Call me crazy, but this past February I used a week of my vacation time to travel half way around the world . . . to work! Granted I was on the beautiful tropical island of Phuket in southern Thailand, but still, I was not lounging on the beach and partying into the wee hours as many do at this popular tourist destination. (Ok, I did get half a day at Nai Yang Beach, plus an amazing Thai massage!) Instead, I was volunteering at Phuket’s first ethical sanctuary for elephants, Phuket Elephant Sanctuary (PES).
This was my second time volunteering with Asian elephants (the first time was in Chiang Mai at Elephant Nature Park), and it was an equally life-changing experience. While I wish I had had the time to add a few days to the end of my week for some R&R, sweating in the jungle, cleaning up after elephants (yup, that includes picking up elephant poop!), and cutting up fruit for these magnificent vegetarians, is right where I wanted to be on my vacation. I’ve already got another week on my calendar two years from now!
For those interested in having the experience of a lifetime, here are some answers to frequently asked questions about my experience and tips on what to bring when you volunteer at PES.
What do you do as a volunteer?
This is probably the most common question people ask about my experience. The PES website has a good list of daily activities. Volunteer tasks can vary depending on what’s needed and I suppose time of year, but while I was there, our small group of volunteers did the following:
- Cleaned out the overnight elephant shelters by using shovels, rakes, and our hands (with gloves!) to scoop up leftover food (mainly prickly pineapple leaves, banana tree stalks, and bamboo), as well as poop (each poop is a little smaller than a soccer ball, and because elephants eat a lot of roughage and don’t fully digest their food, they aren’t as foul smelling as you might think!) Generally this happened first thing in the morning after the elephants were let out to forage with their keepers. In the afternoon, we added fresh leaves for the elephants to eat when they returned to their shelters later in the day.
- After filling wheelbarrows with the poop and leftover roughage, we hauled them to a compost hole and dumped everything in.
- Emptied and cleaned the elephant’s water troughs.
- Shoveled sand to build up sand piles for the elephants to rest on.
- Peeled and cut up watermelon and pineapple, then prepared baskets of this fruit, along with cucumbers and bananas, to feed to the elephants.
- Cleaned whole watermelons, squash, and cucumbers that came in from local growers.
- Assisted the half- and full-day visitors with supervised feeding of the elephants.
- General tidying and sweeping of certain areas of the sanctuary, including the elephants’ overnight shelters.
- Cutting down banana trees in the jungle.
- Digging shallow trenches for planting grass.
- Making rice balls – a mixture of white rice, bananas, and squash – for one of the elephants who wasn’t feeling well.
During our first morning at PES, Boy – our guide/supervisor who was with us each day to provide work direction – gave us a tour of the sanctuary, including an introduction to all the elephants (11 females at the time.) On our last day, we also had the opportunity to tour the sanctuary one final time and say our good-byes to the herd. Both of these days are ideal for taking pictures of the elephants, especially if you prefer not to have your camera with you while you’re working.
Was the work hard?
This is a subjective question. The work does not involve any special skills, but it is manual labor. While I was there, it was very hot, humid, and sunny, which can be an added challenge. That said, I found it to be a wonderful break from my “9-to-5” desk job. And because I wasn’t sitting all day, I was liberated from the back aches and pains I often experience at home. As PES explains on their website, prior experience is not required, but it is helpful to be physically fit and able to work as part of a team in a hot, humid climate, rain or shine.
Was it hot?
Yes, it was hot . . . and humid! With a tropical climate, the weather in Phuket varies between warm, cool, and rainy, though it never really gets too cold. If you’re trying to avoid extreme heat, as well as the rainy season, the best time to go is between November and January/February, which also corresponds roughly to high tourist season. Starting in February, the temperatures start heating up through about May. Monsoon season is June through October.
Do you have to volunteer for a week?
No. PES also has a three-day volunteer program, so you can still have an in-depth experience without as much of a time commitment. You can also visit for a half or full day. Full-day visitors had the opportunity to join the volunteers to help with afternoon fruit preparation.
How much interaction is there with the elephants?
This was another question many people asked. They seemed disappointed (at first) to hear that much of the work did not directly involve touching or being with the elephants and that most of the interaction involved observation, along with some supervised activities, such as feeding. This was my golden teaching moment, however, as I explained that the whole point of the sanctuary is to allow elephants to live as naturally as they would in the wild. That means the elephants are not at PES for the entertainment of humans.
As an ethical sanctuary with strict safety standards, PES limits direct interaction, recognizing, as all places with elephants should, that these animals (especially males) can be dangerous given how large and strong they are. In fact, during the same week I was at PES, there was an incident at an unethical elephant riding camp on Phuket in which an Italian tourist was seriously injured when a male elephant gored him with his tusk. I’m sure the elephant didn’t mean what he did, but it was an important lesson about proper interactions with elephants, and animals in general. I’m hopeful that someday soon, visiting these types of places will not be an option for tourists.
But don’t worry, you will have plenty of opportunity at PES to get up close and personal with certain elephants and capture some wonderful photos – it’s just done in a safe and respectful way. You will also realize that simply observing these beautiful giants in their natural habitat, doing what they would normally do, is even more rewarding than experiencing them as mere tourist entertainment.
Where do you stay?
Our accommodations were offsite, about five minutes from the sanctuary. Staff picked us up in a truck every morning and brought us back around 5pm. We had our own rooms with a bathroom, air conditioning, and wi-fi, plus laundry for a minimal charge, and a convenient 7-Eleven store within walking distance (which we frequented often for snacks and drinks!)
PES is in the process of constructing onsite volunteer accommodations. These could be ready as early as 2020, but best to check the website.
How is the food?
The food is amazing! It is all vegetarian (eggs are served in the morning) and served buffet style. Everything is cooked onsite using ingredients either from the sanctuary garden or from local growers.
You’ll encounter the same buffet for lunch and dinner and throughout the week, but there are at least a dozen different delicious dishes, so you can mix it up for variety. Hot and cold beverages, as well as snacks, are also available throughout the day.
Ten Essentials for a Fantastic Experience
Having volunteered with elephants twice before, and being with a wonderful group of even more experienced fellow volunteers (some of whom I had met during my previous stint in Chiang Mai), I’ve put together a helpful checklist of items to bring with you.
- Hiking boots or sturdy shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty: PES does provide tall socks and wellies (rubber rain boots) to volunteers and day visitors. While these were good to wear in wet and muddy conditions, I found my hiking boots to be better and wore them every day because they have so much support. The flat-soled wellies have no support and get hot and sweaty because they are rubber. Had I been there during the rainy season, I probably would have worn the rubber boots more often, so it’s definitely good they have them. There are also certain activities that involve standing in water, so in these situations, the wellies were more appropriate. I was also glad I brought my own tall socks to wear with my boots. I had a pair for each day so they’d always be clean.
- Long pants and long-sleeve shirts: Again, think hiking. I found my long hiking pants and long-sleeve, button down shirts to be critical despite the heat (although I occasionally wore a tank top or short-sleeve shirt.) They protect your skin from the sun, and when we were hiking in the jungle and cutting down banana stalks, it prevented my legs and arms from getting scratched by branches or bitten by bugs. Ideally, choose pants and shirts that are lightweight and made with quick-dry material. My pants with lots of pockets to hold a camera phone, locker key, glasses, etc. also came in handy.
- Sunscreen*, hat, and sunglasses: No explanation needed. Phuket has a tropical climate and you’ll need to protect yourself from the hot sun.
- Bug repellant*: Again, no real need for explanation; there are bugs in Thailand. I didn’t have much of a problem, but I did bring a repellant with 30% deet that was in a lotion form for easy application (and it was in a 3-ounce bottle so I could include in a carry-on bag.). Since I usually wore long pants and a long-sleeve shirt, I didn’t have to use too much, but don’t forget to put it on at night after you’ve changed out of your “work clothes!”
- Water bottle: You will drink more water than you could ever imagine while you’re working at the sanctuary, so a water bottle is absolutely essential. If you forget it, however, or don’t want to bring it, PES does provide each volunteer with a very nice water bottle, as well as a handy bottle carrier.
- Gloves: This was one item I didn’t think of bringing and luckily my friend had an extra pair! Gardening gloves are the best. PES does provide gloves for the volunteers, but they are more of a knitted/wool material. I found the gardening gloves I borrowed to be more comfortable and effective.
- Bandana: In the hot weather, it was helpful to soak a bandana in cold water and wrap around your neck.
- Lightweight rain slicker: If you’re there during the rainy season, it’s good to have a rain slicker with hood. Since it’s not cold, something lightweight and easy to carry is best.
- Camera and/or phone with camera: You’ll want to take lots of pictures, so make sure you have an easy way to keep your phone with you while you’re working – that could be a very small purse that goes over your neck or shoulder; a large and sturdy pocket in your clothing (one fellow volunteer had a vest similar to the ones photographers wear to carry their lens filters and other items); or a fanny pack. If you have a large DSLR camera that will be hard to carry around with you during the workday, PES has lockers to secure it. In addition to my iPhone camera, I had a small, high-quality point & shoot that I could carry easily or lock up when I didn’t need it.
- Cash: Credit/debit card machines are not ubiquitous in Thailand like they are in the U.S. or other countries, so be sure to have some cash on hand. PES does take cards, but I found it easier to use cash. You won’t need too much though.
*If you forget bug repellant and sunscreen, it’s not a problem, as PES had some communal offerings of both.