I was on a kick posting pictures of Asian elephants to Instagram when I told myself that I needed to sit down and write this post already; it’s been over a year since we spent time feeding, bathing and interacting with the elephants at The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This post is looooong over due!
To be honest, there are loads of reviews on The Elephant Nature Park out there. Most of them say something like “Best day ever.” or “We had so much fun.” But what do “the best” and “fun” really look like? They are pretty subjective words, no? I mean, Michael thinks running is fun. I do not. See, totally subjective.
What you read is true. It is a great place, but for as many reasons as there are volunteers. Here are the reasons we loved volunteering at The Elephant Nature park so much.
Giving back feels so darn good.
I can’t think of a time when giving something – my time, energy, love or gifts – has not made me happy. So, traveling and giving back – it is kind of the best of everything! As much as I positively love to travel, there is actually a small part of me that feels guilty for being able to see so much. Although, I guess seeing what so many people don’t have around the world is to blame for some of this guilt. That being said, if we can give back to a community we visit, we definitely want to! The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai offers such an opportunity. Volunteers help this place stay up and running. Giving back has never been so much fun!
I do not like zoos.
Do not get me wrong – I do see some positives to zoos, but, for the most part, I just think wild animals should remain wild. Proponents for zoos argue that their research is pivotal for animals and for endangered animals; they could not be more right. Zoos provide stable, safe environments for fledgling species and I respect that. I do not respect animals sitting in small cages (or even big enclosures) so that people can snap pictures with their iPhones. I do not respect zoos for all of their research because I think animals are best studied in their natural environments. I don’t mean to open a Pandora’s box; these are just my humble opinions! The Elephant Nature Park is not a zoo. Instead, The Elephant Nature Park is a rescue center and sanctuary for elephants who depended on humans for too long for their nutrition and safety and are therefore are not able to live freely in the wild.
We were able to enjoy the jungles and forests of Thailand.
Chiang Mai is a little city in northern Thailand. We experienced a spa and classic Thai massage as well as a cooking class while within the city limits. But you guys know by now that we are not really city-dwelling travelers. We love the wide open spaces, beaches and countryside of our destinations. Volunteering at The Elephant Nature Park gives you a chance to surround yourself by the mountains, forests and rivers.
We met a lot of like-minded travelers.
The night after volunteering with the elephants at ENP we were sipping cocktails and sharing a meal with a great couple from Toronto. Meeting other like-minded travelers is another really, really great part of traveling. We are still friends via social media to this day and I really hope to chat again at some point if Michael and I are ever in that part of Canada! We would have never met these great people had we not spent a day at The Elephant Nature Park.
The Elephant Nature Park does not promote riding elephants.
The Elephant Nature Park rescues most of their elephants from violent caretakers and deplorable conditions. Most of these animals lived a life with paying tourists riding them. No elephants are ridden at The Elephant Nature Park. The park also spearheads campaigns to advertise and promote not riding elephants around the country! The tactics used to “break” an elephant for purposes of saddling them for customers is cruel, disgusting and devastating. If you’ve read the book (or seen the movie) Water for Elephants, you have an idea of just how elephants are trained – and how they can react to such violence. The ENP does not chain or tether any other their animals, this cannot be said for “working” elephants who are ridden.
It is out of the ordinary.
We dove with Great Whites in South Africa and watched lions on the African Plains, but volunteering at Elephant Nature Park was the first travel experience where getting close to “wild” animals is a.) even an option b.) safe and c.) intended. Volunteering at ENP is truly an extraordinary travel experience. Feeding an elephant whose feet are recovering from disease was moving. Being inches away from their gentle eyes and powerful bodies gave me goose bumps in the middle of a hot, humid summer afternoon. I am not sure I will ever experience anything similar to this again. These animals are able to be around humans due to their “past lives” as working elephants. This fact is heart breaking, but I am so happy that humans are able to help them live a work-free life, especially since we are the reason they are in this place to begin with!
You get up close and personal with elephants!
An elephant kissed me. Can you say that after looking at an elephant at a zoo through bars? Mahouts (or caretakers) train and “control” their elephants with only positive reinforcement (love, affection and food). The mahout never carry sticks, spikes or whips. Because of this training and patience, volunteers can wash, brush and feed the elephants. In return, volunteers get paid in kisses. It is fair trade in my opinion!
Yes, volunteering at The Elephant Nature Park was fun, but it was so much more. It was inspirational, motivational, humbling and extraordinary. ENP, in my opinion, is not just another tourist attraction. It is a rescue center that attracts animal-loving travelers who want to give back, get close and experience a rare piece of Thailand. Doesn’t that sound like fun to you?