Elephant Nature Park: Shoveling poo, a good thing.

After my volunteer vacation in Punto Banco, I realized that sometimes, there’s more to travel than snapping a picture  in front of the famous place I’ve dreamt about,  and checking off one more “did-that” on my bucket list. Not to say that “just” traveling is OK, and volunteer vacationing is better. Heck, I love/do both.  But what’s really super cool about volunteering  abroad is doing something you really love, in an area of the world you’d love to be in, get up to your ears in a culture you really dig, share your love with other like-minded freaks AND, it’s all for a good cause. For me, that’s Elephant Nature Park (ENP). I’ve been back twice and believe me, Jonah and I will be visiting our elephant and human family for years to come.

So what is this Elephant Nature Park? Simply, it’s a sanctuary in Northern Thailand for abused elephants. You see, what I didn’t realize years ago, nor do many tourist  realize today,  that to ride or “trek” with these gentle giants, an elephant has to go through extreme and abusive training called the pajaan. Even for an elephant to paint a picture, he/she had to go through the pajaan. And that “training” is pretty horrific. Actually, mostly all the elephants at the park have been have abused in this way or worse.  We humans can be a very shameful species at times.

But with that important stuff being said, here’s what else keeps us coming back for more:

Lek– Founder of Elephant Nature Park

People have often asked “If you could invite anyone for dinner,who would it be?” For me, besides, Aung San Suu Kyi or my celebrity crush, Anthony Bourdain, it would be Lek. Her compassion and ability to communicate with the elephants is astounding. It’s amazing to watch Pha Mai, the 2 year old elephant she raised, hug her as if she were her own mother.  Lek’s humility is brilliantly sincere and I’ve watched her go out of her way to  meet and thank each and every volunteer and day visitor. In one word, inspiring. Take your kid, just like I took Jonah, and show them how, and with passion, you can change the world. She has single-handily saved over 200 elephants. How can you not want to be part of her movement?

Chet- our favorite volunteer coordinator
Chet knows how to make unloading 3 tons of watermelons from a truck , washing 2000 pumpkins or planting new crops in monsoon rains, just plain fun.
Blasting Lady Gaga on a portable ipod speaker sure helps. So does his fashion sense and evenings leading a wild game of Thai Uno. He’s the best
damn party/volunteer motivator I’ve ever seen.

Jodi- resident volunteer,  tatoo artist, and best photographer of elephants
Jodi is the “Liz Smith” of Elephant Nature Park. Wanna know Hope’s new heart throb or who’s Sao Yai’s new BFF, Jodi will know. She’s also a terrific tattoo artist. And in between our volunteer duties and Jodi’s elephant walking tours,  Jonah and I slipped off to her hut in the middle of the elephant field that seriously, would make the top ten list of best places to get a tattoo. So this is where we got our, not matching, mother/son elephant tats. Or as Jonah broke the news to my very jewish father, “We got something in Thailand that we can’t return”.  For those interested, there’s a tight volunteer schedule and she only does tats on break time.

Mahouts and Karma
Many of the mahouts and some staff are Burmese refugees. Last year it was curious to see them  in a long line waiting to be examined by a Doctor. Apparently,they needed an examine so that they could get their papers to legally be in Thailand. So ENP arranged for a doctor to come to the park. Interestingly enough, this is as much of a sanctuary for them as it is for the elephants. How’s that for good Karma?
The land of misfit toys
Lek not only created a sanctuary for her elephants but all living things. The first year we were there, the park had 90 dogs running around. Local villagers and monks would bring dogs that were sick, injured or just unwanted. Our first year we friended “Eddie Machete” whose owner tried to cut him in half  with a machete one night when he got drunk.(Ouch!) This year, he was full-grown and running with the pack.  Then there’s Ruby,the pig. Ruby was another poor 4-legged creature who was hacked by a machete and just a heartbeat away from becoming bacon. There’s Beauty, the blind dog, rescued from the floods and Noah, the 2 month old goat who’s sleeping in Lily’s bed. (Lily runs the gift shop). And last year’s floods brought over 200 dogs to the park that Lek and her volunteers personally rescued. So when Jonah and I finished our elephant duties, we played with puppies, walked sick dogs, visited Ruby (she loves company) , and babysat Noah.  There’s a strange sense of acceptance when you’re surrounded by  living creatures who each and every one of them have some sort of “story” to tell. Well we all got stories, and it kinda feels comforting being in a world that is no longer about judgement but one of compassion.

So why is shoveling poo a good thing?
Because I get to stand in a magnificent landscape, beside the most majestic and intelligent creatures in the world.
I stop  from time to time as other volunteers do, to pet a trunk, scratch an ear or just watch in awe at the sheer intelligence of this magnificent creature taking a simple string from a fence and using it as a “tool” to scratch a hard to reach spot on it’s back. Drenched in sweat, and sincerely doing hard labor, no one ever complains. There is an unspoken understanding that it’s actually a privilege to be here and sharing in a cause that’s well worth shoveling for.

If you’d like to find out more about volunteering at Elephant Nature Park, just click here.
And feel free to send me a message if you’d like to know more about our personal experience.

6 thoughts on “Elephant Nature Park: Shoveling poo, a good thing.

  1. This is Mindy from Save Elephant Foundation, the organization that runs the Elephant Nature Park project. We’re so thrilled you enjoyed your time, and your account of your volunteer week is fantastic! Great photos, too 🙂 Please note, that if you would like to visit or volunteer at ENP, you can do so through the foundation’s website: http://www.saveelephant.org, and you’ll also be able to learn about the many other projects Lek and her team work on!

  2. Hello!
    What a great trip report. Thanks so much for posting. We are considering applying to go as a family. Our daughter will be 3.5 years old. Do you think that would work? Their website says they accept families, but I wondering since you have been if you could share any thoughts on that. We have traveled quite a bit including with her.

    • I really can’t speak for the park, but I will speak as a mom and as an experienced volunteer. You are there to volunteer and to seriously pitch in with the care of the park and the elephants. The tasks are quite physical and they do take a lot of teamwork. I’d also say they be a bit dangerous for a 3.5 year old to be around without constant supervision of an adult. Such as cutting grass with machetes, shoveling poo surrounded by elephants (you can NEVER stand in front of an elephant and they can move VERY quick), cutting pumpkins, watermelons and sugar cane with machetes, putting up barbed wired fences. Well I guess you get the picture. One of you would spend most of your time keeping a real good eye on your little girl and really wouldn’t be able to participate in the volunteer activities. What I would suggest is a day trip or overnight. And day trippers/overnighters do get to be up close with the eles. They get to feed, bathe, walk around the park, meet the eles, meet Lek, and just soak up the good vibes.

      • Thanks for you insight. I was also thinking that one of us would be working and the other with her. The daytrip or overnight is a good suggestion.

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