CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Guests volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park don't have phone service or television, and Internet access is limited to a single area. But what they get instead of TV is ele-vision, all day long.
They can see elephants eating, playing in the mud, bathing and even floating in a river. They can watch large family groups and their ever-shifting relationships, which one observer compared to a soap opera. And while first impressions might suggest there is nothing subtle about a six-ton animal, by the end of a stay at the Elephant Nature Park, most guests come to realize there's a lot about elephants that's easy to miss. There's the rubbery rasp as they exhale through the trunk, the leathery skin and sharp bristly hair, the pink-orange patch between the eyes, and the freckles that run down the trunk and across the lower part of the ears.
I learned all of this during a week of observing and helping out at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai province, northern Thailand. The park is home to 36 elephants, most of them rescued from handlers who had them begging for food in the streets or hauling timber, carrying tourists on treks, or doing tricks in "elephant shows." The elephant is Thailand's national symbol, but tame elephants are considered livestock. Most of the park's elephants endured brutal training and decades of work, and some are now disabled. A few have been crippled by land mines.
The Elephant Nature Park offers sanctuary and a calmer life, and its founders are hoping to show Thailand that there is another way to treat elephants. They believe that tourists will come to Thailand to see elephants in a more natural setting.
The elephants include family groups surrounding the park's babies, Chang Yim and Faa Mai, rambunctious bull Hope, and duos like Jokia and Mae Perm. Jokia is blind, and Mae Perm has become her "seeing-eye elephant." The elephants have deep and complex bonds, but there are often conflicts and jealousies. The elephants also have personality to match their size, and their trunks give them an almost endless variety of facial expressions.
"I had watched a documentary which spoke about an elephant park where you could volunteer and work with the elephants," said Sim Marsh, who works at a financial planning firm in Melbourne, Australia. Marsh says volunteering at an elephant park was on her "bucket list."
The park is home to more than just elephants. It's become an animal preserve of its own, hosting around 20 head of cattle and water buffalo, a few horses, one moon bear, chickens, dozens of cats, and about 80 dogs. The dogs often make more noise than the elephants.
The Elephant Nature Park offers a series of packages starting with day trips costing about $80 per person, while a week's stay as a volunteer costs under $400 per person, including food and a place to sleep. The newer rooms are spacious and the park is building new rooms quickly. There isn't all that much privacy and the accommodations are pretty Spartan — there's no hot water and the staff warns that the power sometimes cuts out, taking the water down with it — but the food is delicious. The flavors are more complex than the typical restaurant Thai food in New York; I know I'll be spending a lot of time trying to get replicate the fried rice with cinnamon.
Volunteers spend three or four hours a day working at the park, with about two hours of work in the morning and another one or two in the afternoon. They mash up bananas and clean fruit in the elephant kitchen, plant trees and sugar cane, build fences, and clean the elephant shelters. Yes, that means we paid them to let us shovel elephant dung. It doesn't smell, but there are 36 elephants, so there was a lot of dung to shovel and pitchfork away.
The work can be grueling; Thailand's climate is humid and temperatures at the park reach the 80s. Casual tourists and elephant fans might find a full week's stay to be intense, but it's worth the work to see and interact with elephants in a way you won't get if you're just riding them or watching them perform.
The days are paced well, and the rewards are remarkable. After work in the morning, the elephants crowd up to the main building and volunteers feed them bunches of bananas and sliced watermelon and mango. After lunch, the elephants bathe at the river. (They can bathe themselves, of course, but they're happy to let the volunteers throw buckets of water on them in return for treats from their handlers, or mahouts, who always accompany them.) Later in the afternoons, the park offers work sessions alternating with trips to a local school, shadowing the park's veterinarians, and film screenings and talks.
At night, the valley comes alive with the chirping of crickets and the twisting croak of frogs. The fog pours in from over the mountains and shrouds the park as the volunteers relax from their hard work. But thinking about one's experiences here at the end of a long day is very different from reflecting on the typical vacation. After all, we were not just tourists. We were visitors in the land of the elephants.
If you go …
Elephant Nature Park is located 37 miles from the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand; www.elephantnaturepark.org. Visits can range from a day trip ($80 or 2500 baht) to an overnight ($185 or 5,800 baht) to three nights, a week or two weeks ($385 a week or 12,000 baht). Discounts for children under 12. Stays include simple hut accommodations and meals. Visitors can travel by train or plane from Bangkok to Chiang Mai; the park provides transportation from the city of Chiang Mai to the preserve and offers a package that covers train travel from Bangkok.