I’ll be honest, like most of the volunteers to visit the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Chaing Mai, we’d come to see elephants. Of course we wanted to help the species, but ultimately we were there to get close to a magnificent animal that otherwise we may never get to see. We weren’t let down, but we came away with so much more than just having seen the elephants – we were also given a t-shirt!
Here’s what to expect from a week at ENP:
The setting for ENP is truly stunning – grassy flats, small wooden buildings for the workers and a shallow but pretty river for the elephants to bath in. Large green rolling hills surround the area acting as a picture frame for the land that Lek (the lady who created ENP) calls ‘Elephant Heaven’. The only thing more stunning than the elephants home, are the elephants themselves. And we were surrounded by them.
We fed the elephants, bathed with them (although straight after this ‘bath’ I actually needed a shower) and met the parks latest arrival – new baby Nayan. We visited the park’s dogs, of which there are over 350, and learnt a fair bit about ENP’s work.
On the first day of the week, or ‘Monday’ for all you intellectuals, we fell in love with a blind dog called Mi…
We’d been playing in the enclosure for disabled dogs when Mi walked straight into the back of my leg. I bent down and we looked into each others eyes… Well actually, I did more looking than Mi did. Because like I said, Mi is blind.
On the second day, let’s call it Tuesday, we were to start our chores. Team Tim (the unofficial name I appointed the more boringly named ‘group D’) were driven away to cut corn. We were miles away from the elephants and the tranquility of the park, but we all had machetes and I was wearing a particularly cool hat. I felt like an action hero!
This is supposedly the hardest job of the lot and we were told that normally when it’s over the groups are rewarded by going tubing. We were also told that instead of this, we’d be collecting rocks to help make elephant baracades. Hmph.
We spent the small amount of free time we had this day watching Nayan, and watching Mi walk into other dogs and walls.
That evening we were blessed by a Buddhist monk before tea. I did wonder, as a non religious person, whether he would be offended if I offered to bless him in return. I decided against it, appreciated the gesture and tucked in to ENP’s three times daily, hugely impressive vegetarian buffet.
When you’re told you’re going to be clearing elephant poo you begin to go into shock – Why have I paid to be clearing elephant poo? Who travels all the way to Thailand to be clearing elephant poo? And then you begin to wonder whether these elephants know that you’ll be clearing their poo. Elephants naturally seem to have a smile on their faces, maybe they’re all just laughing at us?
This is what we were to do on day three, or Wednesday if you prefer. And actually it wasn’t that bad. The poo didn’t smell too bad because it had dried out in the sun and most of the work was carried out next to Nayan’s enclosure. Nayan is the only elephant in the park kept in an enclosure, but it’s for his health and he shares it quite happily with his mum.
But if only he was old enough to be let out of his cage… If only we could touch him. That would make an already amazing week perfect.
One thing about ENP that will always stay with me is the people I met. When you go to a place like this you can be pretty sure you’ll be with like minded people and this makes for some long lasting friends. On day four we were set tasks that included stripping bamboo leaves, mixing cement and preparing food for the elephants. Although these tasks sort of describe themselves, it was the group of people that made them fun – singing along to Beyonce, chatting and breaking out into water fights!
On Thursday (that’s day four for those of you following numerically), we finally got to go tubing. For anyone who doesn’t know, tubing is where you float down a river in a rubber ring… And ‘tuberoom dancing’ is a romantic dance performed on a river created by Gemma and myself. Tubing was a lot of fun and at the beginning of the week we couldn’t wait to do it, but really now we just wanted to spend more time with the parks elephants and dogs.
On day 5 all the groups worked together to pull down some of the parks fences and barbed wire. I know this sounds like the outcome of a mindless gang riot but we were assured it was a necessary task. This meant the whole volunteer group (not just Team Tim) got to hang out together all day.
Day 5 was the last time we saw Mi. It wasn’t planned this way, but the next two days would leave us with no time to play with the dogs. Thankfully I know that Mi is at a good place at ENP and although we’ll miss her greatly, I don’t think she’ll miss us too much. Mainly because she’s never even seen us.
Lek, the lady who started ENP, had arrived on day 5 to give us a talk on how the park had started. It was an inspirational talk and quite emotional too, but more than this it was exciting.
Today, day 6, Nayan would be let out of his enclosure for the first time, and we were to help.
Help pretty much meant watch. It was a sight that I feel truly lucky to have seen. The baby elephant was scared at first but eventually plodded out of the enclosure to be straight away greeted by two elderly female elephants who just wanted to mother him. After about 15 minutes of nervously looking around, Nayan began to get a bit cock sure of himself and started darting away from the elders to play in the mud. And finally, after a week of waiting for it, we were able to touch the baby elephant. He was hairy, he was smiling and he was seriously cute.
We all knew that we’d be leaving the next day and so spent the night eating, drinking and chatting. ENP put on a traditional dance show for us, the dogs barked like crazy and the elephants… Well they just carried on as they were. What did they care we were leaving?!
The last day was spent walking around the park saying goodbye to the elephants. And by saying goodbye I mean ‘giving bananas to’. We thanked the staff and sadly said goodbye to our new friends. And by saying goodbye, I don’t mean ‘giving bananas to’.
The work at ENP is strenuous and hard, but no matter how much work you’re given you just can’t get annoyed. Something will happen to help you remember why you’re there – an elephant will walk just inches away from you, a scared dog will use you for protection, or an elderly disabled elephant will slowly hobble towards another elephant who will wait for her to catch up. It has to be one of the most relaxing workplaces in the world.
When we arrived at ENP it’s true to say that we all just wanted to see an elephant. But this is half the problem. Elephants are a tourist attraction, and that’s been their downfall. They’re not ill tempured animals and they’re not violent, in fact elephants seem to like humans.
I bet they are laughing at us as we shovel their poo, but this, along with preparing their food and cutting their corn should just be the start of giving something back to a creature we’ve taken so much from.