During our dream trip through Thailand in November 2018, we were fortunate enough to spend time volunteering at Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary(BEES for short) in MaeChaem, Thailand. Volunteer tourism was the premise for this trip, and we picked Thailand after learning that there was plenty of need and opportunity to volunteer with elephants there. Though we stayed a shorter amount of time than usual, it was hands-down my favorite volunteer trip to date.
BEES Sanctuary was founded in 2011 with the goal of helping elephants who have been working in tourism or logging industries their entire lives finally retire and just be elephants. Check out these 10 reasons to visit Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary!
1. The Owners: Burm and Emily
We were picked up in Chiang Mai in the early morning of our first day by Burm and Emily. Riding in the covered bed of the truck, we awed at the beautiful views on the ~2 hour drive to MaeChaem, stopping along the way to visit waterfalls and grab lunch. We ate outside one of the parks and got to know our gracious hosts. Burm, a Thai native with a big smile and a lot of energy met Emily, a young Australian when she visited Thailand in her late teens. Burm was studying tourism at university, and they found common ground over their passion for animals. Shortly after Emily moved to Thailand, and the two opened the sanctuary near Burm’s family land in rural MaeChaem.
Apart from their friendliness and hospitality, the most inspiring thing about them was their passion for what they do. Some of the work is grueling and can be heartbreaking, but their perseverance is the reason that the elephants they host have such a beautiful place to retire.
2. The Sanctuary is Something Out of A Dream
When you pull up to the dirt drive, you see signs cautioning locals that there are elephants on the property. As the truck climbs higher on the bumpy road, you begin to get a sense of how big the property actually is. Pulling up to the main sanctuary you don’t see elephants right away, but you will be greeted by about 15 sweet, loving dogs who inhabit the sanctuary.
The main stay looks like a giant tree house; surrounded by greenery and a small pond, it feels like something out of a fairy tale. Built by Burm and the locals, it consists of a main two-story building with a screened in kitchen and dining area downstairs and an open air “hangout” space upstairs. The hangout space is called cat cafe, affectionately named after the friendly felines who inhabit the space and will jump into your lap any chance they get. Bright fabrics and lanterns adorn the walls and ceilings, and a few hammocks hang along the edge, overlooking a garden space. Surrounding the mainstay are the sleeping areas, which are small rooms with a mattress and mosquito net; all you really need for you stay.
A few things are guaranteed while you’re here: you will become accustomed to taking your shoes off before entering any living space, you’ll get really good at playing Uno, and you’ll be woken by the dogs howling at random times throughout the night. When you leave, you’ll miss these things because it’s all part of the BEES magic and charm.
3. Tong Dee and Mae Kam
There are two retired elephants living at BEES Sanctuary, each of which have their own mahout – or master. During their lives as working elephants, the mahouts would train and control the elephant. At the sanctuary, their job is simply to keep the elephants out of trouble, using nothing but their voices to do so.
Mae Kam, an elephant in her late 60’s, joined the sanctuary as a visitor after a very tough life and 18 months chained up by her owners. Despite her past, she is sweet, playful and very mischievous. Mae Kam spent 3 years as at the sanctuary before becoming a permanent member of the BEES family in 2015 after an accident caused her owners to swear off elephants, selling her to Burm and Emily so she could finally retire.
Thong Dee joined the sanctuary in November 2014 with her late sister Boon Yuen after spending their lives in the tourism and logging industry. At 70 years old, Thong Dee has digestive issues that require special food preparations and she prefers to spend her time alone rather than with Mae Kam. Despite her age she enjoys walking through the sanctuary, eating and playing in the river.
4. The Hands Off Approach
Before our visit, I did my research into what different sanctuaries had to offer. One of the things I read about that drew me to BEES was the hands off approach.
If you’ve seen the videos of the tourists rolling around with baby elephants or bathing the elephants, you’re initial reaction was probably “that is SO cute” right? That was mine, at least until I found out that this behavior was not a voluntary thing; the elephants were trained to interact with people this way to benefit the tourism industry. In fact, those baby elephants often die young because they’re taken from their mothers too early.
Instead of subjecting the elephants to what we want, Burm and Emily enforce a hands off, safe distance policy to ensure our safety and the elephants comfort. I’d warrant a guess that this could deter some people, but the concept is that if it doesn’t help the elephants, they don’t do it. This policy also creates a mutual respect between human and elephant, in some ways made us feel closer to them.
5. Elephant Walks with Burm
Once or twice a week, Burm conducts an “elephant walk” with the volunteers to observe the elephants in the wild. Wearing muck boots and long pants we followed the stream, hiking about 3 kilometers and observing Thailand’s unique plants, insects, and bat caves along the way. When we reached a clearing next to the river, we saw both elephants and their mahouts hanging out about 200 meters apart. We spent the day watching them eat and play in the river, basking in their majesty and quietly watching them do what every elephant should do.
6. Tubing Down the River
At the end of our elephant walk we had the opportunity to go tubing down the river. The current was strong in the murky brown river as we waded across the chest-high water with our shoes and backpacks overhead. We unloaded our stuff into the truck that had appeared to meet us, grabbed an inner-tube and jumped back into the sweeping river.
I know what you’re probably thinking; what could be in that water? Surprisingly, not much. We heard rumors of big fish with teeth, bacteria that swam up threw your urethra, and more horrors that should’ve stopped us. Despite the lack of visibility, we learned there isn’t much to fear in these waters and were fortunate enough to only encounter a small snake (I still screamed). River monsters aside, we floated for half an hour through the Thai jungle, taking in the beautiful scenery, cooling off and steering with our hands and feet around fallen trees. This was one of my favorite experiences of the trip, feeling like we were truly just living.
7. The Satisfaction of a Hard Day’s Work
Like any volunteer tourism project, you come expecting to be put to work. Typically the leads of these projects will give you a small amount of work and a lot of down time, Burm and Emily included. We came ready to work though, and took on any project they were able to give us.
My favorite was probably chopping down banana trees and carrying them up to the truck. Have you ever gotten the chance to swing a machete? It was invigorating, especially for a woman. Although I mostly dragged them up to the truck (the boys laid claim to the machetes early) I enjoyed working with my hands and not thinking about anything but the comical conversations and task. I also surprised myself with my strength, and felt more powerful than I had in a long time.
8. Teaching English at the Local School
On our last day (which happened to be Thanksgiving) we were taken to the school in MaeChaem to teach English to the local children. We dressed conservatively and were greeted by uniformed children, giggling and observing the foreigners with the funny accents. We taught three classes with varying age groups and levels of English, tailoring the lesson to their understanding. We would wrap up each lesson with hangman, which usually had the kids in stitches.
As someone who tends to volunteer with animals more than people, this experience was truly eye opening. It was both humbling and insanely rewarding to see the appreciation and curiosity these kids had for us, and the feeling was mutual.
9. You’ll Learn So Much About Elephants
Coming into this experience, I knew very little about elephants apart from how big and beautiful they were. As you spend your days working in close proximity to them and the BEES workers, you find yourself constantly asking questions.
Did you know that male elephants go through an aggressive phase called musthing? Or that elephants will typically eat 10% of their body weight in food everyday? The more you know, the better armed you are to protect them, and you will come to love and respect what a truly majestic creature they are.
10. You Won’t Be Thinking, You’ll Just Be Living
My favorite thing about traveling is that when you’re on the road your off auto-pilot. You’re not worried about that big project at work, or that spin class you missed, or that baby shower you have to get a gift for. You’re living entirely in the moment, thinking of nothing but what you’re doing and how amazing it feels. I like to stop and remind myself (and Austin) that I’m actually here; I’m doing something that I never would’ve thought possible, and that’s pretty damn cool.
Long story short – if you’d like to give volunteer tourism a try and want to visit Thailand – go to Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary. I recommend booking directly through them instead of some third party service as this will save you some money, and make sure to book plenty in advance to reserve your spot. Check out their website here!
Lastly, the sanctuary is run solely off donations to cover costs such as food, wages, grounds up-keep, medications and more. In addition to these expenses, the average cost for BEES to purchase and retire an elephant is $30-$40k. If you’d like to support the sanctuary’s mission and help support the retiring of these beautiful animals, click here to make a contribution!