My Week Volunteering at Elephants World | Thailand

This is another throwback blog post from my first trip away, five years ago to Thailand. I had booked to travel for a month, during my university holidays and I decided to extend my trip for a week, to go and volunteer at the Elephants Sanctuary I had visited earlier in the trip. I was undecided about whether to extend for two reasons- one because I was young and had never done anything like that on my own before. But also because the day after I had visited the sanctuary for the first time, I had the most horrific food poisoning ever, and I really didn’t fancy getting that again! But I had loved the sanctuary soo much so decided to go for it.

The  sanctuary itself was in Kanchanaburi which is a few hours west of Bangkok. I was in the southern island of Koh Phi Phi and caught a night bus back up to Bangkok, a taxi to the main bus station and then a smaller bus across to Kanchanaburi. On arrival, I caught a tuk-tuk to ‘Sam’s Guesthouse’, the same place I had stayed in on my first visit to the sanctuary. I dumped my stuff, and I wandered along the river to the market. That night, I barely slept- it was very weird being in a guesthouse on my own with all the noises!

In the morning, I got picked up by the Elephants World truck. I was so so nervous when I got there and really regretted my decision to extend, but thankfully the nerves didn’t last for long. I was told to be a visitor for the day which was nice but I had expected to get stuck in straight away because I didn’t have that long! After the day visitors had left, I got the chance to ride one of the elephants back to the jungle where they sleep at night. I rode the neck, because that is the strongest part of an elephant, much stronger than the back and doesn’t hurt them. It was amazing! That first night we were told to be at dinner early because we were going to go and watch some Thai fighting later on, as one of the mahout’s brothers was a professional fighter. We all piled into a blue truck that was really uncomfortable for about three hours, and we were all bumping about because the driver drove so fast.  When we arrived to watch the fight, we were moved to sit behind important row of people who I think were the judges- assuming just because we were visibly not Thai and this place was in the sticks. It was a strange experience- we kept getting filmed and then a world champion shook our hands!

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From L-R Kamoon, Malee and Somboon

The following day, my first job as a volunteer was to go to the food store and make up huge buckets of food for each elephant consisting of 15kg of cucumbers, sweet potatoes and corn. Then we had a staff meeting and when the visitors arrived for the day, I walked around with the other volunteers, explaining everything and showing them round. My first group to show round was a really nice group of people who loved the place as much as I did when I first came! I already felt really proud of the sanctuary and the elephants, and that I was contributing to something amazing.

The room I was staying in was a gorgeous little wooden hut, right next to the river, with a small bathroom attached to the outside. The following morning, I got up early to prep the buckets again and then we had another staff meeting where we were told a baby elephant was being dropped off that day! I didn’t get the chance to see her that day because the mahouts were settling her in. I split that day between being a guide for the day visitors and getting bits done, like cleaning the pans we make sticky rice in. After the guests left, one of the managers drove us to a Sunday market, which was absolutely huge and really cheap- I bought a few pairs of earrings. Later that evening one of the mahout’s children was turning three and there was a big celebration in their mahout village, and we were invited which was lovely! The whole thing was in Karen (the language of their tribe) so we didn’t understand, but there was some music and singing and lots of amazing food.

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The next day, another a new elephant arrived, a disabled one with her back right leg being shorter than all the others. Three of the main elephants at EW, called Malee, Sombooon and Kamoon became really agitated and we think it was because they were protective of the new baby. They attacked Lam Duan who is the blind elephant! The new elephant was called Kamkow, and seemed to be settling in okay; her mahout was staying for a week to teach the other mahouts the best way to look after her. She had been used in the tourism industry her whole life, and her mahout made her pick people up with her trunk, until he was asked to stop by the manager because it wasn’t natural and that behaviour didn’t belong in the sanctuary. That night, one of the other volunteers and I went to Agnes’s house (the sanctuary owner) to help her with some admin. She had a massive house with thirteen rescued street dogs who were all a bit crazy!

On my last full day there, I had another really good day. In the morning I went with one of the volunteers to feed the baby and give her bananas with hidden vitamins. She was absolutely gorgeous. For now she sleeps chained to a tree within the sanctuary because Wasana, her new adopted mum sleeps in the jungle. We had to give her them in a rush because she wanted to get back to Wasana! When the guests left, I got to ride Somboon back to the forest with Mai, her mahout. It was the most perfect moment, riding an elephant walking along with all the other elephants and beautiful mountains. I remember Mai was singing ‘If tomorrow never comes’, which was the most fitting song for there and then! I hope I remember that forever. That evening, one of the mahouts drove us to the shop and we bought some beers and as it was my last night, we had a party.

On my last morning, I woke up hungover and went and fed the baby. We fed her straight into her mouth because she was so hungry! That last day, I was allowed to be a guest again and just appreciate the sanctuary for the magical place it was. In the morning watched the elephants bathe in the river and then in the afternoon we went cutting corn in the fields and it was absolutely hilarious. That evening when the EW taxi was taking me back to Kanchanaburi to catch the bus back to Bangkok, I cried so much leaving. It was honestly the most amazing experience.

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