Journey to Freedom in Northern Thailand

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Published March 16, 2016

I’m so lucky to have participated in the Journey to Freedom volunteer experience during my stay in Northern Thailand. It was an amazing week trekking with the elephants, cutting grass for them to eat, and visiting these remote villages to interact and share experiences with Karen villagers.

I knew coming to Thailand I wanted to spend a bulk of my time volunteering at an elephant sanctuary. There are a lot to choose from (especially in Northern Thailand) and some of the businesses that advertise as sanctuaries don’t have the highest standards for the care of elephants.

But I read so many positive reviews on the Elephant Nature Park and decided to do their 7 day Journey to Freedom program not really knowing what I was getting into. I couldn’t have been luckier.

For 7 days and 6 nights our group of 7 volunteers and 3 guides camped on a small campsite in between strawberry and cabbage fields on the edge of a Jungle about 2 hours north of Chiang Mai. We were very remote and about a mile away from our campsite was the cutest little Karen village untouched by travelers.  

Our Journey to Freedom Elephant Herd

Before I go into the program and the fun activities we did, let me introduce you to the herd of 4 elephants that we followed and a bit of background on why they were rescued.

Mae Yui

30 year old, Female.  She was rescued 11 months ago after working for a logging and then a trekking company.  When first rescued, her two front legs could not bend because of her previous work experience. They thought she would die. But since roaming the jungles through the Journey to Freedom project, she has regained her health and was reunited with her daughter Ma-Boi after being separated for many years.

Ma Boi

5 years old, Female.  She was taken away from her mom Mae Yui when she was just a year and a half old and was put in the circus. She was reunited with mom 10 months ago when Ma-Boi was also rescued by Elephant Nature Camp. When Mae Yui was first reunited with her daughter, she made a lot of noise. After 30 minutes, Ma Boi laid down in front of her mom and that was a trigger point where it appeared mom finally recognized her and started kissing her. They have been very close ever since and Mom doesn’t let Ma-Boi out of her site.

Mae Boon Sa

32 years old, Female.  Mae Boon So was rescued 5 months ago from the trekking business. When she first arrived, she had an infection from people riding on her because her handlers didn’t put proper soft padding on her.  She is slowly getting her health back and weight up and is currently 9 months pregnant!

Arawan

7 years old, Male. His previous owner had him working as an elephant painter. Tourists would watch him paint a picture and then that picture would be auctioned off. His previous Mahout would stand behind him and shove a nail in his ear so he would paint in certain directions. Before he was rescued, Arawan was completely malnourished, could barely walk after standing on cement his whole life, and was near death. After 8 months of living a happy life in the jungle, he’s now a playful little elephant!

The reason these elephants end up injured and malnourished is commonly due to being sold to the tourism or logging industries. Tourism is Thailands 2nd biggest industry and so many people want to come to Thailand and do the quintessential “Ride an Elephant” experience. (Full disclosure – I regretfully was one of those unconscious travelers on my first trip to Thailand). So the government doesn’t want to put regulations around the safety of elephants as it could hurt tourism. The logging industry is no easier to regulate as it’s largely a black market business with a lot of gangs involved and international export of elephants to Malaysia and demand of goods in China.  

Largely elephant owners care about their elephants but then they rent them out to other businesses to make money and after signing these bad contracts, they can’t get out of them – even when they see their elephants are being abused. They usually make about 20k baht a month (about $575) to rent their elephant or it costs 1.5 million baht to buy one. So Elephant Nature Camp asks the elephant owners to rent their animals to the Camp instead of to these bad businesses so that they can be in a safer place.

The work that Elephant Nature Camp is doing to help these animals live in as natural of a habitat as possible is incredible. In addition to paying the monthly expense to rent these animals from their owners so they can be saved from harm, they also set up an environment that makes these animals so happy and heals their wounds.

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It’s not easy for these mahouts to follow these elephants and keep them out of trouble.  If the elephants run away from their mahouts, they sometimes end up in villages or more often on local farmers farmland and the farmers aren’t always too happy about it. There are stories of wild elephants escaping from local national parks and them being killed by local farmers who don’t want them messing with their crops.

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The mahouts that follow this herd do not use prodding sticks and are not abusive at all towards the elephants. They have a really sweet relationship with their elephants and are always looking out for them.  They do have to chain them up at night so the mahouts can sleep but the chains still allow the elephants to walk around and they are always tied near an abundance of trees that the elephants can munch on as needed. 

These elephants eat about 20 hours a day and sleep on and off for about 4. Yo says its as close to what their life would be like in the wild aside from the fact that they are well watched after since they were rescued from captivity and may not be able to acclimate back into a national forest with other white elephants at this point.

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Yo (our amazing leader who I’ll talk about later) said that simply paying for this volunteer program had the biggest impact. The money that comes in from volunteers helps to support paying the monthly rental fee for the elephants, employing the mahouts, our guides and is given back to the village because we buy food for the week and Elephant Nature Park donates some of the money to the local school for a lunch program.

Our Daily Elephant Experience

Our week was a perfect blend of village volunteer projects and adventures with the elephants. Every day we got some special time to help feed the elephants and the first day we spent the whole day trekking with them in the jungle.

This herd of elephants are allowed to wander and set their own course for the day.  The mahouts largely don’t give them any direction – only when they are about to go on land they’re not allowed on.

When trekking through the jungle, the elephants don’t always pick a clear trail. They are totally comfortable cutting through dense bush. 

Sometimes they would decide to navigate in a different direction and suddenly they were coming at us! In those cases we would sometimes have to dive into any kind of clear open space nearby to avoid a run in. 🙂

 

 

The #1 activity while trekking is eating. The elephants are CONSTANTLY eating all kinds of leaves or sometimes bark.  They sometimes take down a whole banana tree and just start munching it. 

The #2 activity while trekking is pooping. They are dropping at least every hour right on the trail in front of you 🙂

The #3 activity is mud baths. It can get pretty hot and the flies are so annoying for the elephants. So sometimes an impromptu mud bath mid day is the perfect cure. 

Every other day the elephants would come to our camp site and we would feed them special grass that we cut for them (as it isn’t typically found in the jungle).

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Or they would take a mud bath in the mud pit near our camp site.

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We all totally fell for Mae Yui, Ma Boi, Mae Boon So and Arawan and so happy they were saved by Elephant Nature Camp

Our Village Experience

 

 

Every evening btwn 4-6 we headed over to the local village about a mile away from our campsite to hang out with some of the kids there. This village has about 200 Karen people – mostly of the minority Karen group.  About half of them are Buddhists while the other half are Christians. There are about 500k Karen people living in Thailand today and while they speak Thai, they also speak the Karen language. 

We had so much fun playing all sorts of games with the kids. In another village that we visited just down the road, we spent more time teaching the kids some English by either pointing or drawing common things and writing the word in English. They would then diligently write down the word as well.

My two favorite kids were Wa-Lin-Da and Na-Ta-Ti-Da (I took liberties with the English spelling).  They were both so adorable and friendly. They loved wearing my sunglasses, camera and backpack and led me around the town showing it off.  On my 2nd visit, we did a photo scavenger hunt where I wrote down people and things in English and they read the word and went running around town to take a picture of it. We all had a blast and I got some great pictures – Wa.Lin.Da is a better photographer than I am!

 

Teaching Kindergarten Class

 

 

We also got the chance to spend a morning teaching a kindergarten class in a local village. Jasmine from Arizona and I paired up to lead a group of about 25 4 year olds. When their teacher was in the room all was peaceful and great and the kids were singing along to ABC’s and 123’s. As soon as the teacher left balls were thrown at our heads, plastic toy guns were found and pointed in our direction and the boys started to pretend to bite us. It was terrifying. I pray for all kindergarten teachers out there – especially the ones in this school.

All was peaceful again at lunch time when the kids calmly carried their trays of food – sat down and did not eat a thing until everyone was served and their lunch song was song. They sing a song thanking everyone that had helped to make the food available for them and promised to eat everything they were served. All the kids ate every drop of their potato soup + rice lunch and were served seconds if they were really hungry. Most days the kids have to bring their own lunch and sometimes some of the kids come with just a bit of rice. So the lunch that is provided when the volunteers come is usually exciting for the kids.

Our Group

Our leader Yo is so crazy cool, awesome and smart. We were so lucky to have him as our guide on this incredible adventure.  There is not a question about elephants or local life or Thai culture that this guy does not know the answer to. 

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Assisting him was Lt. Dan, who kept us laughing the whole time with his crazy humor, constant bragging, and by loudly reciting lyrics to 70s pop rock songs.

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And Arnon was just starting out with the program as an intern. He’s on break between high school and university and wants to learn English. Our group had so much fun sitting with him and writing down common questions and answers which he would constantly read and recite so he would continue to remember them.  His dedication to learning was really inspiring!

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We had an awesome group of 7 volunteers from America, Holland, Italy and England. It’s so exciting to meet so many people my age who are taking a break from the work grind and spending a few months traveling the world and learning about other cultures!

Journey to Freedom Group

Top Tips

If you’re planning on going on this Journey to Freedom project, here are some of my top tips/info.

  • Definitely bring everything that Elephant Nature Camp suggests on their packing list. You will need long sleeve shirt, pants, a towel, sneakers, bug spray and a head lamp.  It gets VERY cold at night so I would recommend bringing a warm jacket. I was so thankful to have my thin down comforter jacket from Uniqlo.
  • The campsite is way nicer than I was expecting. There is a flushing toilet and and the sleeping arrangement is comfortable with a thin mattress & mosquito net.  They have plenty of comforters and blankets there for the cold night.
  • Yo keeps you VERY well fed the entire time. We have breakfast, lunch, and dinner cooked by Yo and he always makes a ton of food. It’s largely thai food (all vegetarian) but Yo also made us the most amazing Banana Pancakes a few days and french fries a few evenings too :). They also have little cookie snacks and tea/coffee/milo for in btwn if you get hungry.
  • Visiting and chatting with the school children is the biggest contribution you can make to the village. But if you bring children’s english books or toiletries like toothbrushes they are always appreciated!

I’m so appreciative to Elephant Nature Camp for hosting this really rewarding volunteer experience and I really encourage you to take advantage of this program if you intend to visit Northern Thailand. 

And if you don’t have time to commit to a 7 day trip, but want to visit with elephants during your Thailand stay, you can participate in a day program with Elephant Nature Park where they will take you to their main campus which has 68 elephants! We were lucky enough to visit that campsite our last 2 days of the trip and it is incredible. Please spend your tourist dollars on animal friendly companies like this instead of riding an elephant. You get to have such a better bonding experience with the animals when you don’t ride them!

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