Before starting our travels I had been keen to do some volunteering with elephants whilst we were away as I love elephants and had never been up close with them. It was encouraging when we looked at some projects that there are a lot more rescue and sanctuary centres for elephants now that do not allow elephant riding. We wanted to spend longer than a day at a centre, actually experiencing what it is like to help take care of these amazing creatures rather than just having a day “experience” with them. We initially tried to book at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai but for the dates we were going to be there they were fully booked for their week volunteering packages. Instead, we decided to see if there was anywhere we could volunteer at when we came back into Thailand and thankfully found the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand that was based near to Cha’am (2 hours south of Bangkok). This is more of a project for long term volunteers but they did accept volunteers for a minimum of a week at a time. We ended up just signing up for a week due to funds and as we wanted to see some of the south of Thailand during our second month there. You can choose to work as an ‘elephant’ volunteer- exclusively working with the elephants at the Elephant Refuge and Education centre or a ‘wildlife’ volunteer- working with all other animals at the rescue centre. If you work for more than a week you can also choose to split your time between the two if you want to. We both chose to work as elephant volunteers for the week. Organising this beforehand meant that we paid our week in advance before travelling; this included all accommodation and food for the time we were there giving us a break in our monthly budget.
We boarded the train in Bangkok at 9.20pm, leaving 15 minutes late and travelled to Cha’am on the ordinary #261 3rd class train. The train was very busy but we managed to get seats and were thankfully close to some fans as even with all the windows open it was still baking. It took about 4 hours to get to Cha’am, getting in at about 1.30pm due to it stopping literally every couple of minutes (after 31 stops). It was totally worth it though as we got to see all the little towns out the window and the landscape change to rice fields and mountainous jungles. It also only cost us 40 baht each for the ticket whereas the taxi price given by WFFT from Bangkok to Cha’am was 2200 baht. We arrived at the train station, let the WFFT know that we had arrived via Line, where they kindly sent a pick -up truck taxi to collect us and take us the 45 minutes more to the WFFT Rescue Center. Apparently, we had arrived slightly later than most of the other volunteers as when we got there we were hurried to join them on the tour of the centre that had already started. We hadn’t missed much and Ping (The Wildlife Volunteer Coordinator) keenly introduced herself and us to the group. She was incredibly passionate, enthusiastic and lively giving a great tour of the whole sanctuary. She explained about the different animals, how they majorly come to be here and gave us lots of background stories for the animals. We looked around the main area centre, then went to see the majority of the elephants at the Midlands and Newlands sites via pick up truck as they have a lot of land that we couldn’t get around quickly by foot. We loved the tour even though we had spent all day travelling and were exhausted but Ping kept us really engaged, gave us a good insight to the animals and it was just exciting to be there seeing all the awesome animals we would be working around for the next week.
After our tour, we went for our first meal, served at the elephant kitchen. It is called the elephant kitchen as the kitchen is sat right by Pailin’s enclosure (sassy old elephant). It did not get old eating and seeing an elephant. Meals are a big thing here. When you are working physically hard all day in the heat meals are the things that the volunteers look forward to and help to break up the day. So when it was time for dinner (served buffet style in warmish dishes) to start there was always huge queues. The whole time we were there though we did not go without food. There was a mix of dishes for lunch and dinner mostly Thai curried meats or veg, rice, some sort of side dish and some fruit. In the mornings there were fruits, toast, porridge oats, eggs so you could find something to eat even if fussy (which surprisingly a lot of people were). There is also a kitchen for volunteers to make their own meals if they want to, usually, if people aren’t a fan of the food or have been there too long that they are sick of it. Those people tended to take part in the weekly Tuesday night trip to Tesco to stock up majorly on Nutella or peanut butter!
At the end of the meal, we met with Mo (the volunteer coordinator) as Dave (the elephant coordinator) was on holiday. She explained how the volunteering worked. Each day we were expected to get up and be at the volunteer kitchen for 6.30am. We had to check on the whiteboard who was going to be our team leader and which elephants we would be working with during the day. You could be the team leader after 3 days of working with a set of elephants if you are staying longer than a week so we dodged that responsibility! Our schedule was written up on the board for us so we took a picture of it so we knew what we were doing. There were also other activities you could sign up to if to fill your evenings or days off such as the trip to Tesco, going into Hua Hin to the beach, to see the bat cave, going to the spa to use the pool and have treatments if you wanted to. We did not sign up to any of these as the activities and taxis to get to them would have added up to too much. However if you were going just to there for a few weeks these are the perfect ways to break up your time there. The rough general outline for each day though was (with breaks dotted about in these timings too):
- 6.30-8am: Food preparation and First feed out
- 8am- 9am (unless on harvest): Breakfast
- 9.30-10.30- Clean Enclosures and Food preparation
- 10.30- 11.30- Special Project
- 12- Lunch
- 1pm-2.30pm: Clean enclosures and make enrichments
- 2.30pm-3pm: Varied per elephant- can be swims, showers or walks.
- 3.30pm-5pm: More food preparation, afternoon feed outs
- 6pm: Dinner
Food preparation consisted of loading baskets of fruit into trolleys or trucks and taking them to the area you were working (either at the centre, at Midlands or at Newlands). Then you would unload bananas into wheelbarrows and soak the rest of the fruit for 10 minutes. In the late morning, it also meant chopping tons of fruit to be used for enrichments or whilst walking/ showering the elephants.
First feed out consisted of making banana balls, which for me consolidated the fact that I don’t like the texture or smell of bananas! We peeled and mushed up a load of bananas in bowls for each elephant, the old brown ones were the best kind, then mixed it with a couple of bowls of bran powder and pellets. When well and truly mixed we shaped them into ball shapes. Then we got to feed them to elephants. This was one of the best things about working at the centre and was an incredible experience to place a banana ball on an elephants trunk. It latches onto it and often throws it into its mouth! Afternoon feed outs include more banana balls, salads and placing enrichments in the enclosures.
If you were on Harvest you had to go to the truck at 8.30am then you would drive to the banana plantation field (it changes every time) to return before lunchtime usually with enough time to shower as you needed it! This was alternate days.
When cleaning enclosures usually we would either take a load of salad for the elephants (banana leaves with molasses poured over it) and whilst they were eating we would scoop up their poo with scoops or our gloved hands. We also had to collect all the litter from the food enrichments and old bits of salad and banana trees that the elephants don’t eat. The good part about this is that you all work together as a group going around cleaning up one enclosure at a time but it then does not take half as long and is oddly enjoyable.
Special Projects vary from day to day depending on what needs doing around the centre and is not always even related to the elephants. We cleaned out a pond of weeds which was really dirty slimy work, deep cleaned enclosures, watered plants and cleaned trash from the centre to the local temple.
We made multiple enrichments for each elephant daily- these varied from tying pieces of fruit together and hanging them around enclosures, making fruit parcels or boxes that they had to break into to filling tires full of fruit, lining them and then hanging them from parts of the enclosures. They never lasted that long no matter how well they were hidden. Hopefully, it helps to keep the elephants’ minds slightly sharper though. The issue was that there were not many permanent fixtures to hide things in through out the enclosures as elephants break anything light weight.
Each set of elephants has a different daily schedule for the workers so the above is just a guide. Some elephants are walked and showered daily, some even twice a day. Each of the groups of elephants has a mahout that works closely with them and knows them very well. Therefore despite having a team leader that person looks to the mahout to make sure when it is ok to enter an enclosure or approach one of the elephants. They are a great group of guys, very fun, friendly and smiley often making the volunteers bracelets too.
Day 2 (start of working with the elephants)
We worked with Steph and had Katie as our team leader (who had been there months) at the Midlands site. There are four enclosures there and 8 elephants. We were placed with the enclosure of four elephants- Kaew Petch, La Ong Dao, Pin and Pun (which were a mum and adorable baby elephant!). It was awesome working so close to these elephants and we got to feed them with both me and Dave taking a turn to feed Pin the baby throughout the day. He would often lose concentration and wander off (Pin not Dave!) so you had to follow him about. When putting the salad into the enclosures you carry a large bucket of food with two of you to dump it in a concrete holder for the elephant to eat from. You have to be quick and watch where the elephants are at all times as they are amazingly quick to follow you when you have food and they make absolutely no noise! You realize how big they are when you are being mildly chased by one, you don’t want to be between it and its food! Most of the day we just followed people and were told what to do and where to go as we had no idea what to do, despite having the schedule we obviously didn’t know what any of it actually meant! We completed the usual tasks, getting straight on with handling huge elephant poo and cleaning out. Our special project that day was for all of us to clean out one of the Newlands lakes of weeds. This was particularly grimy and Dave even had to venture into the lake at one point as we couldn’t get the big clump from the side. All special projects after that for the rest of the week felt easy! At the end of the day we were exhausted but took a wander around the rest of the sanctuary to see more of the animals where we saw one of the sun bear handlers taking one of the bears for his play time- pretty much wrestling the bear playfully (he is the only person that can do this as he helped to raise him!). We were grateful for dinner and afterwards took the walk to 7/11 in the village before chatting to people and going to bed at 10 pm, shattered.
We worked with Sophia (who had also been there a while as well as before) and then with the same elephants again. Despite knowing a bit more of their routine it didn’t help that much as we were on harvest so spent the morning out in the banana plantation. We got to the field where we then hauled the already chopped banana trees onto our shoulders and then threw them in the truck or handed them to one of the mahouts to chuck in there. It was hard gruelling work. The difficulty with it is initially getting the trees on your shoulders as they are often slippy from sap and you are slippy from being in an open field in the sun. It was satisfying though watching the truck pile up and when you have the knack of it managing to carry two trees at a time or a bigger one by yourself. The river felt very refreshing afterwards where we went for a swim before heading back. I had not felt well at all during harvest so instead of going to help clean enclosures up at the Newlands site I left Dave to do that with some others whilst I helped prepare more fruit at Midlands. In the afternoon our special project was to water some of the plants at the centre so that was nice and straight forward! The evening was a very relaxed quiet one after not feeling great where we just took some photos of the other animals. Getting some photos of the animals in the main area of the wildlife centre (gibbons, macaques, orangutans, pigs, sun bears and the crocodile).
Uwe (who had joined the same time we had) was our team leader today as he had been working with these set of elephants for two days previously and knew their routine a bit now. We worked with elephants Wassana + Rung Thip and this was great news for us as it meant we got to walk and wash the elephants. The other four we worked with for the first couple of days are not walked or washed due to the elephants being very protective over the baby. Walking an elephant was daunting as you have a small bucket of fruit and a few ton elephant wandering behind you then thrusting their trunk around you to find the bucket! But incredible and really special. We just had to make sure to pace the fruit so there was enough to get the elephant back to the enclosures as these ones particularly like to wander off! After their walk, they were washed which means one person spraying water on the elephant and the others using long handled brooms to wash some of the dirt and leaves off of them, makes you realise how big they are! Our special project for that day was shredding poo. This meant all of us sat around the big pile of elephant poo that had been collected and piled up over the last few days then getting “the right type of pieces” and shredding them by hand into more piles. This was then collected into bags and used to compost the plants around the centre…not so glamorous but surprising therapeutic. Uwe did a great job leading the team as he had only been there a couple of days and we felt more confident with the overall general tasks that were being done at the Midlands site now. Before dinner, we visited the nocturnal animal area as the sun was just starting to go down. We managed to see and photograph quite a few of the animals (slow loris, binturong-which smells like popcorn, palm civets, more gibbons, boars, and dears- which roam freely in this wooded area). Afterward, we had dinner, went to 7/11 where there was a dog that kept barking and nearly tried to bite Dave as her puppies were trying to get attention from us! We spent time chilling out back at the elephant kitchen and talking to some of the long term volunteers.
As an elephant volunteer we were allowed one day off a week (it is more when there are more volunteers at the centre). This was ours. We took the luxury of not having to get up for 6.30am, instead of getting up just in time for breakfast at 8 am. We headed over to the elephant enclosures at Midlands to take some photos. We also climbed the tower that was there and sat watching the elephants as the rain came down and the volunteers were away on other tasks. After lunch, we made our way to explore the temple near by with all the different statues around before heading to 7/11. I felt awful during this time and had to go back to rest in the room. We sorted out options for where we were going next, booking accommodation in Chumpon whilst the volunteers were out working so the elephant kitchen was quiet and we could get on the internet. We spent another evening talking to lots of different people which was good as we were getting to know more of the volunteers before reading and going to bed.
We spent day 6 at Newlands site with Kaitlyn as our team leader and with one of the American girls, so completely different to Midlands as you are much more on your own. We sorted fruit out and made our banana balls to feed to the 3 elephants in one of the enclosures up there- Namphon, Duen Phen and See Puak. It was great to do this as each of these elephants are different having to be feed different sizes balls at different rates and in different styles- passing them to the elephant or throwing them in their mouth. To do that you had to hold the ball in your hand and extend your arm up where the elephant would then put her trunk up and open her mouth for it to be thrown in. We then went to clean out enclosures with the rest of the volunteers where it absolutely chucked it down and we were all soaking wet whilst trying to pick up stuff, you couldn’t kill the spirit though and everyone just got on seeing the funny side of it. With the other elephants at Newlands- Khan Kluey and Som Boon you have to throw salad into the enclosure from a distance as Khan Kluey is the big male elephant who is dangerous (but gorgeous). Their enclosure has a high concrete wall making it more difficult for him to get out thankfully. One of us had to throw banana balls and fruit into his mouth whilst the other person put pieces of fruit on the wall for Som Boon to find and eat. Everyone’s special project that day was to clean out their enclosure. As he is a very dangerous elephant both elephants have to go in a small enclosure attached to their big one whilst we all went in and some how made it into a game to collect and throw the poo up over the wall in various ways, where it was then collected. Somehow a great bonding exercise. The rest of the day was fairly chilled with us all chilling out with the Mahoot in between tasks- he even found us some fresh honeycomb to try. In the evening after dinner, we chilled out in the volunteer kitchen with some of the longer length volunteers (Kaitlyn, Steph, and Teegan) having much needed hot chocolate. The rest of the evening was spent chatting to Katie and Sophia, the really long term volunteers about their time there, what they do at home and Dave sharing more animal facts with everyone (which people there loved).
On our last day working with the elephants we were very happy to be working at the Centre (meaning we got to work at all the different sites in our week there). It also meant we got to work with Pailin and Boon Mee who are fantastic elephants. Boon Mee is very gentle whilst Pailin is the old elephant who is very sassy. Kaitlyn was our team leader again and we were also working with Emily. Kaitlyn was very chatty and bubbly making the day a lot of fun. We were also very lucky as both elephants are walked and showered twice a day. Dave went to go to do harvest again and it was apparently a lot harder as half the group (a group of American students) decided they didn’t want to really participate making it ten times longer and harder work for the other few people doing it. Whilst doing this me, Kaitlyn and Emily got on with the usual tasks. Emily didn’t feel great so went back to her room whilst Kaitlyn and I walked and showered both elephants and taking it in turns to have mini photo shoots at the same time. Dave didn’t miss out completely though as he got to assist the tourists walking Boon Mee and then got to walk and shower Pailin with us in the afternoon. Great last day working with the elephants. During the day we were working near to where the baby gibbons were, Kaitlyn and I got to watch as they played, climbed the fence and the tree near us. At the end of the working day, they were let out of their cage to play again and they came right up to us touching Dave and trying to steal our washing that we were trying to dry in the sun, they were incredibly cute! We took Kaitlyn to try to see some of the nocturnal animals. On the way we saw the 3 legged cow in the forest enclosure…. it is evil and tried to run at u through the fence. It is also best friends oddly with a giant tortoise. We also saw the sun bear that goes out with one of its handlers just going out for runs with him. In the evening we spent time chatting to a lot of the elephant volunteers (Lynn and Stephen, Uve, Fred, Teegan, Stephanie, Molly, and Cammie). It was a shame as we had just felt like we had been accepted by the group and got to know people, as well as the job, by the time we were leaving.
The next day we headed to Chumpon. WFFT was an amazing experience- to work with the animals up close, get to know some amazing people and see the great work this volunteer program is doing. We would love to go back or to just go and do further volunteer programs in another part of the world. If you love elephants or animals and want to work with them plus explore Thailand sign yourself up to volunteer. If you just love elephants and animals you can also donate on their website to help them keep the centre running and expanding.