Ethical Elephant Tourism at Elephant Nature Park: An Unforgettable Dream Come True

I received heart-breaking news on the morning of March 5th, 2013. An elephant I had befriended at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai had passed away during the night.

A beautiful moment with Kwanjai

A beautiful moment with Kwanjai.

Little is known about the abusive and tragic history of Kwanjai before she was rescued by Elephant Nature Park, but when I spent my amazing week there as a volunteer, I got to see a gentler and resilient side of this beautiful, yet traumatized creature. It is under these sad circumstances that I finally write about my experiences at ENP.

Happiest birthday to me!

Happiest birthday to me!

One of my biggest dreams and goals when I set off in 2009 to travel the world was to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park. In fact, volunteering at ENP was one of the driving forces behind me leaving New York in the first place. I wanted to leave my mark on the world by making a difference in some way and Elephant Nature Park kept drawing me in. For a number of reasons, unfortunately, I didn’t quite make it to ENP until November 2012. It was a special birthday gift to myself and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my birthday than with these amazing, beautiful creatures.

Elephant Nature Park

Nothing cuter than little ellie butts.

The weeklong volunteer program was, by far, one of the best weeks of my life. It just felt so good to be doing something worthwhile and meaningful during my travels, and it was a week spent with elephants, so really, why wouldn’t it have been an unforgettable experience?

The best volunteer group in the world!

The best volunteer group in the world!

I also spent the week working besides some of the most fun, interesting, and diverse group of people I could ever hope to meet in one place. On my team, I had a spunky 60-year old Australian woman who wasn’t shy about getting down and dirty in the mud, or throwing mud at anyone else for that matter! Our group also had a mother and her two adolescent kids who never once complained about any of the chores – in fact, they were usually the first ones to dive right into the task, particularly if it involved wielding a machete. There were a pair of Canadian women traveling together for the first time and they were downright hilarious. One was always off doing things that she thought the other would disapprove of. “Don’t tell Karen!” became our anthem of the week. Then there was a sweet, innocent young man from Melbourne who became everyone’s adopted son or brother. My favorite line from him: “Oh, is it an important one?” when he overheard me talking to another American about the 2012 presidential elections.

Navaan is the cutest thing!

Navaan is the cutest thing!

And then there were the elephants. Every encounter with one was always pure magic, a true marvel. I loved waking up every morning and going to say hello to them, especially two-week old baby elephant, Navaan, who was the most impossibly adorable thing I have ever witnessed in my life. I befriended his Burmese mahout (caregiver) and had the truly incredible experience of spending extra time with Navaan away from the crowds, where he felt comfortable and brave enough to come out from under his doting mother to play with me.

Working hard at ENP, but loving every moment!

Working hard at ENP, but loving every moment!

The feeling that will remain with me the most about my time at Elephant Nature Park is just how incredibly happy I was. It didn’t matter what I was doing; whether it was shoveling mountains of elephant poo, clumsily cutting bamboo stalks with machetes (a true miracle that I didn’t lop off my own leg), or unloading a gazillion pumpkins and watermelons truck after truck, I was happy — nay — euphoric, doing it all because I knew it was for the elephants. I knew that in my own little way, I was helping them lead the life they were born for: a life of freedom, away from abuse, pain, and servitude.

A wonderful experience

Making my dream come true at Elephant Nature Park.

And that was exactly what I had set out to do in 2009. With the help of Elephant Nature Park, my fellow volunteers, and of course, the elephants themselves, I had finally made my dream come true. I will be forever grateful for that and I thank Kwanjai for being a part of this wonderful experience. It saddens me that she is no longer with her loving family, elephant and human, but it humbles me deeply to know that despite enduring a lifetime of pain and torture, she was still able to show forgiveness and tenderness.

These elephants have so much to teach us and I am grateful to them and to ENP for allowing me the opportunity to learn and grow from their example.

For more information on how you can help out, either by volunteering or donating, please visit the ENP website or the Save Elephant Foundation website.

19 Comments

  • “It didn’t matter what I was doing……Because I knew that in my own little way, I was helping them lead the life they were born for – a life of freedom from abuse, pain, and servitude.”

    so true, it really is a magical place. I probably don’t go a week without telling someone else about it.

    • Connvoyage says:

      Same here! It was really a great experience and even though we didn’t get to work together much, I’m glad we connected! Look at us now, Don! I’m already trying to see when I can get back to Chiang Mai for this!

      • Ha ha, me too. Towards the end of the year would be ideal – we had such good weather.

        When I went back to London for a couple of weeks in Jan, I caught up a friend from uni who trained as a vet. She tells me she’s going to be there for two months working as one of the elephant vets, so I might have my excuse now…

  • John Evans says:

    Connie, you put me and your other readers right there, not only in the physical environment but in the euphoria of being at ENP. Keep writing.

  • Thank you so much for your beautiful story about your time at Elephant Nature Park.

  • May Wong says:

    thanks for sharing your story, i am plannig to go in sept as a volunteer for a week. but somehow i keep thinking if i should just make a one / two night stay viisit instead. my hesitation is sept is a rainny season and clearing the poo. i keep telling myself don’t think too much and just off i go. as everyone says it’s such an incredible life experience.

    • Connvoyage says:

      Hi May! Definitely do it for as long as you can! The experience is truly incredible and even with rain and poo, you’ll have a great time. I can practically guarantee it!

  • Sylvia Heins says:

    Beautiful story Connie, in February 2014 my dream comes true. With my two nieces i’ll volunteer two weeks at ENP. I just booked and i’m so happy.

    • Connvoyage says:

      That’s fantastic! Your nieces are very lucky to have an aunt like you. You will have an amazing time. I can’t wait to here your experiences there! Please come back and share.

  • kimberley armstrong says:

    I’m going to be volunteering for 2 weeks at the start of December so I just wanted to say thanks for this post – it’s made me so excited (even more so than I already was!). My reasons for wanting to do this sound so similar to yours and I’m so glad to see that it lived up to your expectations and more. I hope I can report back with a similar experience..

    Take care xx

  • Les says:

    Connie,

    It was great reading your blog. It is indeed the experience of a lifetime!

    I also kept a blog of my trip in March 2013 and look forward to going back again next year.

    Les

    thailandtwentythirteen.blogspot.com

  • Kathrin says:

    Beautiful article!

    We will be there with our two boys in 10 days! I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am!

  • […] not quite sure where my adventure this time around will take me (other than a repeat volunteer program at Elephant Nature Park), but one thing I do know is that it’s going to be one hell […]

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