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my oasis: healing with elephants in thailand by julie lemerond

Elephant Nature Park in Thailand

About a year ago, a friend of mine referred to us as “middle-aged” in a blog post. “What the heck is she talking about?” I thought. And then it dawned on me that we were turning 40 and, if an average female American life expectancy hovers somewhere around 80, then we are indeed “middle-aged.” Because I still get carded and people seem shocked when they find out how old I am, it’s hard to wrap my brain around the idea that I am halfway through life.

Knowing 40 was on its way, I decided I wanted to do something big. It’s kind of that age where you realize “this is my life” – for better or worse. While there’s always room for re-creation and new beginnings, you have already laid the groundwork as to what your experience on this earth looks like by the time you hit 40. I wasn’t unhappy – I love my life – but there were unanswered questions and experiences still looming that would never come to fruition if I didn’t start just grabbing life by the balls and saying “Let’s party!”

So I started saving for a trip to Thailand as a gift to myself for my 40th birthday.

I wanted to volunteer somewhere as well as have take yoga, get Thai massages and just utterly and completely relax. I wanted this trip to be a way for my soul to grow.  I’d be traveling solo.  I’d be traveling soul-o.

Initially, I had planned on volunteering at an orphanage or working with kids. But nothing seemed to be coming together with the organizations I was looking into.

Until I found the Elephant Nature Park.

Volunteers at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand

Week-long volunteer vacations at this Elephant Orphanage are all-inclusive and affordable.  There are numerous elephants at this haven in the mountains of Northern Thailand, and they invite volunteers to spend a week or more helping out. The work would be physical, and the rewards would be deeply emotional.

Another part of this soul-o trip for me was to take a break and get out of our American way of life. As the years were passing, I felt like all I did was work. Even though I worked at a beautiful place, I sat at a computer in a windowless office under fluorescent lights for eight hours a day. Most days I felt ready to go home after about four hours of work. On the side, I taught yoga, which has become one of the great loves of my life. It became my safe island to retreat to in the midst of daily storms. But trying to have a healthy work/life balance when all I really did was work, was really starting to drain me. Planning this trip became another bright light to look forward to at the end of the day. My soul was aching to see and feel and breathe another world.  My passport was dusty, and so was I.

Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is an absolutely wonderful and yet heartbreaking experience. Once there, you learn that nearly all of the elephants come from backgrounds of turmoil, abuse, slave labor and torture. We learned the dirty truth behind the fun elephant rides and cute elephant paintings that tourists enjoy.

Elephant Nature Park in Thailand

In order for an elephant to get into a mindset to allow people to ride on its back, or take a paintbrush in its trunk, or pull a ton of logs up a hill by chains around its neck, often means that the elephant was beaten to the point of submission. Baby elephants are stolen from their mothers and subjected to a week-long torture chamber called the Phajaan, also known as the Crush.  This ‘ceremony’ is done by hill tribes to tame elephants, and is even blessed by the tribal elders.  They believe they are separating the elephants spirit from the body, and this ritual is used throughout Southeast Asia (as well as other parts of the world) to tame elephants so that they can be used by humans to work either in the tourist industry or doing heavy labor.

My week at the ENP was spent washing and cutting small pineapples and watermelons to use for elephant food, using a hoe to cut back the dried leaves of a banana tree (exposing colonies of ants like I have never before seen), tearing bamboo from the stem of a branch, cutting 3-foot stems of grass with a dull machete in 95-degree heat, and digging my hands into hundreds of bananas in a huge vat, mixing them with corn to make banana balls for the elephants.  And oh, yes, I shoveled elephant poo into a wheelbarrow, which I then wheeled to a huge pile of manure.

Elephant Nature Park, Thailand

I walked the fields with a tour guide and the Mahouts, who are the elephant caretakers.  After a while, I started finding favorites among the elephants. Bua Loy would walk up to the feeding platform and drop her trunk, waiting for food, staring me down. When I walked towards her, her ears would start flapping, just like a dog’s tail wags. I was amazed at how gentle she was, knowing that the scar marks on her forehead were from being stabbed with a hook for many years, and knowing that the back right leg that she limped on was broken years ago while logging. I cried, knowing that she was chained up for three months straight and forced to breed (read: raped) until she was sold to the ENP because she never got pregnant.

Maybe my soul and the elephants’ souls at the ENP had something in common – a desire to live a better life, to be natural and free to roam and explore and just simply be. Maybe that’s the reason I was drawn to this particular venture so strongly when I was planning my trip.

Elephant Nature Park, Thailand

Perhaps it had less to do with the elephants than it had to do with me – both of us coming to the park to heal, to rehabilitate, and to continue in this world more at peace and with joy, and living the lives we always imagined for ourselves.

Julie is a fellow Ultimate Viewer who also went on Oprah’s Ultimate Australian Adventure with me! You can read her tribute to Oprah here, her posts about the Ultimate Day “O” Service here and here, and her Facebook fast here.


  1. Susan Jensen says:

    Julie, this was a beautiful post. I am so glad you made this journey to rejuvenate your soul. I love elephants and I hope to make this same type of trek in the near future. Thank you for sharing your journey in such beautiful, heartfelt words.

  2. Wow, beautiful Julie. Thanks for the sharing and the enlightnement on the elephant issues. I will never look at them the same…

  3. You bring back memories of not so long ago. My mom, who is 83 wanted to make sure to get to Thailand as well. So she took my twin sister and me this past March. One place we visited in our offbeat travels was the Elephant Nature Preserve. Though we did not stay to volunteer, we can truly appreciate the hot, hard, humid work you did. Post more!

    • Kymberly I wonder if we were there at the same time! I was there from March 11-17th. What a cool trip to take with your mom!

  4. What a beautiful post! Good for you for following your dream!

  5. What an amazing journey! Such a great life moment.

  6. My first job out of college was for a tour company. I was very lucky to be able to travel the world and experience so much! I never made it to Thailand, but have always wanted to. Good for you for going alone!

  7. That looks so awesome. I hope I can go there some day!!

  8. A great experience. I think it is wonderful to mark milestones with something out of the ordinary!

  9. Julie – We must be soul-sisters! My daughter and her best friend were traveling in South East Asia last year and I MADE them go to ENP for a day. They did and had the most wonderful experience. My daughter told me that I MUST go there and if I do I will NEVER leave! So that is tops of my bucket list! I adore elephants – everything about them. My friends and family actually think I am obsessed with them and I think I agree with them! After reading your beautiful post, I AM GOING to ENP and I am going to start saving now!!! You have confirmed that I have to do the week long volunteer experience! Thank you so much!!!!!!

    • Laurie you must go! It’s so amazing to spend time with these amazing creatures and also to sleep about 10 yards away from them and hear them at night. I’m planning on going back in 2015, it’s definitely an experience to be repeated!

  10. I just have to say that you are so brave in so many ways! First going ALONE to a foreign land and second for going to a foreign land. Too awesome.. and what a wonderful experience.

  11. Masshole Mommy says:

    That sounds like an AMAZING place. The elephants are absolutely gorgeous.

  12. wow what a wonderful trip and how beautiful that you got to revitalize your soul and spirit.

  13. Well good for you for doing something you wanted to do. Most of us never get to do most of the things we really want.

  14. This sounds like an amazing and enlightening experience. I can’t believe what those poor animals have gone through. I think it’s great that you were able to help them!

  15. What a great celebration to mark 40th birthday
    Thanks for sharing your amazing experience with elephants. It is so sad to read how animals are mistreated all over the world.

  16. They are such gorgeous creatures. How awesome that you got to go!

  17. What an amazing post and what a beautiful thing to have done. x

  18. That is absolutely amazing. My daughter would just go nuts over this!

  19. Jennifer Williams says:

    40’s is still so young so seeing middle aged does make me go – huh. It looks like you had a great trip though, so glad you are able to make some dreams come true.

  20. What a beautiful post! I would love to do something like this. Julie you look amazing and this post touched my soul, thank you.

  21. What a wonderful post. And definitely a great birthday present you will remember forever more.

  22. Amazing… What a wonderful goal to set and reach. It must have been breathtaking.

  23. What an amazing experience. I think that everyone need to have at least 1 experience like this in their life!

  24. You do look amazing for 40! This looks like a fantastic place to go to relax and get back in touch with yourself!

  25. I had a hunch this was going on in the tourism industry and it kills me. My eyes filled with tears just reading about it. Thank you for bringing some of this to light for those of us who didn’t know. I sometimes cut a little slack in my mind for cultural differences, but when it comes to tourism and entertainment, there’s no excuse.

  26. Okay, so I admit I wanted to ride an elephant before reading this. To be so high on such a beautiful creature. Now, you’ve educated me and I will not be riding an elephant at any time in my life. I can’t believe I ever thought that I would want to hurt an elephant like that.

  27. This is awesome. We are hoping to do a weekend in Thailand soon!

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