Last april I had the privilege to travel to Thailand to participate as a volunteer at a very unique elephant project. It turned into a special week where I met many passionate people from all over the world, felt part of the local community and most importantly: had the unique opportunity to experience elephants from up close.
About the Surin Project
The Surin Project is located in Ban Taklang in the Surin Province. As there live about 150 – 200 elephants in the village it is often referred to as Ban Chang – elephant village. Most of the local villagers are ethnic Gwi people, known for their long tradition of training and keeping elephants. While during the previous century the elephants where mainly used for logging, nowadays the majority of the elephants participate in the tourism activities of the elephant study centre and the associated circus. And as explained in my blog on elephant tourism, this isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the elephants.
The Surin Project was established to develop another sustainably managed form of elephant tourism within this village. The aim of the programme is to improve the living conditions of captive elephants and with that financially support mahouts and their families. Currently the project hosts seven elephants.
To set the right expectations: One should be aware that the Surin Project is not a sanctuary but it is about improving lives of captive elephants. Therefore the main aspect of the project is getting the elephants off of the chains at least 4 hours a day to let them roam free in the forest or down to the river to bathe. This allows the elephant to behave naturally. No riding is allowed and no bull-hooks are being used. Volunteers are brought in to assist the mahouts and enjoy the elephant in a natural environment.
A day at Surin Project
So what does a day at Surin Project generally look like? As the village wakes up quit early, you will start with breakfast at 07.00 – 08.00 AM at the meeting point. Afterwards, the volunteers are being divided into two groups. One of the groups go out to cut sugarcane for the elephants, while the other group heads off to clean the enclosures.
At 09:00 AM all volunteers, the mahouts and the elephants meet for a walk. This can either be a walk in the forest or a walk to the river followed by extensive elephant bathing. While you will observe elephants and their mahouts bathing in the pond during the walk in the woods, during their river bath you are allowed to join them – an overwhelming experience!
When getting back to the meeting point there is usually time for project work or for some leisure. At 12.00 AM – 01.00 PM lunch is enjoyed at a restaurant, offering you the chance to order a dish of choice.
The afternoon is filled with either project work or some spare time followed by another walk or just hanging out with with the elephants in their enclosure in the forest, which gives you a great opportunity to experience the elephants from up close. This is also the moment where elephants can enjoy a shower, either from the hose or a mud rain from their own trunk. For me this was definitely a highlight as it was obvious how much the elephants enjoyed it.
Dinner is served at 6 PM at the meeting point. At night there is time for extra activities like Thai lessons in both the culture and the language. Every Wednesday night, the volunteers head to a nearby temple to teach English to the monks and kids of the village.
Apart from the regular agenda many other activities are being organised including visiting an elephant poop paper shop, a visit to the local market and activities to get together with the mahouts like the mahout BBQ and the Mahout Olympics games.
Elephant quality time
With two visits a day you are insured of a lot of elephant quality time. The feeling you get when walking next to such a majestic animal is indescribable. But seeing them roam free, acting as happy free elephants is without a doubt the most rewarding aspect of participating in this project.
About the friendly staff and the venue
Apart from all the elephant love, what characterises the Surin Project is the fact that the staff and the mahouts go out of their way to make sure the volunteers have a good time. They are very willing to teach you more about the project, elephants and the local culture. You can tell that this pays of as no less than five volunteers were returning visitors, some of them even for the fifth time!
During your stay you will have a private room, either within the volunteer house or at a hosting family. Currently the volunteer house is located in the middle of the village near to the elephant study centre; a temporary solution as the construction of a new volunteer house is about to start soon. This will be in the same area as the elephant shelters, so you will even get to see our giant friends even more once the construction has finished.
The Surin Project is suitable for an extensive stay of a few weeks but I can tell from experience that is is also very suitable to go there for one week. That way it can easily be combined with other travel purposes. Read my previous blog to learn more about what to expect when participating as a volunteer in an animal project.
Prices: The price pp per week is 13.000 Thai Baht or 345 EUR or 376 USD. This includes housing and 3 meals a day.
Transport: From Bangkok you can easily travel by bus to the project. If arranged in advance, a project coordinator will come to pick you up at Monday 07.30 AM. This will cost you 500 BHT and has a travel time of about 7 hours. You can also travel from Chiang Mai for 800 BHT, the trip will take you about 15 hours with an overnight bus. If you prefer flying over a bus ride, you can fly from Bangkok to Buriram airport with Nok Air.
Questions: an extended information package to answer all of your questions will be send to you as soon as you booked your stay. Book your stay as a volunteer at the Surin Project