Why You Should Volunteer with Elephants in Thailand, Not Ride Them

Feature by Kodee Cloninger, world traveler and BMT Ambassador.


I recently got to check off one of the top things on my bucket list: Volunteering with Elephants in Thailand. Voluntourism is travel that includes volunteering for a charitable cause, and participants generally pay the host organization to be a volunteer. This is growing industry all across the world, but as someone who works with volunteers in a professional capacity, I had a hard time wanting to pay for my own elephant volunteer experience. Now that I’ve done it, however, I can tell you it was worth every cent.

For the last two years, I have been fascinated with the Asian elephant and wanted to do everything in my power to be with them in the flesh. When this fascination started, I wanted to do what I saw in pictures – ride them. However, after doing my research, I did everything I could not to invest in the exploitation of such an emotional creature.

The back of the elephant is actually weak for such a beastly creature. When people are sitting atop a solid wood stool, they can be doubling what the elephants’ backs should be able to hold. People riding on their necks is better, but still not ideal. The riding itself isn’t the only issue, rather it is the process of getting them to the point that they submit to being ridden by humans. In order to train an elephant for a tourist camp, it is taken from its mother at age three. To give you an idea of just how early this is, the lifespan and maturity of elephants is similar to that of humans. When they are taken, they go through a process called Phanjann, otherwise known as “the breaking of the spirit.” The mahouts (those who work with elephants) use negative reinforcement like lashing to make them submussive. The photo below shows the welts of one of the retired elephants I was working with. You can see that the layers of skin have seen decades of abuse.

Elephant abuse

Being aware and educated about the impact of tourism on both animals and local communities is important as a world traveler. I am always looking for the safest and most affordable way to get the best out of my travels, but in cases like this, when it comes to living animals and tourism, it’s important to know how to spend your money. Rather than riding an elephant, I would invite you to volunteer with them and educate yourself about them. It may not be the most affordable, but it will be worth every penny for you, and you will find growth and satisfaction from it like I did.

Rather than spending the 800 baht (about $25) on riding an elephant and further fueling their abuse and exploitation, I chose to spend three nights and four days at a community-involved elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand. This experience is easily one of the best and most fulfilling experiences I have had in all my travels, and I am happy with where my 10,200 baht (about $315) went. Gasp! That is a lot of money! I am well aware of this, and after the experience, I would be willing to pay more and do it all over again.

I chose to volunteer at Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES). Burm and Emily met at another elephant sanctuary (The Elephant Nature Park) and decided to make a difference of their own by setting up a model of retirement and rest care programs for Asian elephants. Their mission is to merely let the elephants be elephants and roam the forest for their own food, as well as treat them for any ailments that may have happened during their lives in captivity. As volunteers, we observed and helped with that process and participated in some community involvement activities as well.

Happy Elephant
Elephant Jungle
My volunteer experience looked like this:

Day One: The drive to BEES was three hours from Chiang Mai. It was a beautiful drive around Thailand’s biggest mountain: Doi Inthanon, with a stop at an amazing waterfall in the surrounding national park. There was an orientation upon arrival on the basic accommodations, how to maintain personal safety, and cultural expectations of BEES. Every morning the elephants leave early with their mahouts to roam through their choice of jungle and/or river, so after the orientation we got to welcome the Elephants back with clean and chopped pumpkins. This was my first experience with the elephants, and we got to feed and wash them before they retired for the evening.

Day Two: This was the best day. We went out in the jungle with packed noodle soups to watch the elephants do their thing in the river or up the hillside (or wherever they please). We found all but one of the elephants on our hike and got to have some real quality time around Boon, the baby elephant. After watching the elephants, we headed home to get their welcome back snacks and medical treatments ready.

Baby elephant in thailand
Boon with Mama in the jungle.

Day Three: This day is designed as a kids day for children studying in the nearby community. Normally this day is for teaching English in some capacity. For me it was an excursion to join the local monks in a community tucked away in the hills to distribute donations. Volunteer days and weeks at BEES aren’t always the same. I imagine that this day is often dedicated to a construction project, many of which I know are in the plan for the near future.

Day Four: As the last day for the shorter program, we got to give the elephants some extra treats in the morning and say goodbye before they headed off to scour the jungle. We spent the afternoon en route back to Chang Mai.

I would have loved to stay longer if my fast-paced travel schedule allowed, but such is the adventure of backpacking. I would imagine that the full week would involve a lot more elephant time and more productivity in relation to the long-term goals of the organization.

What I have given you above are the details that someone might want to know when researching volunteering with elephants, but what you don’t often find in research is the emotional and long-term impact on the volunteers.

For me there was something in the eyes of the elephants and the passion of their care-keepers that inspired me and reassured me I was right in my choice to volunteer. Prior to heading to the elephant sanctuary, I had rented and ridden a bicycle around the nearby town of Pai. While I was exploring the countryside, I had to pass an elephant along the road. My initial emotion was excitement, only to be overcome by sorrow when I looked into the eyes of the elephant carrying a huge stool and two tourists. The poor elephant seemed to be spiritless and experiencing many types of pain. This stuck with me until I got to BEES and immediately gazed into the eyes of the old elephant I was feeding, only to see a sparkle of happiness. I could tell that she had been through a lot and though her guard was up, she was happy, full, and trusting. The price I paid to volunteer went directly to giving this elephant a positive existence, and that makes me feel incredibly proud. Everyone should get a chance to feel that for something they believe in.

Elephant eye

So why should you volunteer with elephants? Because you get to spend a lot of quality time with them in their natural habitat, you make them more comfortable than they have ever been by treating the detriments of years of abuse, your money goes to the right resources and are received with gratitude, you get to see a real Thai community outside the tourist circuit, and you may just leave completely changed and inspired.

Since volunteering, I have talked with many travelers about similar experiences with other good organizations. My experience with BEES was a perfect fit for me, but you may not be one who likes cats and dogs or cold showers, so here are some links off of the Lonely Planet track recommended by myself and other travelers:

Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary
Starfish Volunteers
Elephant’s World
Please share this story and help educate each other about volunteering with (rather than riding) these precious animals.
Kodee with an Elephant

Kodee Cloninger has traveled and worked overseas in a number of ways since graduating college. Her adventures and opportunities have taken her to multiple Latin American and Asian countries in the last few years, and new doors are constantly opening for her, beckoning her to more corners of the world. Check out Kodee’s blog here.

Listen to Kodee talk about finding work overseas on the podcast.