Hanging out with elephants for a good cause in Thailand

 Photo cred: Mike Chino 

Photo cred: Mike Chino 

Do the mind and soul some good while frolicking with elephants and volunteering in Thailand. 

Who would not want to frolic with elephants while in Thailand? There is no shortage of opportunities to hang out with elephants in Chiang Mai, however, there is a shortage of companies offering a ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project.  The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary does not utilize any elephants for rides which can sometimes be non-humane towards the elephants as they are exploited and exhausted for tourist use.  Instead, the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary rescues elephants and educates tourists about them.  This is not volunteer work and there is a entrance fee. The majority of all donations and entrance fees go to elephant rescue, food, infrastructure, land use to expand for the elephants and veterinarian care.  The sanctuary is about 1.5 hours from Chiang Mai city center and we traveled by Red cars through curvey and bumpy roads to the jungle.  I'm not one for car sickness but its hard to avoid via this type of travel for extended periods of time.  

You can opt for a half day or a full day. I recommend the full day. Upon arrival we were given similar style thai shirts to wear around the elephants during feeding. The elephants associate those who feed them bananas with these shirts so they know they mean no harm and its something to look forward too.  The day consisted of interacting with the elephants through petting, feeding bananas, making them home-made vitamin food using organic rice and bananas and frolicking in a mud bath with them (Yes, I stepped in lots of elephant poop barefoot and was totally ok with it). Once we were all good and muddy we washed the elephants in the nearby river as they lay joyfully in the water and scratched their backs on rocks.  We poured buckets of water on them (and ourselves) to wash up and they thoroughly seemed to enjoy it. You can tell when they are happy and relaxed by the way they flap their massive ears. Half way through the day we the humans broke for a delicious lunch of clear broth soup and rice with chicken and cabbage.  

One of my favorite elephants was "Peter" the baby in the group.  He was incredibly playful, full of energy and constantly teased the local workers by not listening to them, running away in what looked like a giggling "cant catch me" manner and was disciplined by Mama elephant on a few occasions.   Elephants are incredibly intelligent and have a huge range of emotions so it was incredibly fun and interesting to watch the dynamic of the little one in his playful yet rebellious manner as the adult elephants looked embarrassed and bored with his antics.  

Volunteer opportunities at the Healing Family Foundation in Chiang Mai 

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In my pursuit of nourished travel for the mind, body and soul I think a day of volunteering in a new place is incredibly rewarding to this endeavor for all of the above.  

The Healing Family Foundation in Chiang Mai welcomes volunteers for an afternoon and this is an organization that provides a space for developmentally challenged adults (20's-30's) to have fun, engage and show their impressive weaving skills.  The volunteer opportunity is only a couple hours as their attention spans vary and its important to keep them engaged.  We began by introducing ourselves followed by participating in their daily routine of a couple songs and games which was quite fun. Afterwards, we spent an afternoon with them practicing some creativity by making Christmas and New Years cards.  Most did not speak any english, but a translator is present and if it is one thing I have learned from my travels its that two people do not need to speak the same language to engage and communicate with each other. It was such a lovely afternoon interacting with them, drawing together, dancing and playing games.

At the end of the afternoon, we were able to look at the beautiful hand woven pieces that were made by the group, however, there was no pressure to purchase anything.  Naturally the donations help the foundation and are quite beautiful but they in no way put pressure on you to buy anything.  The program and day was well structured and the benefits from this day of volunteering offered enormous benefits to both the volunteers and the community. 

We all lead busy lives, but I can't stress enough making a few hours of your travel itinerary to include a positive impact will benefit you enormously.  It is an amazing way to nourish your soul, help others but also learn so much about the place and community you are visiting.