Monday, 2 March 2015

My Week as a Volunteer at Elephant Nature Park.

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.

40 comments:

  1. Wow what amazing animals. This was so interesting to read about Jojo. I had no idea what they go through.

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    1. I know right? So amazing! Really glad you enjoyed reading this one.

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  2. What an amazing blog post, thanks so much for sharing! This seems like a fantastic place to visit and volunteer at.

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    1. Thanks for reading! It really was an amazing place to be.

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  3. Wow! I love elephants, there one of my favourite anima:-)

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  4. What an amazing experience, it is wonderful to know there is a place for these elephants, though heartbreaking to think of what they have been through, and the other elephants still out there.
    Looks like the food was pretty good, shame about the eggs and dairy.

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    1. It really was amazing and yeah it is really great to know that these elephants have a place where they're safe now.

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  5. This is so amazing, you lucky thing. I've yet to meet an elephant but they're such interesting intelligent animals- argh! Jealous! It's awful the cruelty some people can summon up sometimes though, poor JoJo. I'm so glad she and the others are safe now. (Also, CATS!)
    The food looks great too! I was vegan at an all veggie place and while a few things need skipping it's pretty good usually- your food looks nice! :D

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    1. Aw, I hope you get to meet an elephant one day, you're right they are so interesting and intelligent.

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  6. Wowowowowowowow!!!! Unbelievable. And I cannot get over that picture of you sitting by the elephant's trunk. That is the greatest shot ever!!!

    I really can't believe that volunteers at an animal sanctuary would complain about not having meat. HOW. STUPID.

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  7. We're both really glad that you loved it. We spent a month at ENP and it was the catalyst of our becoming vegan.

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    1. It was wonderful, I already want to go back.

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  9. Wow, what an incredible place! Great that you were in a position to use your anger to be productive there :)

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    1. Haha, thank you! Always good to channel the vegan rage into something posi!

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  10. Lucky! My partner and I really wanted to spend a week there while we were in Northern Thailand, but they were all booked up! We did go for a day and it was magic. The only way to spend time with elephants in Thailand (besides seeing them in the wild) that is acceptable.

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    1. I'm so glad you were able to go for a day, I totally agree that it's the only acceptable ay to spend time with elephants unless you spot one in the wild.

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  11. What a fantastic and informative post. It breaks my heart to think about how cruel some people are to animals, and how oblivious most people seem to be to the cruelty. ENP was a place I really wanted to go when we were in Thailand, but we weren't able to get there. It sounds like you had a life-changing experience.

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    1. Thanks Andrea, I'm really glad you enjoyed my post.

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  12. This is amazing, Jojo! What a wonderful opportunity to spend time with these gentle giants. Why would anybody want to hurt these creatures? How could anybody hurt them? It's unfathomable.

    I love the picture of you sitting with that gorgeous elephant! You both look so happy :)

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    1. Thanks River, I adore that picture. So glad you enjoyed reading this post and I agree it is unfathomable that anyone could hurt any animal.

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  13. Hi there! Great article! I am going there next week I am extremely excited! Thanks for the tips of vegan foods!

    I had a few questions if you don't mind. Did you get picked up from your hotel? Or did you meet at the office?

    I'm all finished packing- do you have any thing that you found you were in need of while you were there?

    Thanks!!!

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    1. Hi Harins! I hope that this reply isn't too slow to be helpful! We did get picked up from our hotel but then you go to the office to fill in paperwork anyway so it doesn't really make too much difference. Getting picked up made it extra easy though! The only food based things I needed there were some protein bars to snack on and some crackers, sometimes breakfast wasn't quite filling enough on it's own so I'd supplement it with a Clif bar or some Ritz crackers to spread their homemade PB on. Clothing wise it gets really cold at night so make sure you have warm PJ's or sweatpants and a hoodie. I was also happy I had some full length trousers (just legging in my case but still helpful) and a hat because some of the outdoor tasks involved being out in the sun or wandering through scratchy bushes. Oh and suncream but I assume you're already all over that. Have an amazing time!

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    2. Thanks so much! I am heading out tomorrow so this definitely helps!
      As for being cold at night that's a big help because I was pondering about that! Again thanks so much!
      -Harina (for some reason my name came in as a typo!)

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    3. I hope you had an amazing week Harina!

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  14. Thanks for the info, we are heading there next year for the week how much time a day did you get to spend with the elephants?

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    1. How exciting! And that's a good question, it kinda depends on which chores you're doing each day. When you're scooping poop there are elephants around and when you're working in the kitchen prepping food for the elephants you get to feed them at the end. The task of clearing up the park was one of my favourites because you're out there in the park surrounded by elephants for a few hours. It's hard to break it down by hours a day but I certainly felt that we all got enough elephant time and the pictures here are just a fraction of the amount I took during my week there.

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  15. Hi! I will be traveling to Elephant Nature Park the week of 3/14/16 and would like to meet up with someone who is also traveling solo.. Is anyone planning to go that week or know someone who is?? Or does anyone know of a way to connect with other solo travelers??
    Thanks so much!!
    Misti

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    1. Hey Misti, that's a good question. I think a fun way to connect with other travellers is during Twitter chats... I can never remember the times but if you do a google search for Twitter travel chats you'll find the times and hashtags. You'll also meet loads of solo travellers whilst you're there, everyone is put into small working groups so you won't feel lost or lonely and the buffet meals are a great time to get chatting to new people. I hope that helps and that you have an amazing time - it's such a great place and I hope I can go back one day.

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  16. Hi, great post! I will be travelling there in June with my friend, we signed up separately but would like to share a room is that arranged on the day or should we email in advance?
    Thanks!!

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    1. Thanks Kirsten! I would definitely email in advance if you'd like to share a room. I think the room allocations are done before you arrive.

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  17. Hi JoJo

    Firstly thanks for posting such a brilliant blog! Your photos are amazing and I am sure you have many more like you said.

    I am going there for one week in March can't wait, I am a solo traveller and really looking forward to meeting other like minded people during the week.

    Could you be so kind to answer a few questions I have??

    Footwear - what did you take with you? I kinda thought flip flops for the down time but during the day maybe some sort of walking shoe or sandals?

    Clothing - was the majority of the time in shorts and t-shirts?

    Accommodation - Is there somewhere that you can securely store your passport/money etc in your room.

    Thanks in advance,
    Claire

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    1. Hey Claire! Apologies for the slow reply!

      I'm super excited that you're heading to ENP - you're going to have the best time. I took Keen's with me which are kind of a walking sandal. Clothing wise yeah, shorts (but not short shorts - it is Thailand and they aren't super appropriate!) and t-shirts for the most part although it does get cold in the evenings and it'll probably still be cold at breakfast time so do make sure to take a hoodie and some longer trousers with you. Accommodation wise there wasn't a safe or anything, I just kept my money and passport in my backpack which had a padlock on it.

      I really hope that helps, feel free to send more questions my way!

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    2. Hi JoJo

      Really sorry for the delay in reply, things have been a bit hectic!

      Thank you so much for your reply, I really really do appreciate it.

      Just one other quick questions did you require much money during your volunteering? I know lunch/dinner is provided but just wondered.

      Thanks again
      Claire

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    3. I don't think I spent much extra money, maybe the odd can of cola or packet of Oreo's but not more than £10 during the week between two of us. There is a gift shop so maybe you'll want some money for souvenirs but as we were backpacking with hand luggage we didn't buy anything. I hope that helps!

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