What pops into your mind when someone asks you to think about a time when you experienced pure joy? For me, it’s this moment right here:
Yes, I had a trunk in my junk. But before you write me off as a pervy nutter, please note that being goosed by a playful pachyderm wasn’t the cause of my happiness (although, okay, it was pretty damned funny). It was the incredible feeling of volunteering to help an amazing herd of rescued elephants and being accepted by them as a member of their family that made my heart sing. It’s one of my most treasured memories of unbridled happiness. I mean, just look at these beautiful animals – don’t you just want to smooch them all over?
About a hour-and-a-half drive north of Chiang Mai, Thailand is one of the most incredible places on earth: Elephant Nature Park. At this idyllic rehabilitation center set in Thailand’s lush hills, rescued elephants, dogs and cats get a second chance to live a good life, and lucky volunteers get an opportunity to provide them with hands-on, life-saving help.
Walking beside these beautiful giants and hearing the troubling backgrounds from which they were saved will bring tears to your eyes. And then when you feed them watermelons and wash them in the river and see them happily spray their friends (or you) while noisily munching on their favorite treats, it’ll make you cry big, fat happy tears to help give them this joy.
Like Jokia (above, left), who was rescued from an abuse owner that used her for illegal logging. While pulling heavy logs uphill, she suffered a miscarriage and was not allowed to stop to rest, or even to see if her infant was alive or dead. As a result of this emotional and physical trauma, one day she collapsed and refused to get up, and in an act of extreme cruelty, her owner intentionally blinded her in both eyes. But now that Jokia is living at ENP, she’s finally happy. She’s got a “seeing eye elephant” friend named Mae Perm (above, right). While we were there, Mae Pern led her right over to us to feast on our freshly rolled tamarind balls – an especially yummy treat for them. It was such a heart-swelling experience to feel the love that these two have for each other, to feed them, to have Jokia wrap her trunk around my hand to thank me, and to have her nose poke in my pockets in search of more snacks. Jokia’s days of enslavement are a distant memory. Now she’s able to focus on the joys of life, like playing with Mae Perm, bathing in the river, taking leisurely walks, and goosing new human friends when they least expect it. (Nothing like an elephant trunk down the back of your shorts to wake you up!)
There are a wide variety of volunteering options at ENP, which you can find here.
I strongly recommend doing at least a two day, one night volunteering visit, as it gives you more time to get to know the elephants, enjoy the beautiful surroundings and provide the animals with really meaningful help. Plus, you get special access and a much more memorable, fulfilling, peaceful experience than you would in a day-trip. And you’ll get to make lots of other friends too, with and without fur.
The accommodations are simple and clean with mosquito nets. And the food – served buffet style – is quite good!
As an added bonus, there are adorable rescued cats nestled in little nooks all around the guest rooms. They love meeting new people and will give you big purrs in exchange for head-petting.
There are numerous volunteering opportunities, from conservation and education work, to planting trees and shrubs, to talking with elephant tourist camp owners to encourage them to treat their elephants with proper care and respect. Or you can just volunteer on-site at their main rehab center and enjoy beautiful sights like this all day long.
ENP also cares for a few hundred rescued dogs and cats, many of whom freely roam around the property and even play with the elephants, which is the sweetest thing to witness. You can volunteer to help them, too, which is equally fulfilling, and all are up for adoption. So why not take home a living memory of your time at ENP? ENP takes care of all the transport issues to make it even easier for you to adopt one of their adorable rescued dogs and cats.
If you love animals, I guarantee that volunteering at ENP will be an unforgettable, soul-quenching adventure for you. And next time someone asks you to recall a time when you experienced pure joy, chances are that your time volunteering at ENP will be your go-to memory.
And whatever you do and wherever you go in the world, please, please, please do not take elephant rides. Many of the elephants saved by ENP came from tourist elephant ride operators, and no matter how much they tell you that their elephants “like it” or are treated well, it’s a lie. Don’t be part of the problem – be part of the solution by resisting the urge to ride an elephant, and instead, spend some meaningful time with them by volunteering to help out at Elephant Nature Park. 🙂
For more information about ENP and to book, go to:
Book as far in advance as you can. They can book up several weeks in advance.
Fly into the Chiang Mai airport. Once you book your trip with ENP, they will arrange to pick you up and take you to the sanctuary. It’s about a 1.5-2 hour drive from Chiang Mai to ENP.
A two day, one night volunteering trip (which I highly recommend) costs 5800 Thai Baht per person, which is about $165 USD – it’s worth every damned penny. Kids 2-11 get a 50% discount.
A single day trip runs 2500 Thai Baht per person, or $71 USD.
There are also hiking day trips alongside elephants in Karen settlements, and week-long volunteering opportunities that run between 5,000-15,000 Thai Baht ($142-428 USD).