So I’d heard about the Elephant Nature Park from a couple of different sources and it seemed to be the best of the many elephant options around Chiang Mai. When I arrived in the city I went to their office to book, and they had one spot available for an overnight visit, and one spot left for their weeklong Journey to Freedom program. Only elephants who can’t make it in the wild live at the Elephant Nature Park itself. The other elephants ENP supports are out in the wild, so with Journey to Freedom you volunteer in the hill tribes near where the elephants live. So you spend the week in a secluded village, working both with and for the elephants, and with the kids of the village. I was torn.
On one hand, the idea of spending a whole week helping elephants sounded awesome. On the other hand, the work itself, cutting grasses, building fences, etc. looked hard. Aren’t I on vacation? Plus, it was longer than I’d planned on spending in the North, and the idea of being so cut off from everything and everyone was daunting. My trip so far hadn’t been especially social, I hadn’t really clicked with anyone in the hostels I’d stayed at or with roommates I’d had. Not being able at least to have email and contact with home was a little scary. Plus I chickened out and signed up for the overnight trip but still had second thoughts. To add to it, it was about 2 am at home, but thankfully, my cousin Cathy doesn’t sleep, so I called her for advice. She talked me into doing the weeklong trip and I am so thankful she did. She pointed out, rightly, that I would probably never have another opportunity to do something like this again. So I went back and switched from the overnight program to the week-long, and thought, “here goes nothing.”
Monday morning we stopped by the office before piling into minivans. We watched a cute cartoon about how to behave around the elephants, and some disturbing videos about elephant training, and their treatment in trekking and logging camps. There were 13 of us: 2 Australians, 3 British, 5 Canadian, 1 Dutch, 1 Italian, and me. Before we’d even left the office we were really hitting it off, and chatted the whole way on the three hour drive to the village. We stopped a few times on the way: at a market where a few of us bought sweatshirts, briefly for me to throw up into a field, and then for lunch. Apparently those winding mountain roads don’t agree with me. I’d rallied by lunchtime though.
Our housing was really basic, just mats on the floor of a bamboo hut, with some limited electricity.
After we got settled, Yo, our leader explained about the herd of elephants and told us a bit about their pasts. Mae Yoi (“you-E”) is 30 years old and the mother of Mae Boi (“boy”) age 5. When Mae Boi was 1 1/2 she was stolen from her mother, and spent the next three plus years working at a traveling circus. It was only 5 months ago that Lek and ENP reunited them. Mae Yoi has been really anxious about letting her daughter out of her sight since. Plus, Yo warned us that since Mae Boi’s mahout (trainer/caretaker) at the circus had been an alcoholic, she wouldn’t go anywhere near anyone who smelled like alcohol. Mae Boon Si is 32, and got a bad back infection while working carrying tourists at a trekking camp, which prevented her from being able to continue to work. She’s also about 7 months pregnant. Erawan is a 7 year old male. They live with their new mahouts in the woods outside the village where we were staying. After the explanation, we got to meet them! They came tromping down a hill from the woods and we fed them sticky tamarind pods, which they love.
If you’d like to visit, or donate, or get involved in any way with this incredible organization, this is the link to the Elephant Nature Park