Volunteering with elephants in Thailand

I volunteered with the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (hereafter WFFT) back in 2015 in the summer break between my Bachelors and Masters. This post is about my volunteering experience at the elephant sanctuary, and suggestions about things to do on your day offs around Hua Hin.

You can volunteer at any time in your life; as a gap year activity, between jobs, whenever you need to find yourself or want to contribute to a great cause, all while helping an organization combat the illegal wildlife trade and rehabilitate animals.

Why you should volunteer with WFFT

WFFT is a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) founded in 2001 by Edwin Wiek, who works to rescue and rehabilitate wild animals in Thailand and much more. Read about the different volunteer options WFFT offers here.

The foundation has set goals to:

  • Rescue captive animals and rehabilitate them as well as possible, allowing them to spend the rest of their lives as natural as possible close to nature.
  • Campaign against animal abuse, exploitation, and the illegal pet trade.
  • Provide veterinary treatments for sick and injured animals.
  • Educate and encourage local people and tourists to appreciate and protect the local wildlife through an education program.
  • Rehabilitating captive wild animals, which are able to return to the wild, and release them back into nature to repopulate forests where they are previously extinct.
  • Read much more details here.

The center receives many animals every year, which are victims of the wildlife trade, where animals have been kept as pets for almost the whole course of their lives.

At the center, you learn that the work you do is to give the animals the best life they can get, and some rehabilitated animals may even be able to return to the wild.

The wildlife hospital receives animals weekly that need urgent treatment. Street dogs are taken in, and here you can also offer your help to rehabilitate the dogs for future adoption.

You carry out meaningful work with wild and domestic animals. The center keeps improving itself with funds from us volunteers and donations, to improve cages and take in more animals.

The most harmful things you can do while traveling Asia is to ride elephants, have wildlife as ‘photo-props’ and watch animal shows. Please read the WFFT Wildlife in Tourism Campaign to learn more.

Length of your stay and booking

I recommend booking through WFFT directly, especially if you are 18+.

You can arrange for a pick-up with a taxi from Bangkok for an extra charge. The longer you stay, the cheaper the weekly charge is! I stayed five weeks only on the elephant sanctuary project, but next time I would like to do a combined experience with both Wildlife Rescue Center work and Elephant Rescue work.

This will allow you to work with more varied animals and tasks. I personally chose just elephants because they are one of my absolute favorite animals 🙂

Click here to look at the different volunteer options with WFFT in Thailand for an unforgettable experience.

My volunteer experience

I had the greatest five weeks at WFFT working with the most incredible people from all around the world, who had dedicated themselves and their time to work with the animals. No matter the background, we worked alongside to feed the elephants, harvest their food, giving them bucket-showers and scrubbing them with brushes. But we were also told heartbreaking stories of the animals, which had been saved from a life in misery to retire and live at the sanctuary. On my days off I went exploring temples and beaches in Hua Hin and Cha Am. Some evenings we treated ourselves and our sore bodies with a massage and a swim in the pool at a nearby resort. The premises of WFFT offered a huge buffet suitable for everyone and a bar, where you could get to know each other while laughing at today’s events. I watched beautiful sunsets over the forest and mountains from afar. I am certain that I will return one day to work with these majestic animals and make new friendships.

Arriving at WFFT

My experience started in Bangkok, where I had arranged for a taxi to pick me up from my hotel. The taxi transferred me and another volunteer to the center, a drive which took about five hours.

Being fairly new to traveling on my own I decided to pay for the transfer, rather than getting there myself.

The house that I stayed in with three other volunteers during my 5 weeks at the center

Upon arrival, we were introduced to the center, the work, and the staff. Then we were assigned to our rooms, I shared a small cottage with three other volunteers in two bedrooms and one bathroom and shower.

Meals

Lunches and dinners were cooked on site, meaning we only had to prepare our own breakfast in the communal kitchen, where everyone helps out to keep the area clean.

Common area

In the common area, there were whiteboards to keep us up to date with where we were working in the next morning, and if we had any special duties, such as harvesting banana trees in plantations.

The taxi board in the common area with information about available taxis during the week

Elephant sanctuary volunteer work

The board in the common area states which animals you work with. There was almost always a minimum of two people on each elephant or group of elephants.

After working with the same elephants for a while you will likely become a leader, especially if you stay long term. You can also request to be shuffled around once in a while, and I got to work with almost all of the elephants.

Being a leader is a great experience to lead other volunteers, to divide tasks among you and instruct others in how to make banana balls and enrichment for the elephants.

A typical day

All elephants have different schedules. Some have skin conditions and need a daily mud bath, some need some exercise and are taken for a walk in the forest. Others inside the center go on a walk with visitors at the center, allowing tourists to feed the elephant while you walk.

Morning – feeding and cleaning (6:30 am)

A normal day would begin with feeding your assigned elephants in the morning followed by compost, which is removing leftover food and trash from the last feeding the previous day.

Here I am feeding one of my two elephants a ‘banana ball’.

Then you return to the volunteer kitchen to prepare your own breakfast, and trust me – you need breakfast! After breakfast you return to feed the elephants, perhaps here you give them a bucket shower! All tasks vary from one elephant to the other, the mahouts always know what you have to do.

Late morning – another feeding, followed by harvest or project work

At 9 am the elephants are fed again, while you clean the leftovers from the early feeding. Here you may even take the elephant for a walk in the forest, this was a really rewarding experience for me. The longer you stay at the center, the more responsibility you are given in the daily work.

Before lunch there is usually a project, either composting in some larger enclosures, going on a tough harvest to collect banana trees for the elephants, or general maintenance work such as painting or construction projects.

On harvest day we carry these harvested banana trees back to the truck

The harvest was always rewarded with a swim in the local river to cool off after the hard harvest work.

One task that I remember in particular was clearing a pond for lily flowers, which had completely outgrown the lake water where the elephants were supposed to swim. Here, everyone helps out; mahouts, volunteers, and even the volunteer coordinator may jump into the lake to collect lilies.

After the project, you have your lunch buffet, which is prepared for you and the buffet is served in the educational kitchen, where visitors also have their lunches.

Afternoon – 1 pm and 3 pm

In the afternoon you feed the elephants again, compost and prepare enrichments for them. Enrichments are used to keep the elephants busy throughout the afternoon, where they search for their food instead of being served directly.

Hanging corn on the trees are some of the enrichments we made. Today they make much more sophisticated items for the elephants to spend more time feeding!

Elephant volunteers usually finish their tasks before wildlife volunteers do, and you may offer your help to them if you need more activities in the afternoon.

You may also have a dog duty, where you are assigned a dog to wash and maybe take for a walk in the little forest outside the premises.

Day-off activities and socializing

Working 6 days a week can be really hard, but working alongside great-minded people and magnificent giants and wonderful local staff is so rewarding. On your weekly day-off, you can do whatever you feel like.

Sleep in, walk around the center and take photos of the wildlife, or take the day to explore outside of the center.

I remember one of my first days we went to the usual spa place, where we were invited to a party with karaoke and sukiyaki (delicious seafood).

Another night you might find yourself having a beer with one of the mahouts that you work with, or playing cards with some of the many volunteers who work at the center.

Cultural sightseeing (full-day) itinerary

A friend and I rented a taxi for almost an entire day (was only 1000 baht each I believe!) to explore some local attractions. We started in the morning at the Temple cave ‘Tham Khao Luang’.

Here we were met by several dozens of Long-tailed Macaque monkeys, who were looking to steal some food from visitors. After taking lots of photos of the monkeys (without feeding them!!) we ventured down into the cave with the temple.

The temple cave – Tham Khao Luang

The temple cave was a unique experience and can be combined with other sights in the area.

Phra Nakhon Khiri Historical Park

Next stop of the day was the historical park (entrance 200 baht). We took a cable car up the mountain and explored the beautiful structures and temples and saw many more monkeys. Beware of the cheeky monkeys!

After taking the lift up you need to follow the paths to see the main buildings of the park

After exploring the mysterious buildings and watching the cute monkeys hanging around in the trees we took the lift down the mountain and had a delicious lunch.

Wat Kamphaeng Laeng

After lunch, our driver took us as planned to see some very old temples. I was really excited to see them as they similar to the buildings at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, where I have always wanted to go!

They were, however, nothing alike since the setting was very urban and there were no amazing trees climbing the buildings.

Old temple structures at Wat Kamphaeng Laeng

If you have the time I still recommend exploring this site, and you surely don’t need a guide (not for any of the attractions listed in this section!).

Ending the day at the beach of Hat Puak Tian

To end the perfect cultural day we went to the beach of Hat Puak Tian, which is a place with an interesting statue. We strolled to the public part of the beach and relaxed in the sand until the tide was too high and the sand was engulfed by water, and we had to retreat to a café for cooling ice cream.

Statues at the beach of Hat Puak Tian

Hua Hin beach-time, spa and shopping

You can also spend your day off of just an evening in Hua Hin. Look at the taxi board of when the taxi is going to Hua Hin, or start your own taxi trip, and sign up on the board.

Having the whole day to spend, you have time to enjoy the beach. You can rent a sunbed for the day and enjoy the heat of the day in the shade while you drink a refreshing mango juice and have a yummy sandwich.

Stroll across the beach in Hua Hin and enjoy the fresh air

Beware of the super sharp rocks – or rather barnacles or mussels attached to the rocks, some of the other volunteers got themselves cut by climbing the rocks in the sea!

While you are in Hua Hin, you can treat yourself to a facial or a full body massage at the local spa salon. You can buy souvenirs, food items such as peanut butter for your toast back at the center (most people either brought it from home or bought it in town).

Have a pizza, burger or enjoy a drink at the Hilton White Lotus Sky bar if you’re feeling like treating yourselves!

Watch as millions of bats fly out from Nayang bat cave and enjoy a late night dinner in Cha-am

We had a taxi drive us from the center to the amazing bat caves near Cha-am. You have to pay an entrance fee to the owner of a house, and from their rooftop, you can watch as the spectacle unfolds

As you watch the cave from a few kilometers afar, suddenly millions of bats fly out in a long chain following each other in the quest for food.

It was an amazing experience, and it was a great evening spent in good company. The rooftop itself was run-down, but it was the perfect spot for taking pictures!

The Nayang Bat cave near Cha-am where millions of bats fly out from every evening!

A picture simply doesn’t do it justice. The spectacle lasts about 15 minutes and can be seen every day. I believe seeing this cave is for everyone, not just nature-lovers like me. See more photos on my Instagram account here.

After watching the last bats fly out, the taxi drove us to Cha-am where we had dinner. We ended up splitting the group in two, one group heading for burgers and BBQ and the other for pizzas.

There were many restaurant choices in Cha-am. I did not see the city by day, but it appears to be a nice full-day destination to just hang out at the beach all day.

This blog post is my personal experience and opinion. I volunteered back in 2015 and things are likely to have changed in some ways. Contact WFFT directly for updated info. If you have any questions for me, please send a DM through my Instagram or Twitter. Head to my Instagram account for more volunteer pictures and videos!

// Rie
© All photos are my own and may not be used without permission.

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