Help preserve Thailand’s elephant population

Marion Thibaudeau of NGO Frontier, tells us more about how you can help Thailand’s retired domestic elephants on this volunteering holiday

Thailand is well known for its culture and history, for its white sand and crystal clear blue waters, and for its rich wildlife. Many impressive animals can be found in the deep Thai jungles, including bears, tigers, and elephants.

working with elephants in Thailand

Well over two thousand elephants are domesticated throughout the country and sadly, its wild elephant population (of two to three thousand) is declining due to a caustic mix of problems: The ivory trade has put this majestic species at severe risk of poaching, and Thailand still suffers from illegal elephant trade and abuse, notably for tourism purposes, despite recent efforts by lawmakers to cut down on these activities.

Frontier operates the Thailand Elephant Sanctuary project, which gives volunteers a unique chance to spend time with a number of retired elephants. Take the ethical route to experiencing elephants in Thailand, and give these animals the care and attention they deserve.

Life as a volunteer on the project

Upon arrival in Bangkok, you will be spending a week in Singburi, immersing yourself in Thai culture, learning more about its history and language, and visiting temples and museums. You will then be taken to the elephant sanctuary to the north of the country. During your time there, you will be helping wash, feed and exercise the elephants during the week, with free time on weekends, leaving you opportunities to explore the surrounding area or participate in other events, such as water rafting. As the days go by, you will come to know the elephants and notice their individual personality quirks as you grow closer.


Accommodation at the sanctuary consists of thatched huts in the jungle, with all the basic amenities. In Singburi, volunteers stay in a shared volunteer house.


Traditional Thai food will be provided throughout the project. With influences from China, India and Indonesia, Thailand boasts an exciting cuisine with flavoursome mixes of sweet, sour, salty and hot, generally on a basis of rice or noodles.

working on Frontier Thailand elephant project

Recommended for… This project is recommended for anyone wishing to interact with elephants in an ethical and controlled manner. While it is easy to see elephants in Thailand, many elephants presented to tourists are often raised and kept in poor conditions. This sanctuary ensures that its elephants are taken care of, and the volunteers visiting it can attest to that!

Be aware that…  The cultural orientation week in Singburi is only available to those spending more than one week on the project.

For more information, including a full programme, prices, departure dates and booking, visit

About the author: Marion Thibaudeau is an Online Journalism Intern at Frontier, an international non-profit volunteering NGO. Check out Frontier’s blog ‘Into the Wild’ for more gap year ideas to help make your time out meaningful. For more information about travel and volunteering opportunities available please visit

Boats, Elephants and Community Work in Kerala, India

Fort Kochi, Kerala, India

Through i to i Volunteering

E: / T: +44(0)1892 886123

(Review by Rachel Watson)

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The Boats, Elephants and Community Work two-week tour does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a jam packed two weeks in South India’s beautiful Kerala, with boat trips, elephant interaction and eight days of community volunteering with delightful children in a special needs school.

You’ll be met at the airport and transferred to the homestay accommodation which will be your base for the two weeks. First up it’s a full orientation and “get to know each other” session with the rest of the group and co-ordinator Rakhi, a local lady who knows everything there is to know about Kerala and will bend over backwards to help you enjoy your time in her home state. Then it’s time to get stuck into the itinerary – starting with a full tour of Fort Kochi, taking in St Francis’ church, the Presidential palace, ornate Jewish synagogue and traditional Chinese fishing nets. The nets are still in full working order, and you can stand by and watch the fishermen at work. If you’re lucky (like I was) they will invite you to lend a hand, and you can help reel in a catch – mine was sent off to market to be sold!

The journey to school is made by bus – it’s a hot and cramped 20 minute trip by bus (a crazy experience not to be missed in India!) then a lovely ten minute stroll along the sea front, past the fishing nets (and once during my stay, a Bollywood film set) and through the front gates to school. The first time you make the journey (and more if you need it) you’ll be accompanied by a member of Rakhi’s team, and introduced to the teachers. The school is based at a convent and run by dedicated, hardworking and loving sisters who will make you feel very welcome at their school, and the children are beautiful – very fun loving, playful and trusting, and willing to work (and play) hard at any games, lessons or songs you introduce.

The weekends are no time for relaxing after a busy time at school – there’s a traditional Kerala arts show to enjoy, and trips to the famous Backwaters, an elephant village and the stunning Arirapally Waterfalls. I was most excited by the elephant trip, as I’ve always loved the majestic animals and was looking forward to getting up close with them. I wasn’t disappointed – invited by the mahouts to help with the bath I waded into the river to help scrub the elephants and was able to chat to the mahouts about their lives, and stroke the animals as much as I liked. We then headed straight off to the awe-inspiring waterfalls – you can get so close to them, and enjoy cooling off in smaller pools as well. Our trip also included lunch at a fantastic restaurant, with an infinity pool and fabulous views – the perfect end to an amazing day.

The trip includes two fantastic backwater cruises. The Kerala Backwaters are one of the natural wonders of the world, and – cruising through the lush green plants and trees, waving at local children running alongside your boat – it’s not hard to see why. Our first day on the Backwaters was spent on two different boats – a larger one with a sun deck for relaxing, and a much smaller boat, which was able to cruise down the smaller, less populated backwaters and take in even more of this gorgeous part of the world.

The second Backwater trip is an overnight stay on a houseboat, and was for me the perfect end to a perfect two weeks. My group – by now firm friends – spent a fantastic night cruising through the riverside villages, exotic birdlife and stunning scenery. We drank, laughed and reminisced about the fantastic, chock full two weeks we’ll remember for a lifetime.

Work: You’ll be spending eight days volunteering in a special needs school run by the sisters of the convent the school is based in. The children age from around 7-years upwards, and there are also adult students who participate in life skills classes and help the nuns with the smaller children. Activities are varied and very much down to the individual – you’ll need to use your initiative and get stuck in, there’s no place for wallflowers so come prepared with ideas for songs, games, lessons and activities you can do with the students. If you’ve got a particular skill or interest, use it!

Accommodation: It’s homestay accommodation here, staying in volunteer quarters of a family home. Rooms are based on twin share, and there’s a western-style toilet and warm water shower. Facilities include a microwave, kettle, toaster, fridge and television, and there’s a hand wash laundry service available for a (very) small fee. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Food: All meals are included and most of them are home cooked by the homestay family’s cook. Meals are amazing – traditional South Indian fare (fish curries are a speciality) but different tastes and requirements can be catered for easily – just ask.

Recommended for… People who want to do and see the best Kerala has to offer in a short period of time, while giving something back with volunteer work alongside the “touristy” activities. Also great for solo travellers, as you’re part of a group of like-minded people.

Be aware that… This is a fully supported trip with a planned itinerary in place for you. I loved that I could leave the organisation to someone else and know everything was planned for me to get the most out of my two weeks’ annual leave – but if you’re the sort of person who prefers more independent, “do it yourself” trips, it may not be to your taste.

Remember too, that if you don’t get stuck in right away at school, you could leave feeling that you’ve not achieved as much as you (or the kids) would like. Preparation is key – hit the ground running with ideas and a plan for what you want to do in your short time (I planned “In The Jungle” and “Under The Sea” arts and crafts projects – one for each week – and also swotted up on the kids in my class by reading through the journal left by previous volunteers).

‘Good’ credentials

  • All the accommodation, food, trips and in country staff are locally sourced – boosting the local economy and providing jobs
  • The children at the school benefit from one-on-one attention from volunteers, and the extra pairs of hands allow the permanent staff more time to concentrate on physiotherapy and speech therapy sessions for children who need them


Date of Visit: January 2011


About the author: Rachel Watson caught the travel bug during her gap year in 2002, and has no plans to stop exploring! She works in Customer Operations and blogs about her travel experiences in her spare time. Visit Rachel’s blog at or follow her on Twitter @RacheyRoo183




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Elephant Valley Project, Sen Monorom, Cambodia

Elephant Valley Project

Sen Monorom, Moldulkiri Province, Cambodia

T: +855 (0) 99696041 (in Cambodia) / E:

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The Elephant Valley Project is great, both as a sanctuary for previously badly treated domestic elephants, and as a provider of jobs for the local Bunong community in northern Cambodia. I definitely recommend you stay for at least a week and volunteer, but it’s worth pointing out what’s involved…this is hard work, in a remote location!

The project was founded by Englishman Jack Highwood – reassuringly enthusiastic (and mildly eccentric to do such a thing), he doesn’t suffer fools and (rightly so) expects everyone to get their hands dirty helping with the various jobs around the place. Do not moan about the lack of mobile phone reception, spiders in your bungalow or that it’s too hot to work (as two Aussie princesses discovered to their regret!). However beautiful the valley is, and awesome the elephants are, this is not a holiday resort!

Work: Get stuck in to whatever jobs Jack tells you to do as you’ll have a much more rewarding experience anyway. We spent several happy afternoons working with the rest of the volunteers (around 12 at any one time) sorting out reclaimed timber to build a new bungalow, therefore expanding the opportunities for eco-tourism (a vital way to raise funds). The deal is, you work at least 3-4hrs each day then you can spend the rest of the day at leisure or (more importantly) watching the elephants in their natural environment. You can follow the mahouts routine and depending on the time of day, you could be watching them bathe in the river or being fed. On your first day Jack will introduce everyone to the project, the elephants (there were about seven in their care when we visited) and the mahouts. He’ll no doubt get you chopping up banana plants to feed them, but by no means expect to be touching or riding the elephants – this isn’t a zoo and Jack (and his team, including a vet) believe it’s cruel. These elephants have been mishandled in the past and they’re being cared for in a safe, natural environment and encouraged to act like elephants again.

Volunteering stints vary but can include anything from a day trip or one week stay, to a month or more. Jack welcomes anyone willing to help out but do let him know if you have any special skills that may be of use.

Accommodation: The cute, thatched bungalows were a very pleasant surprise, and worthy of any eco resort! Jack has installed western-style plumbing, fans and a generator that remains on for 3hrs a night. Just don’t be scared of the creepy-crawlies that you may be staying with (with had at least three large Huntsman spiders and a brown scorpion – all part of the fun!). If you pay less (or offer to work full-time in exchange for food and board) you’ll be sleeping in a hammock in the living room.

Food: All food is included and the local chef cooks a communal meal every night (mostly excellent Khmer cuisine) and vegetarians are catered for. Breakfast is also communal and involves the excellently strong Cambodian coffee.

Recommended for… A real and genuine experience (there is no fake feel of ‘voluntourism’ on this project) of working with local people on a great project – and the wonder of observing (now) happy elephants!

Be aware that… We booked a week’s stay but you only get to live on the project for 5 out of the 7 nights (first night in Phnom Penh and final night in a bizarre hotel in Sen Monorom). All accommodation is paid for but it would have been nice to stay in the valley for as much as possible (especially if staying for much longer-term placements – fellow volunteers who were there for several weeks found the to-ing and fro-ing a little wearing…).

‘Good’ credentials:

  • The project provides much needed employment for local people in this very rural area
  • Visitors and volunteers are never allowed to touch or ride the elephants, ensuring that the animals are free from stress and allowed to behave naturally
  • The project is part of the ELIE (Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment) which provides veterinary care for domestic elephants and education and support for the people who rely on them. Supporting the local communities helps them keep the forest and therefore the elephants habitat. More info about ELIE can be found here
  • The project provides free universal medical coverage to the village of Putrom and aims to employ one adult from 50% of the families in the village
  • They continue researching, monitoring and providing veterinary care to the elephants across the Moldulkiri province.


Date of visit: January, 2011


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