I was recently lucky enough to spend a week volunteering at Elephant Nature Park just north of Chiang Mai in Thailand and I can honestly say that it was one of the best weeks of my life. ENP is a sanctuary for elephants who have been abused, mistreated and oppressed at the hands of humans. I went into my week at the park knowing that I wholeheartedly disagreed with riding elephants, elephant painting, the circus, and using elephants for logging but I didn't comprehend the full extent of what these beautiful creatures go through to end up in these situations. The process of breaking an elephant, otherwise known as phajaan or crushing the elephant's spirit, is crueler than you could ever imagine and this is coming from someone who has watched many videos of how cows are treated in dairy farms and what happens to the baby chicks who are ground up whilst they're still alive just so that humans can consume eggs. Watching the videos, this one especially, was incredibly difficult and I have spent hours and hours trying to process my feelings of sadness. Rage came next and, in the long run, I hope to turn my feelings into productivity which I guess is what's happening right now! I am really glad that I was able to gain this insight into an area of animal rights that I wasn't previously well versed on and I hope to be a better ambassador for elephants from now on.
Days at ENP start at 7am with breakfast which means setting an alarm for 6:30 and there was no snoozing because the walls were so thin that I'd have felt like the rudest asshole alive if someone had been forced to listen to Radar more than once. I'd heard that breakfast was the most challenging meal for vegans at the sanctuary so I came well prepared with a stash of bars and crackers. The daily vegan fare at breakfast consisted of cornflakes (the bad D vit's haven't made it over here yet!), soya or rice milk, peanut butter and fruit. One day there were sausages too which I got pretty overexcited about.
The week's large group of volunteers were split into four teams and daily tasks included scooping poop, quite a big task when an elephant's involved; elephant food which meant unloading and washing truck after truck of watermelons, pumpkins and bananas; cutting grass and banana trees down at the roadside; helping to create a fire break and cleaning up the park. Fire break was by far the hardest task as it meant clearing a huge swathe of forest in the heat of the day with various tools, I think hoeing or raking were my favourite tasks but hacking down bushes with a machete was also kinda fun. Overall working in the ele' kitchen was my absolute favourite task, passing the fruit and veg down the line from the truck is the kind of repetitive task I can totally get down with and I liked that you got a real idea of just how much food it takes to feed an elephant.
Human food wise everything at the park is vegetarian and if you can find a volunteer co-ordinator who gets your veganism they'll be able to tell you which things on the buffet to avoid. Pro-tips: the bread at ENP contains egg and dairy and you'll need to be on the look out for sneaky egg in both the pad thai and pad see ew, there are also some obvious yellow noodles that contain egg. Here are a few examples of the meals I ate from the amazing lunch buffet. The food would have definitely been more varied if I wasn't contending with a chilli allergy but the fact that even I could eat this well says a lot.
Once our work for the day was done we were lucky enough to be able to take part in fun activities like washing the elephants. We learnt a lot about how to go about this before we were let loose with buckets of water. Pouring water down the elephants' face is a huge no-no as is getting water into the ears... this makes so much sense. I certainly wouldn't enjoy someone throwing water at my face!
One afternoon after our chores were done a small group of volunteers were lucky enough to sit with ENP founder Lek and hear her speak about not only the process of breaking an elephant but also the hideousness of forced breeding programs. It didn't surprise me to hear that Lek is vegan herself as this process is not dissimilar to the the one dairy cows are forced to go through when their calves are ripped away from them and shoved into veal crates. Elephants and cows, just like humans, mourn the loss of their babies and it makes me so angry that humans are willing to put animals through this stuff for their own gratification.
Hearing the elephant's stories was a definite highlight of my time there despite how harrowing the majority of them are, remember that almost every elephant here has been through the breaking process and much more in their pre-ENP lives. Jokia's story was one that hit me the hardest. Rescued from a heartbreaking and tortuous existence at an illegal logging operation in 1999 she came to ENP after being deliberately blinded in both eyes by her mahout for refusing to work after miscarrying whilst dragging a log uphill. On arrival at the park Mae Perm, the first elephant ever rescued by Lek, took her under her wing and became her best friend. They go everywhere together and Mae Perm acts as Jokia's eyes leading her to play and towards food.
We were also able to spend time sitting beneath an elephant to feed her which, Lek explained, she encouraged us to do to help to show people that elephants are gentle creatures who, when they aren't being abused and when they are in the sanctuary environment, see humans as friends - especially when we're accompanied by a bag of tamarind. Getting to sit underneath this beautiful lady was one of the most amazing moments of the week and, believe me, there were many!
One evening Lek spoke with us about her life and her journey to build ENP up to what it is today and wow, I have been around many inspiring feminists in my time but Lek kinda blew my mind. As well as selflessly working to make life better for all elephants with her brand of positive, patient and passionate activism she has also made a world of difference to the lives of women from local hill tribe villages by employing them in her kitchen, as massage therapists for the guests of ENP and much more. The amount of positive change one woman has created is truly inspiring.
I loved being surrounded by all of the animals that call ENP their home. There are cats and dogs everywhere as well as elephants, water buffalo and cows. Cat Kingdom was a great place to chill and there was one kitty who came to our room to hang out (and to try to climb our mosquito net) daily. What a beauty.
One day when we were taking a fire break break a dog came to hang with us, (s)he seemed super thirsty so I offered up some water in the cap of my bottle and they lapped it up. I think I shared it 50/50 in the end and was rewarded with a lot of face licks from my new pup friend.
As well as loving being surrounded by animals and having a chance to connect with and understand elephants to a greater extent I also enjoyed the peace and beauty of the surrounding countryside and getting to meet wonderful like minded people. I even managed to tune out the people moaning about the lack of meat without shouting "it's for a week, shut up and deal with it" at them which I thought was rather restrained!
Elephants are a much loved part of Thai culture and Elephant Nature Park is the perfect place to connect with them without causing them any harm so whether you're vegan, vegetarian, or neither (yet!) I'd say volunteering here is a must during your time in Thailand.