Thailand wasn’t my first adventure abroad. I had camped in the Amazon, explored parts of Europe, and hopped around Australia years before I made my way to Thailand. Only this trip was a little different. This trip was marking a milestone in my travel career. This trip was the beginning of my love for volunteering.
Finding My Calling
I started researching various volunteer opportunities many years before I actually found myself at one of them. Hearing about all the damage humans are causing on our beautiful planet was starting to weigh on me, and I wanted to help wherever I could. I didn’t know when I would be able to join in and work at one of the programs, but I would become more and more inspired every time I read about a new organization, so I kept looking and kept dreaming.
One day I came across a bare bones website talking about an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand. The site wasn’t nearly built up like some of the others, but I was drawn to it, so I kept jumping from page to page reading more about this seemingly magical place. I was hooked. When the time was right for me to volunteer, Elephant Nature Park would be the place.
Years past after I found the site, but I never stopped thinking about the elephants. Every time I booked a vacation, I would think about ENP, but something was telling me it wasn’t the right time for me yet. I started traveling around a little bit each year learning and gaining travel knowledge.
After about 3 years, it was time. My heart was telling me to go to Thailand and work at Elephant Nature Park. I checked my calendar and put in an application to volunteer.
When I went back to look for ENP’s website, I was pretty surprised on how much it had grown over the years. I had to double check that this was the same organization that had grabbed my attention those years ago.
Only their popularity had grown over the years, and people from all over the world were coming to work at the park. Whether it was for a day, a week, or a month, everyone wanted to pitch in and help all of the amazing animals that were rescued from the cruel world of the tourism and logging industry.
I was booked!
The last week of January 2012 I would be working at Elephant Nature Park. Now all I had to do figure out what to do before that. I wanted to make the most of my stay in Thailand especially since it was going to be a 15 hour flight from Los Angeles.
The Start of an Adventure
A silly as it sounds, I had always wanted to go to the full moon festival. Yes it’s a bunch of people getting drunk on the beach, but I wanted to experience the party. There happened to be a full moon at the beginning of January which made it perfect timing for me to explore Thailand for 3 weeks before I went to ENP.
The festival takes place in Koh Phangan which is at the other end of the country from ENP. It actually worked out great starting in the south and working my way north. I loved experiencing the different areas and seeing how beautiful they are in their own way.
The south was the perfect place to start my adventure. I did the Full Moon Party and got my dive certification while I was there. Within the first day, I had made a great group of friends who I palled around with for the first week I was there. We spent many nights hanging out in hammocks and watching the sunset over Haad Rin…..just relaxing.
It’s funny how things work out and you keep seeing some of the same people when you travel. I made my reservation to hop over to Koh Tao and get my dive certification on a whim the night before I left Koh Phangan. What a great surprise I got when I heard almost the whole group of friends, who I had become quite fond of, had just made plans to head over to Koh Tao and get their certifications that day as well. I had another week to spend with new friends!
Time to Head North
It was sad to say goodbye, but I had to be in Chiang Mai by the 21st of January, and I wanted to explore the city before going to ENP, so I bid farewell to my new friends and set out heading north.
I had heard so much about the islands and beaches, but not a lot about the northern cities. From the little I had been told about northern Thailand, Chiang Mai stood out to me. Not only because it was the home to ENP’s headquarters, but because it seemed to offer a lot to it’s visitors.
Once I got to the mainland, I grabbed a bus to Bangkok where I stayed for the night. The next day I stopped in Ayuthaya, the old capital, to visit some ruins and learn a little more about Thai history. After a day of touring the city, I was on an overnight train on my way to Chiang Mai.
Side note…if you do find yourself traveling around the country, buses are the way to go. They are slightly more expensive than the train, but they are much more comfortable and stop at various roadside markets where you have better food choices.
I Fell in Love with Chiang Mai
Once I step off the train, I felt like I was home. Something about that city gave me such comfort. Maybe it was the mountains. Maybe it was because of the close proximity to ENP. Maybe it was the daily 1 hour massages I was getting for $2-$3. All I know is I had found a good option for a future home if I ever choose to live abroad.
My week in Chiang Mai was an eventful one to say the least. Again I made a wonderful group of friends who liked to explore as much as I did. My roommate from the hostel I was staying at and I were like 2 peas in a pod for the whole week, and we both wanted to see as much as possible before leaving the city.
While I was in Koh Tao getting my dive license, I met a Dive Master who normally lived in Chiang Mai teaching English. He gave me a list of places to go and see, so we rented scooters and drove around to all of his recommendations. That was the best way to do it! I saw so much of the countryside and really felt like I had taken advantage of my time in Chiang Mai before heading to ENP.
We walked through Chiang Dao caves that lead to the Bermese boarder. We drove up Doi Suthep and stopped to hike to various waterfalls along the way. We spent a wonderfully relaxing lazy day at the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs, which was needed after a crazy night out in Chiang Mai.
I was having so much fun the week flew by, and it was time for me to make my way to Elephant Nature Park. I was so excited that night I could hardly sleep. I set multiple alarms because I didn’t want anything to happen that might ruin my opportunity to work at the park.
Elephant Nature Park
I got to ENP’s main office with plenty of time to spare, which was a great opportunity to get acquainted with some of the other volunteers. Everyone was almost uncontrollably excited to get to the park. We had all been waiting to volunteer for quite some time and were more than ready to get to the elephants.
One girl was waiting to start ENP’s Journey to Freedom program after working a week at the sanctuary. She told us about her time at the park and how magical it is. How they don’t just rescue elephants. She explained there were a couple hundred dogs that had been rescued from the Bangkok floods and a herd of water buffalo saved from a life of roaming the streets. She talked about the sun bear who was taken out of the wild and sold into the cruel life of medical testing before ENP rescued her. Talking with her, made me want to get to the park that much more!
They finally loaded us up and set out on an hour and a half drive to the sanctuary. As soon as the vans stopped, we were jumping out and grabbing our bags rushing to check in and get working. It’s funny to see so many people actually anxious about starting work. I know I’ve never been so excited to start work.
The first day was a chill one focusing on getting us acclimated with the grounds and the animals. We did the regular day volunteer activities of bathing the elephants in the river and feeding them. Then we helped unload all the food donated from local farms for the next days feeding.
That night we had a group orientation to get to know all of the people staying at the sanctuary and working. There were school groups, couples, families, newlyweds, and solo travelers. Some of the students were getting hours towards their veterinary degree, and others were pitching in for extra curricular points in high school. A family had been traveling around the world for the past 5 months, and ENP was just one of their many adventures. A few were returning volunteers, but all were ready to help as much as they could.
For the next week I slept about 30 feet from the family enclosure where the 2 babies slept with their mothers and protective aunties. My roommate and I would hang out around the enclosure in the evening after all the chores were done watching and listening to the mothers communicating with their children and fellow females.
I could have spent hours watching them, especially the mischievous Chiang Yim who was always devising a plan to break out. He was such an ornery little guy.
Everyday that passed at the sanctuary brought a new knowledge and understanding of elephants as well as the other animals who call ENP home.
Elephants are not all that different from us humans. They communicate. They show emotions. They mourn. They “date”. Most of them had a best friend or cliche they would spend their time with. They threw temper tantrums and consoled one another after the loss of a loved one.
It was incredible to watch these beautiful creatures roam the grounds all day mingling amongst their own society. Having this amazing opportunity has given me more of an understanding about life and the animal kingdom and has driven me to want to help more.
Now here I am. I’m ready to take the leap and head out to work with more organizations. I’m so happy to have had that opportunity at Elephant Nature Park. It has changed my life for the better.
Thank you to Lek and the rest of the ENP team. You all do amazing work, and I look forward to visiting your beautiful sanctuary in the near future.
Thailand captured a big part of my heart, and I am so thankful for all the memories made during that month traveling through the country.
Have you traveled somewhere that captured your heart? Different places will impact us all differently, and I would love to hear your story in the comments below.