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Prepare yourself to slip into a different rhythm when you participate in our Elephant Experience.
You will be volunteering in the small rural village of Tha Thum, around an hour’s drive north of Surin. Elephants are an important part of both the history and culture of this area, and approximately 250 elephants are known to live in Tha Thum. The village is typical of rural life in Thailand, far from the usual tourist route, and a genuinely warm and friendly welcome is waiting for you and your family.
Your Elephant Volunteer Experience will combine working with elephants and community-based projects, allowing you to immerse yourself in the day-to-day experiences of rural Thailand. Your knowledgeable coordinator together with local Mahouts (elephant handlers) and villagers will ensure that from day one you are involved in genuine Thai life, experiencing the world famous Thai hospitality firsthand. Thai people are known for their warmth and friendliness, and this is especially evident when it comes to being around kids.
Volunteers in the village of Tha Thum will spend 4 days (3 nights) each week living in the home of the head Mahout and his family, together with fellow volunteers and your group coordinator. Your coordinator will be with you throughout your volunteering period. All coordinators have grown up within the rich traditions of this part of Thailand.
Each day you will have the opportunity to learn to ride, control, feed and wash the elephants, guided by the Mahout. Weather permitting you may also have the opportunity to ride the elephants to the river for a swim – a truly unforgettable experience. Activities may also include kayaking and learning traditional Thai fishing. Evenings in the village give you the opportunity to learn Thai cooking skills as you help prepare meals for your fellow volunteers.
The village kids love meeting the volunteers, and after your children have completed their day’s work and the local children have finished their day at school there’s plenty of time for fun together. Marbles, soccer, card games and the sounds of laughter continue long into the evening.
As a volunteer a part of your day may also include working in community development, supporting the local community in which you are living. Projects vary throughout the year, and each year new projects are developed for volunteers to contribute to. These include helping the local school, planting, and harvesting crops to help feed the elephants – adult elephants eat 300kgs of food per day so lots of crops are needed, especially for the dry season.
Be prepared to be flexible – village life does not run by the exact time standards of city life that most of us are used to and depend on. Plans may (and often do!) change for reasons that may not be entirely clear to us. Give yourself over to the rhythms of the village and your journey will be so much richer. Village life frequently brings surprises – a local area fair, a Buddhist festival, a wedding, a house foundation raising ceremony – you never know what may come your way during your time volunteering.
An elephant’s life in Thailand was traditionally one of work, primarily in the logging industry where they made a living for their owners. When logging was banned and elephants lost their jobs, many owners saw a solution in taking them to cities to entertain tourists and to beg. City life however brings many hardships. Besides becoming victims of road accidents, the elephants’ entire natural way of life is shattered. Without the opportunity to graze and eat constantly, the elephants’ weight and health suffers.
The volunteer project has several aims, the first and foremost being to enable the villagers of Tha Thum to keep their elephants in rural areas. With the elephant volunteer experience bringing an income to Tha Thum, village families now have the opportunity to maintain their elephants in natural surroundings. The mahouts of this region pride themselves on the treatment of their elephants.
The village of Tha Thum relies heavily on volunteers for both financial and physical support. Tha Thum is essentially a self-sustaining community, and with the exception of limited farming there is no income to the village. With the help of our volunteers we are giving the community more free time to explore different areas that may produce income, such as bigger farms, fish farms and fruit trees. Volunteers also help to repair, decorate and revitalize the village by working on old and dilapidated buildings, decorating and repairing the school, as well as many more ongoing projects.
The village children and our children play together every afternoon after their school and our workdays are completed. The local children’s interaction with foreign, English speaking volunteers offers them the opportunity to learn and practice English. Even indirectly this will help the children’s confidence, giving them access to a unique environment where they can practice their skills and hopefully, in the long term providing them a better chance of finding a suitable university placement, the stepping stone to a better future.
Mr Khun Lee is the chief mahout (elephant handler) in Tha Thum. The ongoing physical and financial support offered by volunteers has enabled Mr Lee to commit to the elephants remaining in the village.
Here’s how it works:
Elephants are huge animals with equally huge appetites, and each elephant eats around 300kgs of food per day, an expensive outlay. Volunteers’ fees pay for elephant food during the time the volunteers are in the village, as well as paying for the diesel to enable the truck to collect the food and return it to the village. Mahouts are paid a fee for the use of the elephants, as well as to ensure the elephants are properly cared for and receive the correct treatment from vets when required. Without the presence of volunteers in the village the elephants would have been sold long ago, as they are so expensive to keep. An elephant can cost around 300 to 500,000 Baht each, a huge lump of money for a poor farming village.
While there is money to be made elsewhere for a mahout and his elephant, it is a far from satisfactory solution. A street-walking elephant can easily earn around 2-4,000 Baht per day, however this is a very dangerous, cruel and unhealthy way to keep the elephants fed.
Your program coordinator is the person who is with you throughout your volunteer experience, fulfilling many roles: offering you guidance and advice and answering any questions you may have, working alongside you translating and supporting you throughout your day. The coordinators have grown up within the culture of Surin, and they love sharing their knowledge. Most of all, you’ll see right away that their energy is contagious. Their ongoing presence is largely responsible for your cultural integration in the communities in which you are volunteering.
You will also be given 24-hour emergency contact numbers of other project staff members.
On arrival in Surin you will participate in an orientation session to familiarize yourself with your volunteer project and to meet all the project staff involved in making your volunteering experience a fabulous one. Your project coordinator will assist you to settle in to your accommodation at the volunteer house.
The morning after arriving in Surin you will be taken to the elephant village, Tha Thum, roughly an hours drive out of Surin city. Your typical week in Tha Thum will consist of volunteering Monday to Thursday and you will spend 4 days (three nights) each week living at the home of the village elder, his family, your fellow volunteers and your coordinator.
Please note: Itineraries and activities are subject to change. The more flexible you are with the itinerary, the more you will gain from the program.
On Thursday afternoon once your day’s work is done, you will be taken back to Surin for a 3-day weekend. In Surin city you will once again stay in the volunteer house, located on the outskirts of town and within walking distance of a good choice of restaurants, supermarkets, markets, internet cafés etc. There are several excellent roadside food stalls right besides the volunteer houses. The bus and train station are a short tuk tuk ride away.
Your 3-day weekend is the perfect opportunity to relax, or to travel and explore some of the fascinating areas around Surin. Speak to us for some great recommendations.
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Accommodation and Meals
While volunteering in Tha Thum you will be staying in basic home-stay accommodation with the village elder and his family. You’ll share your room with your family members as well as all volunteers. Toilet facilities (both Thai squat style as well as Western) and a shower/ bucket will be available for you to use. There are two little stores in the village where you can purchase snacks and drinks. All meals are provided during your time in Tha Thum and volunteers are urged to help your host family and coordinator prepare these meals – a great way to learn how to make delicious Thai food.
Back in Surin city at the end of your volunteering week (Thursday afternoon/ evening) you will once again stay in the volunteer house with 5 to 10 people in a twin share room. You are responsible for your own meals while staying at the volunteer house. All volunteer houses have a basic kitchen including a cook top, sink, toaster, kettle, fridge and utensils for self-catering, or you are able to walk to one of the many local restaurants or roadside stands to buy a meal
Surin is located in the Northeast of Thailand, about 7 hours from Bangkok. It can be reached by bus or by train from the capital or from the North of the country. From Surin it is only one hour to the border crossing with Cambodia.
Surin and Northeast Thailand are a little off the tourist radar, and so have remained unspoiled and ready to offer you a fascinating and authentic experience of the real, untouched Thailand. Surin is an extremely safe place to stay.
Surin Province is Thailand’s 3rd poorest province and Tha Thum is one of the poorest districts of Surin. While the area is renowned in Thailand for its fragrant jasmine rice, Surin’s low rain fall means that only one rice crop a year is possible. Life is hard in this region and local people are unemployed for 8-9 months of the year. When you visit Surin province and Tha Thum it is truly rice paddies as far as the eye can see. The landscape is incredibly flat. During July and August you will see whole villages in the fields planting rice, and November to December is harvest time.
Surin once belonged to the Khmer empire so you will find scattered ancient temples from the same period as the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. Surin is now most famous for the annual elephant festival that takes place in November. The elephants are well treated in this region and the mahouts are proud of their standard of care.
Within Surin city there are many local shops and restaurants, plus a night food market. The countryside surrounding Surin offers the opportunity to visit fascinating silk, silver and basket villages, where you can buy authentic, locally made goods.
Surin’s location makes it perfectly placed for you to explore many other parts of Thailand, with Surin’s local bus and train stations offering many ways to travel to and from the region. Locations easily reached from Surin include Khao Yai National Park, the Thai-Cambodian border and rural Thailand further Northeast for the more intrepid traveller. Tha Thum
Tha Thum is the most northern district of Surin Province on the border with Roi Et Province. It is Surin’s ‘District of Elephants’. There are believed to be approx 250 elephants living in Tha Thum. The village where your homestay is located has about 40-50 houses along its main street, as well as a school and two small shops. A river in which the elephants enjoy bathing runs very close by. This village is very typical of rural Thailand, giving you the opportunity to experience true Thai life first hand. Expect big smiles from the local people and an amazing experience with elephants, mahouts and your homestay family.