Volunteer in Thailand with Friends for Asia

Elephant Camp – Advice

Advice from Successful Elephant Camp Volunteers

The following are excerpts from past volunteers who successfully completed the Elephant Camp Volunteer Project.

Volunteer 1.

Things that went really well / Things you recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement:

  1. Be pro-active in getting to know the mahouts, and therein, the elephants at Elephant Camp. Don’t be afraid to try and use your Thai to talk with and/or joke around with the mahouts. After cleaning the area around your elephant, walk around the camp and see if you can help other mahouts clean their elephants’ areas. By doing this, it helped to make my stay much richer, fuller and more enjoyable. Also, it enabled me to ride and bath many different elephants!

  2. Great lodging at the Elephant Camp. Wonderful view and probably once-in-a-lifetime experience!

  3. When teaching at the school, try to follow the school’s English curriculum. Read to the students from the text. To hear a native speaker read English helps the students with their fluency and listening skills. Use the text to develop “Who” “What” “When” and “Where” type questions that you can write on the white board … number each question with the answer to each question directly below the question. Use a lot of repetition, of asking the same question written on the white board to different students. You can either have them repeat the question or give you the answer. Once students are comfortable with the four to six questions/answers on the white board, call pairs of students to the front of the class …. One student asks the question and the other answers. You can build on this activity by asking students to spell some of the words in the text.

  4. Go down to the kitchen early in the morning (7:30 a.m. or so) and spend time using your Thai to speak with the kitchen and restaurant staff. The women are delightful and love to chat. The cook makes great papaya salad (som tom) with sticky rice. Try it for breakfast …. You will not need to eat all day!

  5. During lunch time, go out of your way to chat with a least one tourist, or one group of tourists who have come to the camp. These tourists come for just one day. We, on the other hand spend weeks with the elephants, and the tourist love to hear about what we do as volunteers at the camp.

  6. One afternoon, walk to the waterfall and take a dip. After a good rain, the waterfall is powerful, beautiful and cool. If you sit in just the right area of the waterfall…. The water plummets you with a cold water massage!

  7. Leave your flip flops behind when you bath the elephants! The Maetang River ate three pairs of my flip flops, causing me to have to buy new flip flops about every three days.

  8. Buy sugar cane or bananas regularly at the camp and then feed them to your elephant! Your elephant will identify with you much faster! And you’ll get some get some get photo opportunities too. Oh … take a close up picture of your finger next to your elephant’s toe nail too!

  9. Enjoy just being the presence of / close to the elephants … they are incredible, magnificent creatures.

Things that didn’t go so well / Things you do not recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement:

  1. Understand these elephants are well taken care for, and loved, even though they spend part of their day chained and the mahouts use a hook (elephant remote control) to get the elephant to respond. I found it very easy to be judgmental, thinking both the chain and the “elephant remote control” were bad. After staying with the elephants for a month, I came to appreciate the rationale for using both ….. since in reality they both help guard and protect the elephants. It would be nice if the elephants could roam free as they did many years ago. But where can they now just roam around free? And how can they be allowed to just roam around, without endangering themselves and others? The camp is, I believe, providing a good safe alternative within the financial constraints of taking care of what truly are some rather expensive mammals.

  2. Viewing the elephants either up close, or from a distance, it is easy to fall in love with these creatures. I wanted to touch and be as close to them as much as I could ….. until one day, moments after I’d been on Tong Soup’s back … one of the largest male elephants at the park … I saw Tong Soup throw his head back and forth so violently that the mahout who was sitting on Tong Soup’s neck was thrown off, only to land on the hard cement floor some 10 to 12 feet below. My level of respect for the power of an elephant shot straight up! As did my respect for the mahout who did nothing, to chastise the elephant after this incident. Even though the Asian elephant has been domesticated for a long time, it is still a very, VERY big and powerful mammal .. with a mind of its own.

Volunteer 2.

Things that went really well / Things you recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement:

I had an amazing time at Elephant Camp Elephant Camp. I loved spending time with and being around elephants all day long, but it was the people who really made my six weeks at Elephant Camp so wonderful. Nicky, who’s sort of your translator and guide around the camp, is really cool, nice and hilarious. If there’s anything you do or don’t want to do, don’t hesitate to ask Nicky. You pretty much spend the whole day with him, so get to know him and ask him to recommend things to do when you have spare time at the camp. Make sure to ask him to take you to the karaoke bar down the street (mostly Thai songs, but they’re spelled out phonetically, so you can try your luck at singing Thai pop songs!). If you want to sing English songs, ask him to take you to his house. He has a karaoke machine and pretty good speakers, too (as you can probably tell, Nicky is a huge karaoke fan).

A smile really goes a long way. Elephant Camp village is very small, so everyone knows each other (and if you stay long enough, they’ll know you too).

Other advice: your clothes will get wet A LOT during the week because you bathe with your elephant in the river twice a day, and because it’s so humid here, nothing ever really dries completely. So, to cut down on weekly laundry loads, set aside one outfit for bathing time and don’t hesitate to re-wear the same two or three shirts during the week.

Try to bond with your mahout, because it makes waking up at 6 in the morning to pick up elephant dung that much more pleasant. Even though my mahout didn’t speak English, we managed to bond through hand gestures, my poor attempts at speaking Thai, smiles, water fights, etc.

Every morning, you have to watch the elephant show. Sit in the area where the mahouts hang out. They’re really fun to be around (despite the fact that we don’t speak the same language). And try to ride elephants and spend time with them as much as you can. They’re amazing, gentle creatures, and it can be a surreal experience to live among 70 elephants for a couple of weeks.

DEET/bug spray is absolutely necessary. Anti-malarials are unnecessary. Add cashew nuts to everything you order at the restaurant (which, by the way, serves the best food I’ve had in Thailand). Be friendly and get to know the ladies in the kitchen and at the coffee bar – they’re really nice and fun to hang out with. Don’t bother bringing books or flash cards to teach at the Elephant Camp school – all you really need to bring is a few balls. Think of some games you can play using those balls; they really get the kids talking.

Bring at least one pair of long-sleeve pants and one long-sleeved shirt, for grass/corn cutting. In terms of shoes, one pair of sandals/flip-flops and one pair of sneakers will get you through the weeks just fine.

There’s a gorgeous waterfall that’s about 10 minutes away by foot. Check it out.

Things that didn’t go so well / Things you do not recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement:

Elephant Camp is very laidback. If there’s anything you don’t want to do, just say the word and they’ll find something else for you to do. With that being said, do try everything at least once. Cutting grass (as opposed to corn), for example, can be unpleasant because your arms and legs can get cut up by the sharp blades of grass, but I’m glad I tried it at least once while I was there.

When teaching, be patient and just try to have fun with the students. I was assigned M2 (sort of equivalent to 8th grade in America, I guess), and they had a Level 3 textbook. But they were nowhere near the level of English being taught in that textbook, so I ended up throwing that out the window and just starting from the beginning with basic conversational English lessons. Flashcards don’t really help, especially if you’re teaching older kids, but playing with balls and just getting the kids out of their seats really makes class more fun and it gets them talking too.

Comments / Other Suggestions:

Be open-minded and don’t come with too many expectations. Air, Nicky and everyone else at the elephant camp are really accommodating, and if there’s anything you want to do, they’ll try to make it work for you. Try everything at least once. This can and should be an unforgettable experience, so just be open-minded and take in everything you see and do.

Volunteer 3.

Things that went really well / Things you recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement:

I recommend sitting and talking with Air and her friends, they love hanging out with the volunteers and speaking English with you. Go karaoke-ing with Nicky, he has a beautiful voice and gets really into it, and you will have a lot of fun as well. Ride elephants as much as you can, and just spend time in their presence. They are amazing animals. Try to get to know your mahout, having a good relationship with him will make the daily cleaning activities much more entertaining.

Things that didn’t go so well / Things you do not recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement:

Don’t get river water in your mouth! :-O

Comments / Other Suggestions:

Be open minded about the project and try not to have too many expectations. Being flexible is necessary at the camp, given that not everything always goes exactly by schedule. Everyone is willing to give you jobs if you want more to do, so do not hesitate to ask Nicky or Air for something more to do. Walk around the Elephant Camp, it’s a beautiful area. Talk to the local people through hand gestures and broken English/Thai, they will enjoy it a lot and so will you.