Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Walking with Elephants: Journey To Freedom Volunteering

Before volunteering for the Elephant Nature Park "Journey to Freedom" week long volunteer program, I read a lot of positive reviews about the Elephant Nature Park (http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/index.htm).  I also read a lot about the amazing work that the park founder, Sangduen Chailert (Lek) has done to raise awareness about the treatment of Thailand's elephants, and to rescue injured, tortured, orphaned, overworked, and traumatized elephants...not to mention other animals such as the 500 dogs, countless cats, and a handful of cows, buffalo, horses and pigs the park houses.
The website http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/volunteer/journeytofreedom/index.htm described the volunteer position I signed up for as follows: Journey to Freedom was created by Elephant Nature Park in June, 2010 to allow elephants owned by the Karen tribal people to retire from trekking camps and return to living in the jungle and hills near their villages. The project enables the elephants to live a more natural life and restores the close connection that the Karen people traditionally have with their herd.
A home stay has been set up in a village south of Chiang Mai for volunteers to learn about Karen culture and watch the elephants roam freely in this remote mountainous region. Fees paid by volunteers are used to compensate the tribes-folk  for the income they would have received from leasing their elephants to tourist camps. It is hoped that the interest and affection shown toward elephants will spark a similar drive amongst the younger Karen generation.
Funds from the project flow into the local school where volunteers teach English, plant elephant’s food, build elephant shelters, toilets and other community facilities. Karen women have the opportunity to trade their beautiful hand woven textiles. This community project, run in cooperation with the Karen people, provides an economic boost to the villages and benefits the entire community.

Another, affiliated website http://www.saveelephant.org/journey_to_freedom.html described the volunteer position a bit differently: Started in 2010, the Journey to Freedom project has grown into a nearly independent sanctuary for Asian elephants managed and maintained by Karen people. Their long history of working with elephants used to be centered around the logging industry. While the 1989 ban on logging was beneficial to the forest and the remaining wild elephants, it presented problems to the captive elephants and their owners. Faced with a loss of income, many Karen saw the only solution was to send their elephants to far away camps set up to entertain tourists. The Karen men would frequently lease their elephants to the camps where they were often mistreated.
When Karen mahouts contacted Sangduen "Lek" Chailert soliciting help to extricate their elephants from the abusive trekking business, the Journey to Freedom project was born. In July 2010, two elephants, their mahouts and a few volunteers walked through the jungle to a remote village known as Mae Chaem, near Doi Inthanon. Once they arrived, the elephants were released into areas surrounding the village. Today, this area and the project has evolved and is known as the Karen Elephant Sanctuary. It encompasses three villages and 15 elephants, including a set of twins who were born in October 2011.
Journey to Freedom is the next step in improving the lives of the Karen people and the elephants they keep. Its aim is to replace the income the Karen can earn by renting their elephants. Instead, elephants are cared for at home and left to live in their natural jungle habitat. To provide a livelihood to the people, Journey to Freedom allows visitors to come and spent time with the elephants in their natural homes.
The goal of the program is to show that elephants can be a source of income without their being exploited and to provide economic support for humane and culturally sensitive choices. What’s more, the Karen can live closely to their traditional way of life without avoiding quality-of-life improvements. The Journey to Freedom has helped to develop roads, water systems, and even recently installed the first refrigerator in a Karen village.
The reality was surprisingly different from both descriptions.  I want to preface the discussion of my experience by saying that despite things being different than I expected, and different than I was led to believe by the website descriptions, I had an amazing time, got to know a group of incredibly interesting, fun, and caring people, and felt rewarded by the experience.  
Following a hotel pickup I went to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai to finish paying for the volunteer trip (15,000 baht = $495 CAD), meet other volunteers and consolidate the 13 volunteers (myself, Ilyse, Jia, Jannis, Jeff, Dan and Amy, Trish and Megan, David and Martine, and Mike and Annette) and two Thai volunteer coordinators (Mix and Jane) into two minibuses.  We were then taken by minibus to a small village about 5 hours southeast of Chiang Mai where our luggage and ourselves were switched unceremoniously into the back of two pickup trucks to finish the remaining two hours of the journey over dusty, steep, bumpy, rutted, unpaved roads.  We arrived at about 6pm at a small village but continued on another kilometre to an even smaller village, not more than a collection of about 4 houses where we would be staying for the next 5 nights.  Rather than staying in a home stay, when we arrived, the 13 volunteers were each issued a mosquito net, cushioned mat, sleeping bag and one blanket each.  We all set up our mosquito nets and beds side by side on the floor of a large wooden building on stilts.  After setting up our beds and settling in we joined our guides at our dining area which was a large wooden picnic table outside next to a fire pit.  Mix and Jane (a guy, his name is pronounced like "Jan") made our dinner which was an incredible spread with multiple Thai dishes (rice, curries, veggies, soup).  All the meals were great, even lunches brought out on day trips which were simple rice or noodle dishes wrapped in leaves and tied up with vines.  I want to pack all my lunches in leaves now!  After dinner, Jane finally provided us with some information on what we would be doing.  He said we would see the elephants on Wednesday and Friday for a few hours each day...WHAT THE WHAT?!?!  There was some outrage in the group that first night because most of us were under the impression that we would be spending most of the week walking through the jungle with the elephants working directly with the elephants for their benefit.  

Back of the trucks... it's about to get bumpy 
HAHA a calf with a milk box

Smiling... but we haven't started going yet.  We were smiling at the end too... because the ride was over!


One of three bigger puppies who hung around the firepit for food and warmth.  We called this one Tiger

back of the volunteer house

Toilets, shower, and sink

Dining area

Front of the volunteer house

bedroom shrouded in mosquito nets

Tiger's mom helping with the dishes

Dan showcasing dinner

some of the neighbors
Below is the itinerary of what we actually did each day for the rest of the week:
Tuesday - breakfast at 8am, blessing ceremony by the local shaman, ride in the back of a pickup truck to a cornfield on the slope of a steep hill to pick corn with the Mahout (Voytujek) and his wife (Boyta) (Note: these are phonetic guesses at their names...and likely not correct!).  After a few hours we had lunch then husked some corn before walking to a waterfall where we had a chance to swim.  We returned "home" for Mix and Jane to do dinner prep at around 3pm.  Most days our volunteer activity ended at 3pm and the rest of the afternoon and evening were spent having tea, visiting, having dinner and sitting around the campfire having a few cold beers (Chang beers to be precise...Chang means "elephant" in Thai).

blessing ceremony

picking corn on the hillside
Volunteers husking corn
Boyta husking corn


Merry Christmas!  These huge Pointsetta bushes lined the roads and fields near the village like colorful hedges

Wednesday - we went to see a four year old female elephant and feed her some corn.  It was disturbing to most of us volunteers that this little girl was chained up by one leg...so much for "Journey to Freedom"!.  We were assured that she was only chained when we were there (for our protection) and that the rest of the time she was free to roam and forage in the jungle.  After seeing her we went to see the other four elephants; a mommy, her two twin baby girls (3 years old I think) and the nanny elephant.  Again, both the mum and nanny elephants were chained up buy one leg for our protection but the babies were free to roam.  Although big, the babies were still nursing and stayed pretty close to mum but we were told to be prepared to get out of the way if the babies came at us because they are curious, playful, and very strong.  It is important to note that neither the 4 year old, nor the twin baby elephants have been (nor will they be!) subjected to the Phajaan (see my previous post about this barbaric and cruel practice to break the elephant's spirit and ensure compliance).  We were told that they have been trained using only positive reinforcement (food) and a close bond with their Mahout.  After watching the twins, mum, and nanny eating rice straw for a while, mum and nanny were unchained and all four elephants were led into the jungle to forage for fresh bamboo while we followed.  It was amazing to see these huge animals, and the smaller (but still intimidatingly large) babies walking free in the jungle.  We were able to see them grazing, breaking down bamboo trees, playing, walking up steep slopes using their trunks for leverage, and walking up a riverbed.  Beautiful to witness.  There were a few tense moments when the elephants came towards us rather than continuing to move forward.  I felt a little nervous when the nanny and then the twin babies decided to come very close to us.  They are huge!  The Mahout was able to convince them to change direction with a few shoves to the trunk and some shouted commands.  We left the elephants in the jungle while we returned home for dinner.
Sunrise view from the house we slept in
four year old girl eating corn 
Mom and the two three year old twin girls
Mom and the twins.. no fence
Walking into the jungle to forage (Mix in the foreground)
One of the babies following mom
Evening culture share.  Boyta and her sister and the two little girls were fascinated with Martine and David's travel and family photos.  From left to right: Martine, Amy, Dan, David, Boyta's sister, Boyta, Boyta's daughter's friend, Boyta's daughter, and Ilyse
Thursday - we went to the village school (ages 3-8) to interact with the children in the morning.  We didn't receive much guidance, since the children are from the Karen tribe they speak Karen language, have only begun to learn Thai, and most don't speak any English.  We stuck with universal child pleasers including colouring, taking photos of them and then showing them the photos (FUN!), and singing some action songs including "head and shoulders knees and toes", "Ring around the Rosie", "I'm a little teapot" etc.  I think with a bit more structure and maybe a translator this could have been a much more useful activity.  It was fun for us and I think for the kids too but could be more meaningful with more structure and preparation.  Mix and Jane brought some notebooks and bags of potato chips for the kids and a few of the volunteers were clever enough to bring picture books, crayons, and other small gifts.  We spent the afternoon husking corn behind our accommodations and a few of the guys helped the villagers to build a frame over our dining area and tarping it to keep the area dry in case of rain.
These two girls were very enthusiastic participants, singing and dancing, and lots of giggles.
Cute little boy at the school

husking corn
Friday - we again visited the 4 year old "little" girl elephant to feed her corn and say goodbye before meeting the other 4 elephants in the jungle and continuing to walk with them further than we had previously.  In the evening, we split into three groups of in order to join three different villager families for dinner in their homes.  This was a really nice idea but without any shared language and without a translator, the cultural exchange was limited and a lot of smiles, nodding, and gestures were our only means of communication.  Dinner was delicious, I had dinner with the mahout (Voytujek), his wife (Boyta), their daughter, and one of the daughter's friends.  Voytujek was kind enough to give us a gift of a homegrown tobacco cigarette rolled in a banana leaf.  Milder than you would think.  After dinner, all the local families brought their hand woven scarves, clothing, and bags and displayed them on our dining table so we could buy something if anything caught our eye.
Boyta and her daughter (on her right) and one of her daughters friends on the left

Jeff and Martine at dinner with a few unexpected dinner guests sneaking up to help clear plates

Sorry Trevor...it was a gift...would have been rude if I didn't smoke it!

Scarves, bags, and clothing made by the local ladies 
At the village where we volunteered, both the mum and the nanny elephants were rescued from trecking camps, the twin babies were born in the jungle once the mother was removed from the camp, sadly, the 4 year old female was free but her parents both had to go back to work in elephant trecking camps.  The little girl liked to play with the twin babies but sadly she had sustained an injury to her trunk when a stick stabbed into it (ouch!) which had to heal before she could play with the other babies again and apparently the nanny didn't get along with her so she had to be alone for a while.
Aside from all the other activities at the village, we also played a few fun games including;
1. "Count The Puppies Under the House".  The winning answer was 8, all with their eyes still closed and belonging to two mum dogs.

One hardworking, skinny little mom with 6 puppies

Awwww, puppy pile!

2. "Who's Kid is That?" There were village kids all over but we couldn't figure out which kid belonged to who.
3. "Where's Scooter" aka "Where's Draggy Pig" There was a tiny piglet with paralyzed rear legs who would drag himself around looking for food.  It was quite entertaining...wait, before you call me a monster...he was moving really quick and the ground was soft grass and mud so he seemed to be doing fine!
4. "Chase Away Sponge Bob".  There was a cow who I found in the bathroom one day and she had knocked over the garbage bin full of dirty toilet tissue and was in the process of eating that whith a toilet-bowl-water chaser.  Sponge Bob was the name we gave the cow after she ate the second dish sponge that was sitting in a bowl of dish soap near the outdoor dishwashing station.  Perhaps she wanted to freshen her breath after eating shitty toilet paper?  Yuck.
Not Sponge bob but another cow getting up close to the dishwashing area.  This one is helping Jannis wash his pants by sucking out the soap.
5. "What's that Rustling Noise".  We think it was a mouse in one of the sacks of rice that were stored in our bedroom.  Bad place to store rice.  Who would have thought?
6. "Biggest Spider".  Thankfully this was a game played outside and not in the room.  I think the biggest one was very colorful with long legs and it was slightly larger than my palm.
Saturday - we packed up, and got in the back of the trucks at 7am for the long journey back to the Elephant Nature Park which is close to Chiang Mai.  We arrived at around 3pm, checked into our triple-share rooms at the park (which were luxurious compared with our previous accommodations with a shared bathroom with hot water and actual beds in the rooms).  We had the evening to check out the park where elephants wander free during the day in groups of elephants they get along with and with mahouts by their sides (without sticks or bull hooks).  Most elephants, except adult males, are chained up or penned only at night so it seemed as though the elephants lead a life as close to free as they can in this imperfect world.  Many dogs and cats roam the park and are always found on the pathways and near the dining area, very convenient for a cuddle.  We had an amazing vegetarian meal and some children performed Thai dances while we dined.
Cats and Dogs everywhere
Reaching out for food at the feeding platform beside the dining area at Elephant Nature Park
Sunday - we met at 7am for a huge buffet breakfast at the dining area overlooking some of the elephants, who periodically approached the feeding platform looking for their breakfast too.  We next picked up some bananas from the elephant kitchen and went to visit some of the elephants including the youngest at the park, Yindee, who is only a 4 month old baby boy.  We only saw him briefly as he moved with his mum out of their night pen to roam freely.  However, we got to have a nice long visit with two adult female elephants, blind 52 year old Jokia and her "guide" Mae Perm who is 92 years old and who makes noises so that Jokia can follow her.  I was in awe and close to tears when I was stood beside one of the large female elephants (it may have been Mae Perm?) with my hand on her huge trunk, looking into her wise eyes.  We were then able to watch a young (1 year old) male baby elephant named Naveen as he played and slid in the mud, farted, and tried to dig up rocks using his toe and trunk.  He was very fun to watch and he kept charging up to his fence and trying to reach through to touch us.  Next we were taken past the dog kennels to some dog runs to visit some lovely (adoptable) dogs.  There are currently 500 dogs residing at Elephant Nature Park who have been rescued from cruelty, injuries, and most recently from floods in Bangkok.  The need for volunteers is so great right now that for about $150 USD you can volunteer for a full week with the dogs, and that includes your room and food!  After spending time with the dogs we fed bananas to a different elephant, then had lunch, and then got to go in the river and splash the elephants with buckets of water.  I don't think they needed us to help because earlier I had seen two elephants splashing around in the river quite happily all by themselves.  They were very funny splashing the water with their trunks, sticking their heads under, and even kicking their back legs around and around in circles...it was like watching elephant aquacise!  After this, our time was over and we had to shower, pack up and head back to Chiang Mai.
white buffalo
sweet old girl
baby Navaan with mom and Grandma in the background
Grandma hugging Navaan
This picky girl would only accept bunches of bananas and threw away ones handed to her individually
it was a joy to watch these two elephants play in the water
Jannis with some new friends
This one was very snuggly
Megan got right in there... she is a vet and the dogs still swarmed her ;)
My apologies for the insanely long blog (again).  In summary, I loved the volunteering,  I would not do Journey to Freedom myself again and would lean towards volunteering in the park instead.  That being said, I do see the value in the program.  It is a metaphorical "Journey to Freedom" since the elephants are not yet free but this program provides a stepping stone whereby the villagers can envision a life where elephants don't need to be rented out to trecking camps to be of value.  The villagers may see in time that they can make a living from; tourist dollars from people who want to see wild (or at least free ranging) elephants, income from selling textiles, crops like corn and rice.  This would allow the fathers who are mahouts to stay home rather than accompanying their elephants to trecking camps or to cities where the elephants beg for money by doing tricks and would allow the elephants to have a better quality of life.  As far as I know, in Thailand there is not a safe haven where elephants can be released into the wild.   There is still demand for elephants for tourism (trecking, performing, riding) so elephants aren't safe from the babies being trapped and the parents being killed, even if they avoid human contact they are at risk of encountering land mines and unexploded ordinances.  A lot of Thailand is deforested for agricultural land including rice or corn so habitats have been destroyed and elephants who wander into crops to forage are at risk of being shot.  There are an estimated 3000 domestic (trained) elephants in Thailand and 2500 wild ones remaining.  If tourism dried up and all the domestic elephants were allowed to roam free the challenges outlined compound.  This is a complex problem and the Journey To Freedom program is a start but there's still a very very long journey until these elephants reach freedom...if that even exists anymore.


  1. Hi! Thank you very much for writing about your experience. I'm actually traveling to Chiang Mai very soon to volunteer for Journey to Freedom, and your post made me even more excited for the trip. I was wondering if you suggest a specific type of luggage to take for this trip. Do they allow a suitcase? Or would a backpack suffice for this trip? Thank you!

  2. room for whatever kind of luggage you wish....number one suggestion purchase and bring along those kiddy size plastic stackable chairs with you to the village ....just returned awesome

  3. room for whatever kind of luggage you wish....number one suggestion purchase and bring along those kiddy size plastic stackable chairs with you to the village ....just returned awesome