Thailand Elephant Sanctuary Volunteer Experience
Do you love animals? If you are like me and love to interact with animals up close and personal, an opportunity to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary is a good enough reason to head to Chiang Mai, Thailand. This was THE reason I had the city on my bucket list before I decided to celebrate Songkran in Chiang Mai (might as well!).
I really, really, really enjoyed the opportunity to spend a whole day with elephants and get to know more about them. I felt a special connection with them. It was a life-changing experience that I highly recommend to anyone visiting Chiang Mai.
Update: It was brought to my attention that some travelers were allowed to ride an elephant for a photo opportunity at Elephant Retirement Park in the Phuket location. I do NOT endorse an elephant riding in any form, and I’m sad to learn about this incident. My experience at ERP’s Chiang Mai location was different. No one offered an elephant riding. This review is solely based on my personal experience. I did not receive any compensation from any of the elephant sanctuaries mentioned here, nor will be paid through affiliate links. I’d love to hear from anyone whose experience at Elephant Retirement Park was different from mine.
Finding Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
Unfortunately, Southeast Asia is not the best place for animal welfare. Most notoriously, tigers and elephants get abused for tourism. Have you seen a photo of tourists posing with a tiger in Thailand? That tiger is most likely drugged, declawed and chained up for Instagram likes. How about the elephant riding? Baby elephants are taken away from the mom, chained and beat up with hooks until their spirit is completely broken. Because their body is not created to support human weights, they often get injured; consequently, they get killed after being used.
I wanted to make sure that my elephant experience was nothing of that nature. After some research, I found a couple of ethical elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai that help retired elephants live a better life after long years of abuse.
I tried to book with Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Jungle Sanctuary based on their reputation and reviews. However, they were completely booked. Then, I learned about Elephant Retirement Park and was able to book one-day elephant care program (2,600 BHT/person = about USD 82).
Pro Tip: Book the elephant volunteer program well in advance. As you can tell from my experience, the registration at an ethical sanctuary in Thailand get filled up pretty quickly.
Elephant Retirement Park: One Day Elephant Care Program
Elephant Retirement Park sent a van to pick up volunteers from the Chiang Mai Hotels around 8:30 a.m. After about an hour drive through Mae Tang countryside, we arrived at the park with two other vans.
The program started with a brief introduction to Elephant Retirement Park and their elephants. We learned about elephants in general, including their lifespan, behaviors, likes and dislikes, diet and the difference between Asian and African elephants, etc. It was interesting to hear from one of their long-term volunteers how she extended her stay in Thailand to help rescue elephants after her initial visit to the park.
Feeding Elephants Breakfast
We went to the pantry hut, where we prepared bananas and sugar canes. We chopped up sugar canes into bite size. We carried these in a burlap bag to feed elephants. Each elephant seemed to have a preference and was picky about which one they want to eat. When I offered bananas and sugar canes, elephants would reach out with their trunks to sniff and grab the food. Their noses were wet and had a unique smell. When they inhaled, it felt as if I put my hand on the head of a vacuum cleaner.
Playing with Elephants
The elephants in the sanctuary had a strong bond with their caretakers. In particular, a baby elephant just followed this one guy, who looked like Mowgli from the Jungle Book, and wanted to play with him all the time.
Some elephants jumped into the water to swim. The others ran across the area, chasing after their caretakers. Adult elephants are bigger than I thought. When they charged and ran, it was a bit scary. Not that they would intentionally harm me, but I was afraid they would accidentally step on me.
Lunch for Volunteers
After the play time, it was time for us volunteers to eat lunch. The sanctuary provided a vegetarian buffet, which was simple yet delicious.
Elephant Retirement Park also provided the clothes for mud bathing and towels. I brought my bathing suit to wear underneath the clothes. We changed our clothes and got ready to bathe the elephants.
Elephant bathing was the highlight of the day. Elephants like to bathe in mud to protect their skins from the Sun. They rolled over their huge bodies and rubbed against mud. It reminded me of my dog who loves to rub-dry himself against the blanket right after a bath. How cute!
Volunteers also jumped into the mud bath. We helped rub mud against the elephant’s skin. We had as much fun as the elephants just playing in the mud. After the mud bath, the elephants knew precisely what they needed to do next: take a plunge into the water to wash off mud!
ERP had a photographer who captured this precious moment for all of us. We had many individual and group photo opportunities with the elephants. And the best part was that we didn’t have to worry about getting the camera wet or dirty; we just needed to have fun! These photos were up on their facebook page the next day. Regardless, I decided to purchase a CD to secure the high-quality images and support the elephant rescue efforts.
Pro Tip: Elephants get excited during the mud bath. So be careful not to get stomped accidentally. They can unintentionally break your bone.
Taking a Shower & Nap
Once the elephants got bathed, we needed to take a shower, too. Their shower facility was not the fanciest but clean. The shower included basic toiletry and towel. The mud got into every nook and cranny you can imagine. I was glad ERP provided a set of clothes as I wouldn’t want to bring muddy clothes back to the hotel.
After a shower, volunteers gathered on the stilted deck overlooking the park to take a nap. Although I didn’t fell asleep, it was nice and relaxing.
The van took us back to the hotel around 5:30 p.m. We also received two green T-shirts. If I remember correctly, only those directly booked on their website got the shirts.
Volunteering at the Elephant Retirement Park was the best wild animal experience I’ve ever had in my life. Elephants are darn CUTE! They are very affectionate and super intelligent. They love to play. When I looked into their eyes, I felt like I could see their soul. I felt a sense of connection with them.
I don’t know how much of difference I made to their lives, but it made the difference in mine. It is a special memory I will always cherish.
Have you had a similar experience? I’d love to hear from you!
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