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An experience you’ll

An elephant sanctuary in Thailand is offering volunteers the chance to get close to nature’s gentle giants. etc’s Tegan Chapman discovered more

etc’s Tegan Chapman takes a dip with Kammoon


or many people, the only chance they can get up close to an elephant is in a zoo. But ever since I was little, I’ve had a fascination with these gentle giants, and have spent years dreaming of one day ‘being’ a mahout – or person that rides an elephant. And thanks to one volunteering organisation, I was able to do that and much more for 48 hours. Elephant’s World is a sanctuary in Thailand that cares for elderly, abused and disabled elephants that have retired or been rescued from the tourism trade. Its slogan is: ‘we work for the elephants, the elephants don’t work for us’, which is something staff live by every day. They’ve tapped into the voluntourism market perfectly and offer an experience that is the perfect way to get close to nature while on holiday. While backpacking around south east Asia, my partner and I decided to volunteer at the centre, we were adamant not to go somewhere where the elephants were just another tourist attraction. One day’s volunteering wasn’t long enough, but we were on a tight schedule so opted for two days with an overnight stay on site, and were really pleased with our choice. When we arrived at the centre, just outside Kanchanaburi, famous for the Bridge over the River Kwai, we were greeted by three of the elephants waiting to be fed. We dived right in and were able to feed them bananas, corn, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, before chopping vegetables to help make sticky rice for the older elephants. Some of the elderly ones - who are aged


between 60 and 75 at the centre - had no teeth, and left in the wild would have died. But at the centre the volunteers are able to feed the elephants sticky rice balls, and you can actually put your hand inside the elephant’s mouth to feed them. It’s an incredible experience! Volunteering activities can range from guiding tourists to cleaning the elephant’s area to gathering food. But the highlight of the entire voluntourism experience for me was the chance to give the elephants a mud bath. It’s something you can tell they love every minute of, and they like to make sure that the volunteers get as covered in mud as they do. Then it was off into the River Kwai to help wash them, and ourselves off and here I was given the rare chance to see an elephant do a roly poly in the water - with me on her! Looking after elephants has always been a lifelong ambition of mine and it was everything I had ever hoped for and more. Elephant’s World is run entirely by volunteers, who go out of their way to make sure visitors to the site have an experience they will never forget.

magazine - November 2012

Getting up close and personal with these gentle giants is something I will cherish forever. My elephant, Kammoon, will always have a place in my heart. The land used for Elephant’s World is now being sold, and the charity is looking for people to buy a square metre so the centre can remain open.

For more details about how to buy a square, or about the volunteering programme, visit www.


forget Your stay at Elephant’s World Your day starts at 8am and you have breakfast with other volunteers and visitors. Then you’re off out with the mahouts to the forest to bring the elephants back to Elephant’s World. Depending on the day, you will be doing activities such as guiding tourists, cleaning the elephant’s area, gathering food (by cutting banagrass, sugarcane or banana plants), planting food crops, making sticky rice, feeding elephants, help with organising activities, assisting with administration and marketing. At around 3pm, the elephants will go to the river for a bath. This is where you get to scrub and wash them. They will later return to the forest to spend the night.

How do you live as a volunteer? You live together with the mahouts and other volunteers. This is a great experience and you get to learn a lot about Thai culture. You also sleep in Elephant’s World, just like the mahouts. It’s very basic accommodation but showers and toilets are available. How much does it cost to volunteer on Elephant’s World? You pay only for your food and accommodation which is 300 baht a day.


magazine - November 2012


Elephants in Thailand  

An Etc north east magazing article about my experience of caring for elephants in Kanchanaburi.