Pamela MacNaughtan

When Paying to Volunteer is Worth Every Penny

In 2011 I paid to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park (located just outside Chiang Mai, Thailand) for a week. When I initially saw the cost for a week of volunteering, I wasn’t sure. Four hundred dollars is a lot of money for one week in Thailand. Hell, if I was really good with my budget I could live for an entire month on four hundred dollars. So why should I blow a month’s budget by paying to volunteer for a week at an elephant reserve?

It’s a valid question, and the answer is something I didn’t fully understand until my time at Elephant Nature Park came to an end.

Sure, if you want to be literal than we can talk about how your money is used to pay for your food, lodging, as well as the care of the elephants. It’s a perfectly logical and truthful summary of where your money is going. But paying to volunteer equates to something beyond dollars and cents. After all, if it was just about the money than you’d simply make a donation and walk away; without all the hard manual labour!

Investing in Something that Enhances Your Travel Experiences

Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is not a cake walk. The mornings are early, and the days are filled with hard work; coupled with the heat of Thailand. Chores include things like preparing elephant food (which involves a huge tub of water, hundreds of pounds of pineapple, squash, and machetes), cleaning out the mud pit (where the elephants like to play), cleaning out the pens and laying down fresh straw, and anything else around the park that needs tending.

My partner and I chose ENP as I have an obsession with gorgeous asian elephants. Having read about the terrible treatment of these beautiful creatures through logging, trekking and begging and the incredible loss of life, my partner and I came across ENP and knew immediately we had to help in some way. Now we are buying ‘elephant sponsorships’ as presents for each other on our birthdays and plan to go back to the park for a longer period of time to volunteer and hopefully teach English to the local villagers. It’s very early days in organising it all, but in the mean time we’re sponsoring and spreading the word about this amazing park and Lek’s amazing story… and of course the stories of our favourite elephant moments  ENP was such a life changing experience for us – and we can’t wait to get back there and help out!!! • Julie Miklos-Woodley

The work in itself can be rewarding, but the true reward comes in those moments when the only people at ENP are staff, volunteers, and the elephants.

Elephants are magic. Absolute magic.

During my time at ENP, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Lek Chailert. I listened to her stories about her grandfather (a shaman in her village), conservation, rescuing elephants, being arrested time and time again, and starting Elephant Nature Park. Some of our conversations happened at a large wooden table (which acted as her desk), overlooking the elephant feeding area, and sometimes we’d walk on the grounds, surrounded by elephants.

Yes. Surrounded by elephants. After spending time in Africa, going on safari and being told to stay as far away from the elephants as possible, it was an unbelievable experience to sit down in the grass next to Lek, and having elephants standing over us as we talked. In those moments I forgot about fear, the outside world, and the fact that I was paying to volunteer. In those moments I was in a state of euphoria.

In the evening, when all of the tourists had left for the day, the volunteers would sit around talking, relax, and retire early in order to get enough sleep for the next day’s chores. When I’d finally resign myself to go to my room I would walk passed the area where some of the elephants sleep, and when I went to bed at night I would stare at the ceiling and listen to the elephants who slept no more than 100 meters from my door.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very much. My brain was over stimulated and I would crawl out of bed around 5 a.m. and get dressed. This was my favourite part of the day. It was a time when everyone was asleep. The sky was dark, and I couldn’t see very well; which meant I couldn’t tell which dogs were feral, and which ones were friendly (Lek rescued over 100 dogs after the flood in Bangkok in 2011. The feral dogs wear a red piece of cloth around their neck). In those stomach churning minutes I would stumble on rocks, and pray that the dogs would let me pass. Thankfully they did.

When I arrived at the building which overlooked the grounds and served as the feeding area, prep, kitchens, and offices of ENP all the lights were off, and I would continue to stumble through the dark until I found a bench that overlooked the park grounds. With dogs barking in all directions, and the sky so black that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, I would sit down in a carved wooden chair, lean back against the table, listen, and wait.

With the cool morning air enveloping me, and the sound of elephants moving around, the sky slowly grew lighter. I could see the dogs surrounding me, and the ground directly in front of me. In time I could see the shape of mountains, huts, the medical centre, and OMG elephants. Wow. I was alone. In the wilderness of Thailand. Watching elephants as the sun rose over the mountains behind them. That is the moment when I wished I could sit in that exact spot, forever.

Making a Responsible Tourism Choice

Choosing responsible tourism vs traditional tourism is not always easy. It takes thought, and sometimes a little planning. Paying to volunteer at an elephant rescue park for a week vs paying to ride an elephant in the jungle is a tough choice for some travellers. They don’t understand the abuse the elephants suffer in order to make them ridable. They don’t know about the mistreatment and malnutrition. All they know is that they are going to ride an elephant! In the jungle!

Choosing responsible tourism and volunteering changed the way I travel; particularly in Thailand. After spending a week caring for elephants, I was reduced to tears the first time I came across mahouts carrying and using hooks to keep their elephants in line, and seeing babies being chained to their Mothers to keep them in line.

My week at ENP opened my eyes to how valuable volunteer experiences can be, both to myself, and to the organization, I volunteer with.

So, is paying to volunteer worth every penny? If it’s an organization devoted to making a positive difference in the world (whether it’s aiding animals, people, or the environment), YES!

Knowing When to Pay, and When to Walk Away

A reader on Facebook asked, “Would you pay to volunteer in a soup kitchen?”, to which I say yes, and no. The challenge with paying to volunteer is picking the right organization to work with. There are several companies that will just take your money and do nothing with it. Others (like Save Elephant Foundation) will take your money and use it for things like animal care, conservation, raising awareness, and the costs involved with housing and feeding volunteers. Before making your choice, look at where the project is located, how the money is used, and what other volunteers are saying about them.

Have YOU volunteered at Elephant Nature Park? What was your experience like?



  • vikki marmaras

    February 11, 2013

    Great blog post. I visited ENP about 7 years ago, after a recommendation from a friend who volunteered there. I can honestly say that, wedding day aside, it was the best day of my life. Time hasn’t allowed me to go back yet but I will make it one day and wouldn’t think twice about paying to volunteer there. When it happens I hope I can re create your sunrise scene! X

  • February 11, 2013

    Great post! I love the photos you got of ENP.

    I volunteered there last year –

    It was an amazing experience and I can definitely see myself going back again one day. At ENP, you know your volunteer funds are going straight to the park and compared to other schemes out there, they’re not expensive at all.

  • Biggles Goggles

    February 11, 2013

    I volunteered at the ENP in June 2012. I totally agree with this article – it’s the best money I ever spent in my life. Seeing the elephants, that have been tortured and so badly treated in the past, recreating a herd and living a happy, loving life every day now is worth more than a million dollars. You can easily see that this place obviously puts any money earned straight back into the place and into conservation, caring for and rescuing animals, helping locals around the area, educating others about responsible tourism,etc. They’re starting up another project in Cambodia, including a large nature reserve, tree nursery, elephant rescue facility and a free school for the local kids. They need help there also, if you want to do something helpful while you’re there visiting Angkor Wat.

    Be warned though: if you go to ENP, you will come away from this place an elephant fanatic. Your friends will roll their eyes and make elephant noises when they see you coming and every second conversation will be pachyderm-related. You will never be the same again…

  • February 12, 2013

    Hey Pam,

    Excellent post! Voluntourism can get such a bad rap, and I’m so glad to see you posting about your positive experiences. That $400 you spent went, I imagine, a long way toward helping those elephants live better lives. 🙂

    Kristin – write, teach, travel

  • February 14, 2013

    I wouldn’t have thought about paying to volunteer, but it sounds like it can be worth it under the right conditions. Tourism regarding elephants is really tricky since it’s hard to tell which organizations treat the animals humanely. Thanks for the insight!

  • Shannon Olivera

    May 12, 2015

    I wanted to know if you have any thshirts or online store…my daughter is planning on doing this after graduation and I would like to get her something for her graduation .to go with her ticket to Thailand!…thanks, Shannon Olivera

    • May 31, 2015

      Hi Shannon,
      I don’t right now, but a friend of mine has a really cool Thailand food map t-shirt, if that would be of interest?

  • August 28, 2015

    Great post! we are currently volunteering at the Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the other conservation projects made possible by Lek and a the save the elephant foundation.
    Originally we were in fact wanting to volunteer at ENP, but as an australian traveling overland I was only able to get a 15day visa for Thailand which made volunteering for a week at ENP impossible. However, especially since the Cambodia project has much less publicity, volunteering here has proved to be a much more intimate experience than we would have had with all the tourists at ENP so this has actually worked in our favour.
    We were just as weary about spending so much towards volunteering for a week, but as we have been following the Save Elephant Foundation’s projects for a couple of years now we we confident that our money would be put to good use.
    But while the funding is definitely important, bringing awareness to tourists about the horrible treatment of elephants used in the tourism industry (and logging etc), as well as showing locals that we as tourist prefer to see elephants in the wild and treated with kindness, In my view is infinitely more valuable. And of course helping to replant the devastated forrest is rewarding to everybody.
    Finding the right project to volunteer is absolutely a very important part of making sure your money is being spent wisely, but here at Cambodia wildlife sanctuary we have not regretted a single cent.

    • August 28, 2015

      I’m so happy to hear about the project in Cambodia. I was going to visit the project last year, but cancelled my trip to Asia. I may check it out some time this year. I’ll be returning to ENP to do a follow-up interview with Lek, and the Cambodia project is something I hope to speak with her about.


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