I volunteered through GVI on their most popular “Volunteer with Elephants in Thailand” program. Though I was looking forward to visiting Thailand (and immerse myself in all the delicious food), I was even more excited to sign up for my first volunteer experience abroad. During my one week, GVI provided the support, communication, and project prep needed for a first-timer like me.
Impact: I learned very quickly about the current state of the elephant tourism industry in Thailand, and it was clear that this project strived to change that by bringing one elephant at a time back into the wild. Every day we met at the volunteer base and then took hikes to observe the elephants in their new habitat. GVI worked very closely with the Huay Pakoot community, and our work with the elephants helped create jobs in the village and promote an alternative method of elephant tourism.
Support: Every field staff member (Danielle, Holly, Phoebe, Jina and Pádraig) was always available for questions and provided orientation for new volunteers. Also, during your first week on the program, a staff member will join a new volunteer for dinner every evening with your homestay family to help you adjust!
Value: Disclaimer: My participation in the program was waived by GVI as a part of the Go Overseas paid PAID vacation program. However I do know that the program fees include airport pickup, transfer to and from Huay Pakoot, housing, and all meals for all volunteers during your stay.
Fun: There were always daily activities hosted by the program like river days, language exchanges, lessons with the local school children, or dinner with the mahout families. Even though life takes a slower pace in the village, there are plenty of volunteers on this program -- around 20 of us during my stay. Also, you have the option to take a weekend trip to Chiang Mai when there are no hikes (because there are always inbound and outbound volunteers).
Safety: There was never a time I felt unsafe during my stay. Your accommodations will be very basic, but my room and homestay house would be locked when no one was home. Also, the mahouts and field staff are very knowledgeable and tell you how you need to interact with the elephants.
Overall: The beauty in the program was really the opportunity to interact so closely with these intelligent animals, getting to know each one personally. My favorite elephant was Thong Dee, who was a total sweetheart with an old soul. If you are looking for an alternative trip during your time off (and have a love for elephants!), then definitely consider going to Huay Pakoot. I wish I had more than one week, because it was very obvious that longer term volunteers were deeply connected to the animals and community.