A chance to volunteer with elephants at an Elephant Sanctuary and home in Mae Chaem, situated in the countryside of Northern Thailand. Help to give elephants a chance to live free. This elephant volunteer project provides an alternative for elephants and their owners to move away from the busy city life and hardships of trekking & tourist rides by providing a retirement home for elderly elephants, as well as engaging the local community in environmental and education projects.
You can join for 1 week up to 4 weeks and we have places available all throughout the year.
Individuals, groups, families and students all welcome.
Cost for food & accommodation during the project, transport, backup and support starts at £480
This old elephant retirement volunteer project in Mae Chaem, Chiang Mai, Thailand was established in 2011, with the aim of educating both owners and mahouts, as well as local communities, on the elephant situation in Thailand and providing an alternative for owners to retire their elephants to an ethical place to call home. The project has rescued and permanently retired two older elephants, to provide an alternative where they can live as elephants should, away from being forced to work in trekking camps or the mass tourism industry and into a natural home where they can enjoy freedom and have the ability to behave like real elephants, without being forced to give rides or held captive by humans or to engage in other unethical interactions with humans. They also rescue, rehabilitate and release local wildlife back into the wild and have been successful in the release of owls, many small lizards and even baby native forest rats. They are also a sanctuary for dogs, cats, and other small animals, caring for roughly 15 rescued cats and 17 rescued dogs. Any wildlife that comes in is rescued, rehabilitated and released where possible.
The project also works within the community teaching English to local village children and anyone that wants to learn, provides locals with employment opportunities and support for local businesses, and also grows seasonal crops on the sanctuary to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
The project relies on assistance from volunteers to help support the elephants at the sanctuary and to support its community development programmes. Please note, as part of the sanctuary's ethical stance, the volunteer programme is strictly hands-off, meaning you will not be touching or interacting with the elephants directly, but you will have the opportunity to observe, learn about and support elephant welfare in a pro-active way. Volunteering with elephants means you will be involved in a range of tasks in the sanctuary such as;
- Observing the Elephants (hiking to see them in the forest/fields)
- Preparing night food and Enrichment for the elephants
- Placing Food and Enrichment throughout the night enclosures
- Going to cut grass/corn/banana trees for elephants
- Learning about the elephants and elephant welfare
- Helping with Projects either onsite or in the local area that help the elephants, rescued animals and the community.
Another main focus of this project is small animals rescue and release volunteer work. Volunteers have rescued tortoises and different species of owls which have been rehabilitated back to health and released back into the wild. So you may also be involved in any ongoing small animals rescue and release programmes, including building animal enclosures, making beds for animals, fixing fences, and so on.
In addition, Eco-tourism and environmental conservation are promoted through planting trees, local education and community development. Volunteers have the opportunity to work together with the community and can join in on community projects, such as:
5th to 18th November 2018
19th November to 2nd December 2018
3rd to 16th December 2018
17th to 30th December 2018
7th to 20th January 2019
21st January to 3rd February 2019
4th to 17th February 2019
18th February to 3rd March 2019
4th to 17th March 2019
18th to 31st March 2019
1st to 14th April 2019
15th to 28th April 2019
29th April to 12th May 2019
13th to 26th May 2019
27th May to 9th June 2019
10th to 23rd June 2019
24th June to 7th July 2019
8th to 21st July 2019
22nd July to 4th August 2019
5th to 18th August 2019
19th August to 1st September 2019
2nd to 15th September 2019
16th to 29th September 2019
30th September to 13th October 2019
14th to 27th October 2019
28th October to 10th November 2019
11th to 24th November 2018
25th November to 8th December 2019
9th to 22nd December 2019
Please note that the above dates are flexible, you can join the project starting on any Monday and leaving on any Sunday throughout the year, as long as you are able to stay for 1 week or longer.
Volunteers can join for 1 week up to 4 weeks in duration, all year round. 30 days is the maximum length tourists can stay in Thailand on a visa waiver, after which you will need to extend it in the country. Or you can obtain a 60-day tourist visa in advance of your arrival. Pick up from Chiang Mai to transfer to the project is on Monday mornings, and drop off is on Sunday afternoons. Please note that we can also be flexible with dates, and it would be possible to join on dates other than those above, as long as it is starting on a Monday.
We can also accept families with children (aged 10+) & large groups for this project, and you may be eligible for discounted rates - please email us if you are interested. To find out more about family volunteering abroad click here.
The cost to join for a 1-week project is 480 GBP, 2 weeks is 780 GBP, 3 weeks is 1080 GBP and 4 weeks is 1380 GBP. Your payment covers all your food, bottled water and accommodation (either on site or in a homestay with a local family) during the project, pick up and drop off in Chiang Mai, project training and supervision and WorkingAbroad Projects backup and placement support.
Your airfare to and from Thailand, travel/medical insurance and personal expenses are not included within this price. It is mandatory for you to take out travel and medical insurance for the duration of the project.
If you are a currently enrolled student or are planning to volunteer with a large group, you may be eligible for discounted rates. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
Lodging & Food
Individual Volunteers and small groups/families stay on site at the elephant sanctuary, whilst for larger groups, you may stay with a Thai family in a local homestay. All food and bottled water are provided for volunteers.
Onsite lodging includes a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net and a fan in the room. On-site, we have 7 private rooms for individuals/couples, plus a 4-person dorm style room for families or small groups to share. Volunteers will also have access to a western toilet and a cold shower head. The homestays are a shared dorm style for larger groups, and do not have a western toilet, the bathrooms have a squat toilet and cold bucket showers. There is electricity & power sockets to charge your gadgets in the accommodation, but no wifi.
Homestay houses are located in the local village, 3 minutes walk from the sanctuary. Staying in a homestay is a great way of involving the community in the project and also enables local homestay families to make an income for the week as a percentage of your fee is paid directly to homestay hosts. When staying at a homestay all meals and activities are still taken onsite and enjoyed with the other volunteers at the sanctuary.
The daily breakfast will include a western style; Eggs, fruit, Yogurt and bread (toaster provided), the daily Lunch and dinner will be a variety of Thai Cuisines and a side of fruit in season. Bottled water, Tea and Coffee always provided. If volunteers are interested in learning how to cook certain Thai cuisines that are on the menu for the day they can have the opportunity to help out and learn how to cook in the kitchen.
Volunteers should be aged 18 years or over (or 10+ if accompanied by an adult), be reasonably physically fit (capable of walking several kilometres per day), and speak English. Previous experience working with animals would be useful but is not required. Volunteers should have a strong motivation to help and contribute to the community & animal welfare, and be able to cope with living in hot, basic conditions and being in close proximity to a range of different animals.
How to Get there
Volunteers should aim to fly to Chiang Mai airport (code CNX). From here you will be picked up by local staff and taken to the sanctuary in Mae Chaem and your accommodation, ready to start the project. Volunteer pick up is on Monday mornings between 8-9 AM, and drop off on Sunday afternoons. If you arrive before the project start date we recommend you stay overnight in Chiang Mai and we can pick you up from your hotel instead of the airport on Monday morning. We can arrange pickup from any hotel in the main moat square of Chiang Mai (also known as the old city).
Below is a short video showcasing the project. Please note, as part of the sanctuary's new ethical stance, the volunteer programme is now strictly hands-off, meaning you will not be touching or interacting with the elephants directly as depicted in this video, which was made at an earlier date, but you will have the opportunity to observe, learn about and support elephant welfare in a pro-active, positive way.
Video of one of the elephants, Mae Kam, bathing in the river:
Interactive Map of the Area
The project is located in the District of Mae Chaem situated just 2.5hrs drive South-West of Chiang Mai, amongst beautiful mountain scenery and lush countryside. Situated in a valley in Mae Tan, Thung Yaw Maechaem, the sanctuary has breathtaking views of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand. For more information on the Chiang Mai province please see here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thailand/chiang-mai-province
Please note, as part of the sanctuary's new ethical stance, the volunteer programme is now strictly hands-off, meaning you will not be touching or interacting with the elephants directly as stated in some of these testimonials, which were written at an earlier date. However you will have still have the opportunity to observe, learn about and support elephant welfare in a pro-active, positive way.
Liat Zur, from Israel, joined with their family to volunteer for 1 week at the project in August 2018:
We had a unique experience that combined hard work, great moments of excitement and really moving times. We loved it! Loved the people there that make things happen, Burm and Got were amazing, and also the all the families of the Mahout that we got to know (we played cards with them every night). We fell in love with Mae Kam and Thong-Dee, we truly miss them.
We had a thrilling day as we were visiting the local high school. Stav, one of our daughters is a dance teacher, and she taught 3 classes of HIP HOP there – and the children where incredible and so moved by her – we cherish the moments that we had there.
Patil Tchivian from Lebanon joined as a volunteer for 1 week in June 2018:
I can honestly say it was the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had so far. I cannot put into words my feelings when I first saw the elephants, i almost cried. It was something I always wanted to do, get to know those beautiful creatures.
Our time at the sanctuary was amazing, animals all around. We hiked in the jungles, fed the elephants, cut corn for them and peeled bananas, bathed Thong Dee in the river. We also loved having dogs and cats around us all the time. They were so lovely, i already miss them sooo much. We met beautiful people. They were so friendly and very helpful with everything. The room was actually in a very good condition. Very clean and neat. Bathrooms as well. Also the food they made for us was so good.
All in all my experience was amazing! It was the perfect jungle life I always wanted to experience. I wish i could’ve stayed longer. I miss every minute of it. I even got the perfect proposal that my fiancé had planned with Emily. It was just so beautiful.
My purpose in life is to give animals the best I can, because i believe they deserve so much more. I’m so glad i found your website and made my dream come true. To many more!
Etienne Maes from Canada joined for two weeks in May 2018:
The time I spent on the project was great, everyone was really kind and helpful. The daily activities were very well organized and I had an amazing experience overall!
A group of students, Sera, Viveca, Haofei, Megan, Flavia and Zoe, from the International School of Geneva joined our Elephant Volunteer project in Thailand in May 2018:
No matter how big or small something is, one should always respect the other. During the trip to Thailand, we have opened our eyes and developed many skills ranging from how to treat animals fairly -meaning giving them the chance to live in the wild - to understanding and cherishing new culture. On our hike in the jungle, we learnt that elephants eat 10% of their body weight- around 250kg. That means that a whole bucket full of bananas is merely a snack. Planting bananas was therefore beneficial to the elephants and the sustainability of the sanctuary which we helped fund. By cutting, transporting, and planting the banana trees we learnt the hard work and effort put into producing even the most basic of products. Today and onward we need to be more mindful in our consumption of them.
Florencia Dominguez joined as a volunteer on the project for 2 weeks in March 2018:
The elephant sanctuary project was one of the best this I have ever done. I stayed for two weeks which I consider the minimum time necessary in order to have a full experience. The staff was always nice and teach me a lot about their culture as well as the founders Emily and Burm. We used to do differents activities such as cutting corn, picking up bananas, cleaning, learning thai cuisine, bath and walk with the elephant. We were also able to visit some temples and they took us to a strawberry farm! The sanctuary was clean and nice. I strongly recommend this project and I wish i could do another one in the future. My experience with working abroad was very good as well, the staff answered all my questions. Thank you!
Chloe Studd from the UK, volunteered at the project for 1 week in February 2018:
I had the most amazing week at the Elephant Volunteer project! Amazing animals, amazing people and just an amazing place. I would go back and would’ve stayed longer if I had more money! Had so much fun and felt like I was actually doing something to help, as well as seeing the amazing care that the animals receive. Thank you!
Heidi Morrall from the UK, joined the project as a volunteer for 2 weeks in January 2018:
The Elephant Volunteer project is a truly wonderful place to visit. You experience real love towards the elephants who have had a long and very tough life before being rescued. Not only is the Elephant Volunteer project a retirement sanctuary for these beautiful creatures but it’s also a rescue for dogs, cats and any other animals that need their help.
The volunteer program is a great mix of spending time with the elephants, be that walking with the elephants through the stunning forest and hills that surround the sanctuary, preparing their food and bathing them and spending time in a group working on tasks such as cutting grass for food, cleaning the elephant’s night enclosures or helping with odd jobs around the sanctuary. There is plenty of downtime to appreciate your surroundings, relax and get to know fellow volunteers and the project family.
I travelled here alone but never once felt lonely. Everyone who works here work together as one big family unit and they include you not only while your there but also after you’ve left. I have never felt more at home anywhere. Burm and Emily, Tobi, Got, Aum, Tan, Labang and Ngae Ngae are all very welcoming and couldn’t do more for you during your stay. They do anything and everything they can to help these Elephants on a day to day basis and when one becomes sick…it’s a “all hands-on deck” attitude for as long as is required until the elephant recovers.
The fact you're able to get up close with the elephants is unbelievable and you feel a connection with them that is unmatched to anything at home. It’s safe to say I have left a piece of my heart at the project and will be back.
Jennifer Dewhurst, a student from USA, joined as a volunteer for 2 weeks in December 2017:
I had the most amazing experience volunteering at the elephant sanctuary in Thailand. Everyone at the project was so nice and helpful. I had so much fun working with the elephants and learning about Thai culture. We went on two elephant walks a week, did work around the sanctuary, fed and bathed the elephants and went to the local Thai school and did a tour of the local village. There were also plenty of super friendly cats and dogs around to keep you company. The accommodation was basic but they definitely made you feel at home and always made sure you were well fed. I would definitely do it again and recommend it to anyone!
Gemma Edwards, from the UK, joined as a volunteer in September 2017:
It was amazing! I can't speak highly enough of the people running it and how welcoming and helpful they were throughout they really made us feel like part of the family. I would definitely recommend it to anyone and would love to go back, it was worth every penny!
Marianne Freire joined the project for 1 week with her daughter in July 2017:
It was a fabulous experience. My 14 year old loved it. We were involved in a variety of different experiences - feeding, cleaning, walking, and observing the elephants. We helped prepare their food and clean their living space. We also collected and harvested bananas, squash, greeneries etc for the elephants from surrounding farms. We went on hikes, walks, played in the water, temple visits, waterfall visit, cooked, ate, slept and spent evenings playing games with the hosts and other volunteers. We were constantly surrounded by the numerous (friendly) rescue cats and dogs that are fortunate to live on the property. Our hosts were super accommodating, obviously totally committed to the elephants and promoting a sustainable future for them. We had a fabulous time and learned so much. I totally recommend this experience for everyone who is truly cares about animals.
Hannah Fingleton, from the UK, joined the project for 1 week in July 2017:
I spent a week at the project and I wish I'd spent longer! It was the best week of my life so far and was so rewarding. At the sanctuary it's not just about the elephants, there are loads of cats and dogs as well. The programme provides a very well rounded experience, not only did we help look after the elephants, we also made Thai desserts, went to the local school to help with the English lessons and went to many temples in the local village of Mae Chaem. Everyone at the sanctuary is so nice and you straight away feel at home. I have a nut allergy and they were amazing with tailoring meals to my specific needs. I cannot put into words how much I recommend this programme and how amazing it. I am definitely going to go back to the sanctuary and spend more time there!
Katarzyna Gorska from Poland volunteered for 2 weeks at the project in June 2017:
I had great fun at the project. I found accomodation fine and the whole environment was very friendly and relaxed. At first I was scared about all the dogs, but then just really enjoyed the place much more with all animals around. I especially liked my local guides, Chin and Ghot who were incredibly helpful, nice and very intelligent. The walks in the jungle were great and so was all the work.
Carlota Prista volunteered for 1 week in March 2017:
The volunteer project was very good. We made the meals for both of the elephants, salads to the elephant with digestive problems (what a big salad!), we went to corn fields to cut, we walked with the elephants, we were blessed by the locals of the village and we tried to communicate with them and understand their culture, we cleaned shelter of the elephants. It was an amazing experience, the elephants are free and happy, the locals are amazing, always smiling and even if they don't have a lot, they always try to give something.
Ewa Stanecka volunteered in February 2017:
I had an amazing time volunteering at the project, it was the best decision I have made. Burm and Emily and everyone else involved in the project are such passionate people and the whole stay was very inspiring. They really care about the elephants and are very ethical. The experience with the elephants was very hands on and personal. You get to spend so much time with them that at some point you are just happy to step back and watch other people enjoying their elephant time.
The accommodation conditions were much better than described in the brochure, the food was just delicious, they were really paranoid that we were going to be hungry so they cooked loads of food all the time. I really enjoyed the time spent in school teaching English, the kids were so polite and lovely!
Overall it was a great experience and I am already thinking of going back again.
Suzanne Byrne from Ireland, volunteered from January-February 2017:
I had an amazing time. The project is amazing, the love and attention they give their animals not just the elephants all the animals there was amazing. Emily and Burm are so nice and passionate about what they do it's amazing to be part of it with them and they do make you a part of it all. It was an amazing experience start to finish. Culturally educational as well as they make sure to expose you to it all. I couldn't recommend this project more. All the staff where so welcoming and it's clear it's much more than a job to any of them it's their way of life.
I had the most amazing 2 weeks and learned so much about the seriously harmful impact that the mass tourism industry has on elephants. During my time there I washed and fed the elephants every day, having prepared their food for them, went on a walk twice a week to find the elephants roaming free in their natural habitat, and looked after the other animals on site, as there are many cats and dogs that need looking after too.
We also took a trip to the local school where I managed to teach a class some English, that was great fun. It was great that, although the main purpose of the trip was to look after elephants, they weren’t always the main focus, which was a good thing, otherwise I think it would have felt more like a zoo rather than a project to actually help these animals. The whole purpose of the sanctuary is also to promote ethical tourism, something that I will take away with me now and promote to all my friends at home!
Brooke Lamarche volunteered in August 2016:
We had a wonderful time volunteering and being in Thailand! It was a great group to work for. Shin was an amazing aid and guide for us volunteers while we were there. Working with the elephants was a very humbling and once in a lifetime experience.
All in all it was an amazing experience, one we had been looking forward too for a very long time and we were not disappointed! Thank you for the opportunity to work with these majestic Animals and inspirational people!
Julie Ransquin volunteered in Thailand for 2 weeks in 2016:
Concerning my 2 weeks in Thailand at the sanctuary I can only say that I had a great time. I learned a lot about Thailand, about how a rural village lives, about the elephants of course. What I really appreciated was the location and on how rustic and simple it was on the site in Mae Tan. I really liked the activities that we had to do: cleaning the elephant area, cutting pumpkins to give them to the elephants, the elephant treks in the jungle, cutting banana trees or grass, teaching english, helping the village people to build their temple, etc. I learned a lot about myself and thanks to the whole team, Emily, Burm, Shin, Lada, Suvannan, Naree, the Mahouts and Bella, Emily's sister, I spent two wonderful weeks that I will never forget.
A Group of Animal Conservation Students from Bridgwater College, UK joined the project in 2015:
Organising a trip for a group of students can sometimes be difficult but WorkingAbroad made it so easy for us, were really cooperative and supportive throughout. It was easy to contact people for information and they always gave a quick response. The trip itself was incredible and is something that the students and myself will treasure forever. They are such amazing people and provided the best support for the students to learn and experience everything in Thailand. Not only did they work with the beautiful elephants but also got to teach in the local schools and visit some of the temples. There was not a single thing that I would have changed except to stay forever! Kayleigh Liddell, Lecturer at Bridgwater College
“Visiting Thailand was an amazing experience. Working at the project provided an excellent opportunity to do a variety of tasks with the elephants. The possibilities were endless and thoroughly exceeded expectations. The support provided by tutors and staff helped me to gain as much from the trip as possible. Overall a much enjoyed trip that was planned well enough for it to run smoothly and in a way that meant we all achieved a large amount of knowledge” Amy Price, Bsc Animal Management
“Going to Thailand was definitely an experience I wont easily forget, with some fantastic memories and friends made in the process. Being part of a project such as this was a huge honour, making me realise just how much work, effort and time goes into helping the Asian elephants. I can honestly say I will be an ambassador for the cause having learnt so much whilst I was there” Katie Reading , Bsc Animal Management
Alessandro Cabai, from Italy describes his time on the project in 2014:
I spent two weeks in Mae Chaem for the elephant project! It’s one of my best life experiences!
You can live the real Thailand, spend time with local people, eat amazing food and help elephants! The project is wonderful, the way they work is simply fabulous and the place is unadulterated. What else?! I suggest for everyone to join this project!! Trust me!
The Lambert Family, from the UK, Joined the project in December 2013:
We are now back from our holiday and can say that we thoroughly enjoyed our time on the project. I would happily recommend the project to other travellers who may be considering such an adventure.
Peter Olliver gives his feedback on the project:
During my stay I was involved with cutting grass for the elephants, worming and caring for dogs and cats, making a turtle enclosure and caring for and bathing elephants. The programme was laid back and subject to change (depending on weather) the weeks programme was posted on a whiteboard at the beginning of the stay so it was easy to plan the day. We also discussed the programme on the first day and adjusted it to suit our fitness/abilities.
The staff were very friendly and passionate, and the interaction with animals and local people was great, really hands on. There was also plenty of food provided and it was fantastic. The accommodation is traditional, very clean and private, a lovely outlook from the deck, food is all local and cooked wonderfully, plenty of it and all fresh. The shower and toilet is basic but is more upmarket than the local ones.
I would definitely recommend the project, its in a wonderful location in the hills and been able to meet the local people on a "everyday" level is unique, the project staff's friends and family are very friendly and treat you like a local, I have never met any people so passionate about what they do, its a pleasure to be with them and help them with whatever needs to be done, the variety of tasks is interesting.
Diana from Australia describes her time on the project:
I spent a week on the project in January 2013, a beautiful time of the year to be in Northern Thailand. I was collected from my hotel in Chiang Mai for the 3 hour scenic drive. We stopped at a large supermarket for supplies, which allowed me to stock up on western treats! On the first night, we were all treated to a traditional welcoming ceremony from the local elders.
Our days started early with a western breakfast, then off we went to shovel (extra large) elephant poo! When the elephants decided it was time to head into the forest, we would follow and observe their natural foraging behaviours that they are re-discovering after years of working in captivity. I really enjoyed these quiet times of reflection and being one with nature. Some days, we would bring lunch into the forest. We used banana leaves as plates! The elephants enjoy a bath every day in the river. It is amazing to be able to help them out with a back scrub!
The afternoons would vary from working hard in the field cutting long grass for the elephants, getting cooking lessons from the locals, shopping for supplies in the local markets, visiting the local temple for a Buddhist blessing, helping out with odd jobs or construction or teaching English at the local school. One time we rounded up the local kids and cleaned the village of garbage, then tried to educate them on the importance of recycling and sanitation. As a reward for the kids’ hard work, we took them bamboo rafting on the local river.
Nighttimes were very peaceful, and the local cooks made amazing traditional Thai dishes and requests were welcome. I am a vegetarian and this was accommodated although meat is also supplied. There was an opportunity to play games later with the locals if you wanted. Alcohol is allowed, but excessive drinking or partying is not.
The accommodation is basic but comfortable, a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net, a fan and usually a cat to keep you company! There is electricity in the rooms and intermittent Internet access.
I have been to several large elephant sanctuaries in Thailand and the simplicity of this project was refreshing. I loved it so much I am going back in August.
To secure your placement on the project, please complete and submit the form with your application payment of £180. If for some reason, your application is not accepted, we will reimburse this payment fully. However for those who are accepted, you will be required to pay the final balance 2 months before arrival. Once we have confirmed your place, you will receive an information package on the programme background, your role as a volunteer, the work you will do, suggested items to bring, how to travel there etc.