While many aspects of this adventure made it worthwhile overall, it absolutely was not what I was expecting. I did the Hill Tribe Village/Elephant Nature Park volunteer trip. I worked nonstop for 6 weeks to fundraise the money for the program because I applied so last minute, and only wanted to go to begin with because of the elephants. As an American, our journey there was incredibly long - but I expected that. I wasn't happy to have to front the cost of my flight to LA in addition to everything else, but I did anything necessary to make sure I could help the elephants. After 57 hours of continuous travel, we landed in Chiang Mai. From there it was another hour van ride, 30 minutes PICK UP truck ride [in the bed, not the cab] and hike to our destination.
Our first assignment was to build a new temple for a monk in a very remote Hill Tribe Village. Living conditions here were beyond horrid. Never mind the zero contact with the outside world, I'm talking the basics. No way to flush a toilet. No running water for showers [showers were bucket style, where you take a bowl of freezing FILTHY water and pour it over your head in a room with no hooks for clean clothes, and crawling with hundreds and hundreds of insects]. We only had one western style toilet, the rest were Asian squat, and no toilet paper after the first 2 days. The same filthy water for showering was used for cleaning ourselves after toilet visits.
The kitchen was outside, and our food was prepared on the same cutting boards that flea infested cats, dogs, and a number of other animals lounged on throughout the day. There were no sinks, only a filthy bucket to rinse our plates and pots and reuse them. There was also no soap. And the sponges that were used to 'clean' the items was black with dirt and mold. Nevertheless the food was somehow always delicious and only one in our group got sick. So I'll take that as a win.
As far as the physical labor went on this assignment - we were FAR from safe, but it was actually enjoyable work. We mixed our own cement by hand and cut our own bricks to build and sheet-rock a small temple for the village monk. For scaffolding, we used random pieces of wood haphazardly nailed together to climb and balance on while we held bricks over our heads to put into place. Some of us were lucky enough to climb up three wooden benches that we had borrowed from the local school and stacked atop one another to stand on. This lasted all day every day for a little over a week.
Air conditioning was obviously non existent. And we slept on hard mats on a wooden floor in one room together. Some of our group had to sleep outside for lack of space. It also rained every day, so we were in a constant state of dampness, but that wasn't so bad at all.. Except that our luggage was always damp and smelly and by the end of the tour, one in our group was left with a backpack covered in mold and legitimately growing mushrooms.
We finally left the village and headed to the Elephant Nature Park. The trip was DRASTICALLY improved at this point. The Nature park was wonderful, though the assignments were challenging and tiring. Housing was comfortable, showers were, at times, warm, and toilets were western. Food was AMAZING and prepared in a lovely kitchen with full time staff. [though there was a monkey in the kitchen at one point]. The buffet lines were also seemingly endless with dish fter delicious dish offered. Coffee and tea was available all day. Gift shop opened most of the day, too. Activities and local performances at night. Hour long Massages available for mere dollars [$7, I think]. AND wifi was avaiable and free. And the view was unbelievable. It was an incredible experience.
We were able to be with the elephants up close a few times through out the week. The experience isn't one I am likely to forget in my lifetime.
My favorite part of the nature park, in addition to the elephants, was the structure itself. It was like living in a MASSIVE tree house. The building was so expertly built into the land itself.. No picture could ever do that place justice.
Overall, my experience was worth it. I learned so much through the challenges. I would recommend, however, that you research as much as you can before setting out on your own journey.