Volunteer in the lush mountain forests of Northern Thailand and spend each day in the forest with elephants rescued from working in tourist camps. Leaving their tragic pasts behind, these gentle giants now live natural lives in Chiang Mai Province of Northern Thailand, an area famous for its traditional elephant keeping communities.
Volunteers can learn about elephant behaviour and contribute directly to the elephants’ lives by providing working alternatives for the owners, mahouts (elephant keepers) and villagers, that allow the elephants to live in the forest. You will observe elephants alongside mahouts who draw on generations of tribal knowledge about elephants.
You will be observing elephants during your stay, taught how to read their behaviour and given presentations on various elephant-related topics. We want you to be able to see the happiness you can bring to these incredibly sophisticated animals, during this amazing opportunity to learn about elephants from Karen communities, who have worked with them for centuries.
We are always looking for enthusiastic and dedicated people to join our team. This project offers qualifying and high-performing volunteers the chance to stay on the project for a longer duration on a GVI Scholarship free of charge and as part of the staff team in the field. If you would like to work towards a field career and make the very most of your time abroad, you might want to work towards a place on a GVI Scholarship. Successful scholars may find themselves offered full time employment with GVI, and many of our current staff have come through this route. Contact us for more information!
Please note, the awarding of scholarships is at the sole discretion of GVI and may be offered immediately after the completion of your program or at a later date.
GVI is real volunteering
Our projects are constantly evolving according to the needs on the ground at any given time. All the information displayed here will give you an overall feel for the project, but you should be prepared for any changes in the field when you travel. An evolving project means that we can constantly meet the needs and requirements of our partners, who dictate the work that we do. The way it should be.
We live in a bit of a camp atmosphere, working with villagers and English speaking staff to provide guidance. Early mornings and long days are rewarded with a real feeling of accomplishment at week’s end, and seeing the impact we're making on the elephants’ lives.
The members of the village own more than 60 elephants distributed around tourist camps in the area. We work with villagers giving them incentive to bring their elephants back to the forest, with 6 elephants currently living in Huay Pakoot’s forest.
A Typical Day
You will quickly learn that village life takes its own pace, rising with the sun in the morning and relaxing later in the day. 7:30AM is the team’s shared breakfast and quick morning meeting. 8AM we head off with our local mahout co-workers to start the day’s work, with the first task of finding the elephants in the jungle.
Some days you will assist a quick health inspection of the elephants during close contact time, then follow the elephants in the forest and monitor the elephants’ forest reintroduction program. Other days you observe the herd closely following their path through the forest. You may also assist in surveying forest biodiversity: looking for gibbons, deer, snakes and birds.
Occasionaly we will enjoy a packed lunch in the field, returning to the village for a break with the team meeting around 2PM at our base HQ. Afternoons are spent helping out around the village or tackling the week’s projects.
Volunteers typically work Mon through Fri, with Sat and Sun being travel days or optional days off. Your accommodation is basic, within a traditional community so you should expect to adapt and show respect for the environment in which you will be living.
The population of Asia elephants and their habitat is rapidly declining. With less than 1,000 left in the wild in Thailand, but around 3,000 in captivity, we are one of the few viable alternatives to the reality of their domesticated future within tourist camps.
Please note, this is a serious volunteer program and we do not partake in riding elephants or having them demonstrate skills learned from being trained.
Your contribution will help to keep these reintroduced captive elephants into protected forests and conserve this beautiful species, providing the funding and hands-on support to keep this project going. The goal is to have semi-wild herds of elephants living in their natural habitat, supervised by their mahouts.
How this project makes a difference:
Elephants can be very expensive to care for, and generally viewed as private property by the locals and as a means of generating income. They are often forced to make money through tourism often because of a lack of viable alternatives.
However, as an unregulated industry, elephant tourism can be an ugly business. Elephants require a specific environment, socially, mentally and physically to thrive. With a huge increase in the demand for tourist camps, elephants are deprived of the need of their self-medicating diet, migratory urges to move, complex social interactions and brain stimulation, leading to shocking repurcussions in the health of the elephant.
Our volunteering with the local community aims to provide a sustainable way for elephants have healthy lives that will ensure their long term conservation and survival.
When I entered the project I had a lot of expectations, and almost none of them were met as the way I thought they would be, it was much better! This was my first trip to a foreign country ever and my first volunteer project and I think it was a really good life experience. I am already looking for something more to volunteer to, and I know it’s because my experience here was as good as it was.
The first thing I noticed was the stunning scenery which surrounded the hill tribe village we stayed at. Here the Karen people were extremely friendly and our host family made us feel very welcome. The highlight of the trip though was taking a short trek into the jungle and being able to witness the elephants roaming free in their natural habitat, overall it was a great experience and definitely something I would do again.
Volunteering with GVI not only allows you to participate on programs assisting disadvantaged communities or endangered ecosystems but it also offers wonderful opportunities to travel in the local area in your down time or further afield either before or after your program. Many decide to travel after volunteering, solidifying the lifetime friendships established on program.
Our long term field staff are a great source of advice and are here to help you make the most of your time abroad. Remember to ask about discounts on local activities and side trips through your association with GVI. Our Chiang Mai field teams have helped us put together the following information on trips and travel options in Thailand!
Chiang Mai is quiet rural Thai village, giving you a unique chance to learn about traditional Karen culture. Learn to cook Thai and Karen dishes with community members, and learn about everyday life in this traditional setting.
Included Side Trips
The location of this project is remote. Leaving Chiang Mai city you embark on a 5 hour journey into the mountains. On the way, we pass through Doi Inthanon national park (Thailand’s highest peak) and usually stop for a walk to one of the spectacular waterfalls.
Due to the remoteness, our program is based in and around the village. The program is field based which gives you the opportunity to explore the surrounding forests on the daily hikes with the elephants. Travel and side-trip opportunities from the village need special arrangements, but the prospects for immersing yourself in the local area and village culture are huge.
Optional Side Trips
While on the program, there is ample time for you to plan side trips and organise transportation. These are not part of the program and are best taken as a weekend trip or as an activity before or after joining the program. We are always ready to assist, provide recommendations and up-to-date information. Locally, trips can be arranged to neighbouring villages and town like Mae Chaem and Mae Hong. These are great places to wind down, get a traditional Thai massage or explore temples.
Though we are well off the main tourist route, opportunities exist for you to go bamboo river rafting, rock climbing, visit Doi Inthanon National Park, relax at a local resort/spa, and for something completely different...learn how to make a machete, learning traditional techniques!
Further Travelling Opportunities
Thailand is a country with a massive range of fantastic places that you could visit. If you have the time and budget, you could consider going to see the following; the waterfalls of the picturesque Khao Yai National Park, the local tribes of Nam Province, the beaches of Ko Tao and Mu Ko Chang Marine National Park, the golden kingdom of Ayuthaya, the temples and nightlife of Bangkok, just to name a few! Chiang Mai city abounds with tour operators offering a huge array of amazing side trips in the local province, throughout Thailand and beyond into neighbouring countries.
Build Your Program
- Pre-departure support and discounted services
- 24-hour emergency phone
- Airport pick-up (unless otherwise stated)
- Arrival orientation
- Long term experienced staff
- Safe and basic accommodations (usually shared)
- All meals (unless otherwise stated in field manuals)
- Welcome meeting
- Location orientation
- All necessary project training by experienced staff
- All necessary project equipment and materials
- 24-hour in-country support
- Required transportation for the duration of your stay
- Comprehensive training program that encompasses theory lectures, group study and field practice
- Basic field kit
What's Not Included
- Medical and travel insurance
- Visa costs
- Personal kit
- Additional drinks and gratuities
- Extra local excursions
- International and domestic airport taxes