Volunteering at an Elephant Sanctuary in Chiangmai, Thailand
One of the most fulfilling and unforgettable experiences you can have in Thailand is volunteering with a reputable elephant sanctuary. Although decades of animal exploitation for entertainment have tainted Thailand’s reputation, the country as a whole is moving towards more ethical and responsible animal tourism. The dense jungles of northern Thailand are among the best places to see and interact with elephants intimately in their natural habitats.
Most elephant sanctuaries offer daily visits with small groups, although you are also able to volunteer for longer stretches if you are staying in Thailand long-term.
From the bustling city of Chiangmai, it could take an hour or two to even arrive at the elephant sanctuaries. Some of them are tucked away so deep in the jungle that your songthaew will be sliding through the mud at some points. Just think of it this way. The harder it is to get to, the more authentic it will be. My experience was with Chiangmai Elephant Land, a very intimate setting with four elephants and a maximum group size of just twelve people. Although each elephant sanctuary will vary, many of them will follow a similar structure.
The first thing you’ll likely do is throw on the traditional elephant caretaker attire. Even if you think you look goofy, it serves a couple of important purposes. You will be easily recognizable by the elephants, and depending on where your priorities lie, it keeps your clothes safe from what is sure to be a muddy day.
You start off by getting familiar with the elephants and feeding them. As long as you have bananas in your hand, you are the elephant’s best friend. It’s actually incredible how quickly they can inhale food. After feeding them, the elephants go off and wander around the jungle. A sign of a good sanctuary is how much freedom the elephants have. The elephants will do their own thing and you can’t really do anything about it. There is a trail that us humans will follow but that will be largely ignored by the elephants who would much rather chill in the deep bush.
If you’re lucky enough to have some younger elephants with you, the entire trip will be worth it just to see how mischievous and playful they are. Elephants are naturally playful and curious animals so seeing spunky young elephants is another good sign that the elephant sanctuary does not use any abusive practices to keep the elephants under control.
Was trekking through the jungle not fun enough for you? The day only gets more surreal. How about taking a mud bath with the elephants? The elephants love a good mud bath and diving into a mud pit with them is as much fun as you could imagine. Oh, and if it wasn’t enough of a fairy-tale day, you get to wash off the elephants under a waterfall. You are literally bathing with elephants in a waterfall. You might as well be a Disney princess at this point.
Volunteering with elephant sanctuaries is an ethical and intimate way to interact with these majestic animals. It is much more genuine and fulfilling for both you and the elephants than the shows and circus acts that use cruel practices to exploit them for entertainment. It is a must-have experience while you are in Thailand, one that will undoubtedly change your life.