running down their faces. I'm not normally a very emotional person, but I was a wreck watching that video. It was all about the elephants that are kept at the park, the situations they have come from and various other horrifying stories that Lek herself has caught on film of witnessed. It was one of those things you have to watch, you learn so much from it, but it absolutely breaks your heart. Dinner afterwards was a sober and quiet affair as everyone mulled over what we had seen, it definitely brought the group closer together and unified us in our anger and pain over what we had seen. It was a wonderful experience to be surrounded by individuals as passionate about this cause as myself. I couldn't sleep that night, I think after the video I just had too much on my mind but soon enough the sun hit the window and it was time to start all over again. For that second day of work I was helping to clean up the park by clearing the leftover food from the fields - this was one of my favourite jobs because it gave you the chance to watch the elephants in the park just acting naturally, unbothered by us they played and ate as they would in the wild. Some of the babies were a little boisterous and decided they wanted to climb into our van which gave the girls a bit of a shock as the whole thing started to rock with just a coup,e of them left inside. Again, our job was completed quickly and we had plefty of free time to help out with dog walking, to write in our travel journals and to watch the elephants around the park.After lunch, we headed out on an elephant walk in which our team leader took us out around the elephant sanctuary to meet the elephants and to hear their stories firsthand. I mentioned a few in the earlier posts that were particularly devastating but there were loads who had back legs, bad backs and were blind from bad treatment, one elephant had a severely broken hip she had learnt to deal with over time, it had been caused by a horny bull in a forced breeding programme and now, years later she still cannot walk properly. We had the chance to see the baby elephants in action, and playful they are! With a very protective family including an adopted nanny, you have to be careful not to spook the animals because despite us being far across the field from them, she became anxious and charged at us. It was pretty crazy, we had to sprint across the field out of the oath of this stampeding elephant, half of us lost our flip flops and another girl ended up falling face first in the mud, a pretty dramatic day in all! We rounded off the afternoon by playing with the lonely dogs in the dog shelter at the park, where they have over 400 dogs needing homes. Then that night, we had a Thai culture lesson which was brilliant, our guides taught us about the history and customs of Thailand, about the language and the Chang Chang Chang elephant song! My next job was elephant food - unloading trucks of melons and pumpkins then washing and helping prepare the food for the elephants, particularly for those with special dietary requirements. This was hard work because these elephants go through so many melons it's unreal - trucks carrying four tonnes of melons roll in daily and need to be prepared. But once again, team C smashed it, made it fun and were done in no time thanks to a cracking playlist provided by our team leader who seemed to have a fondness for Avril Lavigne. In the afternoon, we spent our time helping to wash down shelters and having water fights as we prepared the elephant's bedrooms for the evening. After dinner, we finally got to meet the woman behind it all, Lek gave a special talk and presentation with another horrifying film for us to watch. This one was even more harrowing than the last and I'm not ashamed to say I was a blubbering mess. Everyone in the room was left shell shocked but insanely inspired after hearing first hand from this tiny woman all that she had achieved and overcome to reach this point and how she had never let herself become disheartened by the terrible things she witnessed but used her anger to fuel her work. Meeting someone so inspiring was one of the best moments of my trip and I left on a high despite the sad things we saw that night.The next day passed in a blur of preparing elephant food, watching the elephants be fed and joining in, bathing them and generally loving life. It would be so easy to have stayed and to live that life every single day. So simple, but so rewarding, I woke up every morning raring to go and finished each day with a heart full of happiness at what we were doing there. That final night at the Park, they organised a special Northern Thai meal with special foods and fabulous entertainment from the local schoolchildren I had been teaching just days before - they all danced for us in traditional costume which was wonderful. It was so sweet, they all recognised me from the school, and came over to say hello - more on my teaching experience in my next post. We had a brilliant last night together and prepared for some really sad goodbyes the next day - in such a short space of time we had become a little family. The next morning, we took to our final jobs of clearing elephant poo - which was definitely not as bad or as smelly as it sounds. Then we headed back to Chiang Mai where I spent the night at a hostel with some girls from the Park and a larger group of us met up to shop, eat and drink cocktails at the local market. It was a perfect end to one of the best weeks of my life.
If you are thinking about volunteering at Elephant Nature Park but aren't quite sure, or are worried the money of it will cut into your backpacking budget. Don't worry for a second longer. I can honestly say that it was one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life and that it will stay firmly in my heart forever. Both the people I met and the things that I ddid and saw have changed my life and it has inspired me to do more to help by writing and sharing my experiences with others I meet along the way. Why go elephant trekking or riding when you can experience these creatures in a natural state - unharmed and unafraid - see how they behave when they are happy and safe. Spend money and know that it is going back in to helping to save other elephants from the tourism trade, from abuse and cruelty rather than the back pockets of cruel people who harm elephants. Spend your money wisely and it could be the best experience you have travelling like it has been for me so far.