Two days ago I came back from a week volunteering at the Journey to Freedom project of the Elephant Nature Park. I absolutely loved every second of it and it is hands down one of the best experiences I have ever had. Together with fourteen other like-minded volunteers and an extremely passionate guide I spend a week in the hills west to Chiang Mai and went on this educational journey.
I have decided to write two blog posts. One about the experiences of the past week and one about my message to you. I want to spread the word about elephant cruelty in the hope that I can change the world a little bit. In this other post I will also explain a bit about the background of Elephant Nature Park (ENP).
It is Monday morning 07:40 as I walk in the office of ENP in Chiang Mai. Signing up for a week of volunteering was the first thing I did after booking my ticket to Asia. I wanted to see the elephants and why not give a week of my own time if that means I can do something good. Together with me many other volunteers collect at the office. Some are going to do the week in the hills and others are going to the ENP location near Chiang Mai. Our group consisting of 15 people is divided over two minivans as we start our adventure. I talked to some people in the group and no one really knows what we will be doing or what to expect. While on the road we watch a short movie as a preparation to being in contact with elephants. Explaining how we should not touch them or stand behind them or tease them. But there is also a part two, however horrible the truth is, we need to know about animal cruelty. How young elephants are captured and tamed. How elephants learn tricks and how they are being used far away from their natural habitat. The movie is bitter and causes pain. Over the next few days we will learn much more about this business. After a 2,5 hour drive we leave our vans and climb in the back of a 4×4 to drive the dirt road to Hotel California. This ‘hotel’ made of bamboo wood is our accommodation for the next six days. We are high up in the hills, where there is little cell reception and the showers are cold, where the night is pitch black and with cool temperatures. After the rumbling cities of Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai this is exactly what I need.
Our guide for the week is Yo. I’ll probably say this again, but Yo is amazing, with an unending amount of energy he has given us his knowledge and passion. After introducing ourselves, we get a rough planning for the upcoming days and the background of the seven elephants in the project. It will mostly be educational and not so much manual work. There will be daily elephant interactions (yes!), visits to local villagers, meeting with children and preschoolers, and more. After bringing our stuff to our rooms which have little mosquito tents, thin mattresses and cute colorful blankets, we go to see some of the elephants for the first time. We have to walk up a hill and through the bushes and then there they are, three gorgeous elephants, three enormous mammals, just standing there, eating and living. It’s amazing. We end this day as we will do every other day, with a campfire. It is such a blessing to be here.
The next day we do a jungle trek where we find the elephants again. We meet four elephants this time. We are gone for five hours so lunch has been pre packed by Yo and Jan (guide buddy) in the most eco-friendly way I can think of, wrapped in a banana leaf. Seeing the elephants in their natural habitat is nice. We sometimes just sit and watch them. They are strong, smart and beautiful. In the afternoon we meet children from the village. Ages ranging from 6 to 17. They receive us with much enthusiasm. The English of the older girls is good, meeting them helps them with practicing. We eat vegetarian all week and dinner was once again amazing. We usually get multiple dishes and all delicious. I should introduce you to our cat Pad Thai. The most affectionate cat I have ever met. Always up for cuddles and petting.
Wednesday morning is a feast, cause there are banana pancakes for breakfast, yum! Good food to do some manual labor. We go out to cut grass for the elephants with machetes, we walk along a road to find the perfect young plants and we cut them at just the perfect length because elephants can be picky when it comes to food. The back of our truck is fully loaded when we go back, enough to feed the elephants coming to our camp. I love how all the people taking part in this journey are so like-minded. All animal lovers and people who are conscious about the world and what is happening to it. These themes often come up during our free time. Yo teaches us a few things about Buddhism. I can perfectly relate this lifestyle. Don’t suffer yourself, don’t suffer others and be eco-friendly. Easy enough right?
I realize how quickly the days are passing, this is already our fourth day at the camp. We visit a local kinder garden with Chinese kids and are divided over the groups. With the kids we sing English songs and practice the ABC. In the afternoon the time has finally come to meet the baby elephant. She is 4 weeks and 6 days old, but weighs already 200 kilos. This baby without a name is super playful and has stolen the hearts of everyone in just a couple of seconds.
The next morning we take on some gardening. On the grounds of our residence they have planted coffee plants that will be given to local farmers once full-grown. ENP will buy the coffee from them for a fixed price year round to sell to tourists. It was actually nice to do some gardening (yes mom, you are reading this correctly, just don’t get your hopes up too much), even though there were lots of spiders and insects hidden under the pots. Three days of muscle pain have followed. We later go and see Zuki, one of the elephants with probable brain damage although he seems to be recovering for a bit. Sadly enough this is our last night here. Yo has invited a local musician to play for us at the campfire. He plays on the tena (a local instrument) and the guitar. It is again a very special moment. We are also taught the elephant song.
A last round of banana pancakes and it is time to pack up our stuff. Wow five days have passed so quickly. As a token of appreciation from the villagers we get a blessing ceremony. This is again a special moment for this week. We receive a white bracelet to be healthy until our hair turns into the color of the bracelet. Two cookies for happiness and healthiness and a connection to the village. It was a special blessing under the snake told Yo. I thought that was some cryptic idea but nope this was literal. There was a green poisonous snake right above our heads during the entire ceremony. One last goodbye to three of the elephants and sadly enough we have to leave this peaceful place. We move to the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai. We hand in our serenity and peace for a more touristic environment. Who would have thought that these fifteen people so used to living in concrete cities are now sad to say goodbye to this place. Not one of us is looking forward to turning wifi or to connect with new people even. We have built a strong friendship in just a couple of days. But our journey does not end here. We spend the rest of the day in the park. There are 73 elephants (80% injured), 80 water buffalos, 600 dogs, 200 cats, 2 horses, a pony and some pigs. This park rescues animals and provides them with a good environment to live. The dogs can be adopted and the elephants get the best possible care.
And then Sunday came. This is it, one last tour of Yo and then we have to say our goodbyes. It is an emotional break up. But I am extremely happy to have been a part of this. This is probably the most rewarding week of my life and it will have changed me forever. I would do it again tomorrow and sincerely hope to come back. We are a family of change.
Here is a YouTube video that has some collected frames of this week.
Please see my other blog with more background on Thai elephants.
Thank you Dave, Gosha, Hannah, Harriet, Jan, Jeanne, John, Kim, Laura, Mark, Megan, Natalie, Oli, Rob, Roxy, Tim and especially Yo!