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Learn about elephant conservation and become a certified elephant handler on this one-week program. Bond with your mahout, a Thai elephant keeper, as you bathe, feed, and care for your elephant throughout the week. Ride into the jungle for an overnight camp and volunteer at the elephant hospital. Learn about the importance of the elephant in Thai history and culture as well as what you can do to conserve this wise and loving species.

With our No Anxiety Escrow Policy, you cancel for any reason up until the day of travel, and escrow 100% of the program fees for up to two years from the cancellation date.

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2017 Departures

Departs (USA) Returns (USA) Availability
June 6 June 16 Available
June 13 June 23 Very Limited
June 20 June 30 Very Limited
June 27 July 7 Sold Out
July 4 July 14 Limited
July 11 July 21 Sold Out
August 1 August 11 Available

Program Profile

Country
Thailand
Get to Know
Nature
Lifestyle
Settle in at the Base
Travel Component
Stationary Program

Connecting Programs

Schedule two or more programs in a row to create your ideal Rustic Pathways experience.

This program connects especially well with:

  • Day 1

    Relax and prepare for a world-class trip on Singapore Airlines. Prior to your departure, you will have received your pre-departure packet, which will include your Rustic T-shirts, luggage tags and country books, airline tickets, and important contact information.

    Once you arrive at your international departure city, our Airport Coordinator will help you get checked in for your international flight. Here you’ll meet your Flight Leader who will escort you all the way to Thailand! Our Flight Leaders are most often schoolteachers or good friends of our organization who happily fill this role for us each year. Once you’re checked in, feel free to relax and get acquainted with your new friends before boarding your flight to Thailand!

  • Day 2

    Today is lost as you cross the international dateline. Fear not – you will get this time back on your way home.

  • Day 3

    Sawat dee, and welcome to Thailand! Upon your arrival into one of the world’s most modern airports, you will immediately get the feeling that you have arrived in a place that is far different from the United States. Thailand is known as one of the most welcoming countries in the world and is affectionately nicknamed the Land of Smiles.

    As you exit the arrival hall with your Flight Leader, you will meet our team of staff. They have been anxiously awaiting your arrival and will lead you up to the fourth floor of the airport, where you’ll have a relatively quiet place to unwind and meet new friends who have arrived on different flights or are connecting from different programs.

    In the mid-afternoon, hop on a quick one-hour flight up to Chiang Mai, where your program begins. This ancient and graceful capital is a fascinating mishmash of Northern Thai style, hill tribe cultures, and a vibrant community of non-profit workers. Almost immediately, you’ll start to notice signs of the importance of elephants in Thai culture. You’ll spot these magnificent animals making appearances in the décor, architecture, even on T-shirts, most likely before you even arrive in your hotel room. On the mountain overlooking the city from the west, you may catch a glimpse of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most famous temple – according to the legends, the temple’s building site was chosen by the trumpeting of a sacred white elephant.

    Freshen up, rest, or take a dip in the hotel pool. After dinner, head back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep and to recharge our batteries for our busy week ahead!

  • Day 4

    Depart for the elephant camp by 8:30 a.m. From Chiang Mai, it’s a little more than an hour’s drive through the scenic mountains to the city of Lampang – your home for the next week. Once you arrive at the camp, meet the entire staff – including the elephants – and then the senior camp officials will offer an opening prayer ceremony, which is performed for good luck and to show the commitment of the group to the task at hand. With the ceremony finished, the program will be officially underway, and you will waste no time in getting down to business.

    Your first order of business will be to look the part – so everyone will receive an official mahout suit. Once you are comfortable in your fashionable new attire, you will be assigned to an elephant. Depending on the size of the group, there will be one or two students assigned to each elephant. First, master the basic mahout commands and how to interpret and communicate with these amazing animals. Before you know it, you’ll be riding your elephant into the jungle, learning its personality, and communicating with it – it’s all part of your new job as a mahout!

    In the evening, settle in to jungle life, with plenty of time to relax and share stories or maybe have an early night, ready for a dawn start with the elephants tomorrow!

  • Day 5

    The morning is truly a special time in the jungles of northern Thailand. The birds bring the forest to life and the sun cuts bright rays through the lingering mist. Rising early, walk down to greet and bathe your elephant at 7 a.m. Once your elephant is fed and cared for, head back to the camp for breakfast yourself.

    After you are well fed, hop on your elephant and ride down to the elephant show. The show is a fundraising event for the camp and a great way to show the public these amazing creatures’ intelligence and potential. As a member of the mahout training camp, you will get a unique insider’s perspective on the show.

    Congratulate the elephants’ talents with a few bushels of sugarcane before you head to the elephant dung paper factory, where you’ll get your hands dirty learning how this useful product is made. Then ride your elephant back to the camp base and return them to the jungle for some rest while you join your mahout in some traditional Thai games. Say goodbye to the cheerful mahouts for the evening and head into the nearest town of Lampang for dinner and a stroll through the Saturday Walking Street Market.

  • Day 6

    Rising early, take your elephant down to the river again for its morning bath. Then, after breakfast, you will begin the day’s lesson – the life and practices of a mahout. Many people don’t realize that being a mahout is a life-long career. Although they don’t make much money and it is not a glamorous profession, mahouts are essential for the survival of elephants in the world today, and they are very respected in Thai culture.

    Learn about the special relationship that develops between the mahout and the elephant, the tools and skills involved, and how they communicate with one another. Then practice the training commands with your elephant, learn how to weave rope for a saddle, and find out how to strap cargo on comfortably. You will have gone a long way in developing your own relationship with your elephant by the time you release it back into the jungle in the afternoon.

    Once your elephant’s harness is complete, take a refreshing dip in a nearby swimming hole before lunch. In the afternoon, join the senior director of the school and a good friend of Rustic Pathways, Danger, for a discussion about the king’s royal white elephants and the dangers of working with an aggressive elephant.

    After dinner, join the staff to learn some songs in Thai that will help bring you closer to your mahout on your journey into the jungle tomorrow. This lesson always turns into a dance party, so bring your best moves to teach the local staff!

  • Day 7

    After the morning elephant bath and breakfast, use the skills you learned yesterday to load up your elephant with everything you will need for a night in the jungle. Then climb aboard and head toward the jungle camp, which is about an hour’s ride away.

    Once you reach the camp, give your elephant a chance to rest while you enjoy a jungle-style lunch cooked over an open fire. After taking a rest and maybe a dip in a nearby river pool – depending on that week’s rains – to cool off in the day’s heat, head into the jungle with the mahout in search of bamboo. Craft what you find into several different kinds of products, including cups and dishes, with the help of the mahout.

    As evening falls, throw on warmer clothes, eat a jungle feast, and play some Thai campfire games while singing and dancing the night away. For many students, this night is the highlight of the whole trip!

  • Day 8

    The sun will wake you up early this morning, and you will help your mahout bring your elephant in from the jungle where it spent the night. Then, after taking the elephants on a short walk to an area where they can munch on fresh greens for breakfast, hike back to the main camp. After a well-deserved shower and hearty lunch, learn to make a typical Thai dessert and head to a nearby market to try the local fare and grab some souvenirs. On your return, help reforest the jungle by planting trees that will eventually help shelter our pachyderm pals in their home. On your last night at the Conservation, eat dinner family-style and reflect on your amazing week with the elephants.

  • Day 9

    After the morning elephant bath and breakfast, head to the elephant hospital for a tour. Learn about the elephants’ lifespan and how injured elephants are treated and cared for here. Learn about the many elephants the camp has rescued from abusive situations and how they are rehabilitated. This will be your last chance to ask any lingering questions you have about these gentle giants before you head home, so don’t be afraid to speak up!

    It will now be time to say goodbye to your elephant, your gracious hosts, and the camp. At the closing ceremony, receive a certificate of completion for the program. In the afternoon, depart for Chiang Mai and check in to the hotel for some down time by the pool. After a nice rest, head into town for a traditional Thai massage before dinner, and take in some souvenir shopping at the world-famous Night Bazaar.

  • Day 10

    This morning, wake up, grab a quick breakfast, and head to the airport to catch your flight back to Bangkok. Once in Bangkok, meet up with your new staff for your next Rustic Pathways adventure or head home aboard our escorted group flight. Whatever is next for you, we hope that you always keep the warm memories of your elephant with you. Thanks for helping their cause – they hope to see you again in the future!

  • Day 11

    Students on our escorted group flights will arrive home on Friday. Have a great rest of the summer, and we’ll see you next year!

    **All students on our group flights arrive home on Fridays, regardless of whether they return to JFK or LAX. **

An Important Note About Schedule Changes

Rustic Pathways reserves the right to change, alter, or amend the daily itinerary for this trip at any time. Changes can be made for various reasons including changes in flight or program schedules, changes in the schedules of various external tours incorporated in our trips, the addition of new activities into a trip, or the substitution of an old activity for a new activity.

The itinerary shown here provides a good outline of the anticipated daily schedule for this program. As with any travel program, some changes may occur.

“Optional Activities” are fully included in the cost of your program, but you can choose to not do these activities.

“Add-On Activities” are not included in the cost of your program and must be paid for separately. Add-on activities are rare, but include things like skydiving, bungee jumping, or weekend side-trips. Not every program has add-on activities.

For more information, email thailand@rusticpathways.com

Program-Specific FAQs

  • This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to spend some hands-on time with Thailand’s most revered animal, the elephant. Learn about them, play with them, and care for them at the country’s only royally sanctioned conservation. You may have seen elephants at the zoo before, but there are not many opportunities in the world to see AND interact with elephants in their more natural environment. Like a lot of the majestic wildlife in the world, the number of Asian elephants has been drastically reduced in the recent past, pushing them to the brink of extinction. This is a chance to work with one of the most progressive elephant conservation centers in the world, and get up-close and personal with one of the most intelligent and social mammals on earth.

  • The chance to really engage and bond with the elephants.

  • Yes. Please note that the length of the program includes international travel times on each end, making it 11 days total outside of the United States, but only about 7 days on the ground in Thailand. Keeping in mind jetlag, and adjusting to the exotic life of Thailand, a week goes by in the blink of an eye! We highly recommended adding another program to the Thai Elephant Conservation Project to get a well-rounded Thai experience! All programs in Southeast Asia, and many others around the world, connect seamlessly to this one.

  • At the start and end of the program, you’ll stay in a 4-star hotel in Chiang Mai, but the majority of your time will be at the Elephant Conservation Camp itself. At the Center, we’ll be in simple rooms with hot-water showers, air conditioning, and western-style beds.

  • No, this camp is operated independently year-around and is considered one of the finest facilities for elephant care in the world. Rustic Pathways has had a great relationship with this Center for years. Rustic Pathways staff will be at the camp full-time supporting our students.

  • Elephants are one of the earth’s most social and personable creatures. Elephants when threatened in the wild can be dangerous, however all the elephants interacting with people at the Center have proven extremely friendly. Rustic Pathways has never had a major incident involving an elephant and student.

  • You may be able to claim yourself as an amateur mahout soon! A mahout is an elephant’s keeper. These men stay nearly their entire lives with one elephant, working all day for 26 days each month!

  • Laundry will be available to students once during the week, though the Center will provide you with a special Mahout suit that you’ll wear most days. Your ‘mahout suit’ is made of denim, which over the week will absorb your scent making it easier for your elephant to get to know and trust you.

  • There are mosquitoes. They’re usually not too bad, but you will want to have a long sleeve shirt and long pants in the evenings. Be sure to bring insect repellent containing DEET, which wards off mosquitoes, ticks, and most other insects.

  • You will want money to buy handmade crafts at local shops and at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. There will be all kinds of souvenirs and fun stuff to buy, so budget accordingly. Markets and local crafts are huge part of Thai culture and a great way to support the local community. Here are some approximate, sample prices (listed in US dollars) that should help you prepare a budget: hand-woven scarf = $3; hand-woven shoulder bag = $6; T-shirt = $6; small wood carving = $5; soccer ball = $10

  • Rustic Pathways will cover all tips for guides and activities during the program, but we do ask students to budget about 1,200 Thai Baht (200 for each day of the program) as tip for their mahout at the end of the Thai Elephant Conservation Project. This is a recommended amount only, and students are welcome to leave as much or as little as they feel appropriate. Students usually also choose to leave a small gift indicative of their hometown as a gift for their mahout, who they grow quite close with during the week. The mahouts love to learn where you’re from, and a small trinket from America is a valued treasure here!

  • It is hot and humid in the day and a little cooler in the mountains at night. Daily downpours are short and give way to sunny skies. Be prepared for heat and dampness. Synthetic fiber clothes are great because they dry fast much faster than cotton can.

  • Rural Thailand is still quite conservative, and Rustic Pathways expects our students to be upstanding ambassadors of our home countries. As a blanket rule at the Conservation, we ask that shorts are at least fingertip-length and any tank-top straps are at least the width of three fingers. There will be many times, especially times that we are working closely with the mahouts that you’ll need to have your shoulders and knees covered.

  • Students will always have access to a phone, though we would like to limit use of cell phones while at the Center. Internet will be available at the beginning and end of the program.

  • Each trip is staffed by a combination of western (American) and Thai leaders, and in most cases each team will include a nationally licensed guide, a western man and a western woman. We never have less than one staff member for every five students.

  • We will eat a wide variety of Thai and ethnic food, as well as the occasional Western meal. Thailand is famous for its food, and this trip will awaken your tastes to flavors you didn’t even know existed. Almost all dietary concerns can be accommodated, but please alert us of any relevant restrictions beforehand just to make sure. Vegetarians welcome!

  • We will be drinking all bottled water. Bottled water is safe and readily available.

  • The Center itself is about 30 minutes away from a very reliable hospital that caters to hundreds of Westerners each year. Under an hour away is Chiang Mai, which features world-class, private health care facilities.

  • Safety is a top priority at Rustic Pathways, and for that reason we ensure that all of our staff is certified at the very least with First Aid and CPR training. Many of our guides are also qualified Wilderness First Responders, EMTs, Wilderness EMTs, or Life Guards.

  • Rustic Pathways does not make recommendations regarding immunizations. We strongly suggest that you consult with a travel doctor or your family physician for medical recommendations based on the area where the student will be traveling. You can also check the Center for Disease Control website at http://www.cdc.gov for more information.

  • This decision is best made by you, your family, and your family physician. For up-to-date information to help your decision please visit the World Health Organization website (http://www.who.int/en), the Center for Disease Control website, and consult your physician. The Elephant Conservation Project takes place in and around Chiang Mai and Lampang, an area generally considered to be malaria-free.

  • All flights departing from and returning to the United States will have flight leaders. In the event a student is connecting from another country, they may or may not have a flight leader. In such instances, we generally have coordinated with the airlines to escort the students from check-in through customs, and delivered to a verified Rustic Pathways staff member.

  • All of our programs within Asia connect seamlessly. All trips begin and end on Thursday, thus allowing for easy connectivity and convenience.

  • At 22 months, elephants have the longest gestation period of any land mammal. In August, 2011 some very lucky Rustic Pathways students were at the camp just at the right time as a healthy, baby elephant was born!

Here is a detailed packing list for your trip to Southeast Asia this summer. Remember that you will be responsible for carrying your belongings everywhere you go, so PACK LIGHT! We recommend using a medium-sized wheeled duffel bag or a backpacking backpack as your checked luggage. If your bag weigh more than 35 pounds you have probably over-packed!

Weather in Southeast Asia
The summer time is known as the “rainy season” or the “green season” in Southeast Asia–days are generally hot and humid, with brief and refreshing showers that keep everything lush and green. Temperatures cool off once the sun goes down making for pleasant evenings. Because of the heat, you will need to drink a lot more water than you are used to drinking to stay hydrated!

Temple Visits
When visiting temples you will need to dress appropriately. Wearing clean, modest clothes that cover the knees and shoulders is a must. Being respectful is the name of the game!

A Note to Females About Attire in Rural Southeast Asia
Southeast Asian cultures are very conservative. Despite the hot climate, you will almost never see women with their shoulders exposed or wearing low cut shirts or short shorts. As we seek to respect and preserve the culture of the communities we work with, we strongly urge you to dress respectfully. Students and staff must realize that when they dress improperly, they are embarrassing everyone around them. If you are not wearing proper attire, you may need to change your clothes or abstain from the service project of the day.

To dress respectfully in Southeast Asia, please don’t wear short shorts, low cut tops, or tank tops while out in public areas. In most cases, shorts that cover just above the knees are fine. As mentioned above, yoga pants and leggings are not appropriate.

Laundry
Access to laundry can vary, but you will have access to laundry at least once a week while on the program. Expect to pay between $8-$22 per load.

Carry-On

A school backpack or daypack is ideal as it will be used for hiking/ day trips.

  • Passport
  • Photocopy of passport
  • Wallet/money/ATM card
  • Book and/or journal
  • Pens (2)
  • Phone
  • Camera
  • Chargers
  • Ear buds
  • Change of clothes
  • Sunglasses
  • Water bottle
  • Medications
  • Additional community service forms
  • Visa documentation
  • Outlet power converter (for transit only! Thailand uses the same plugs as
  • the USA–just make sure all electronics are compatible with 220v)
  • Consent to Travel form
  • Rustic Pathways emergency contacts
  • Extra t-shirt and underwear

Checked Luggage

A 50-70 Liter duffel bag or backpack is ideal.

Clothing Items

  • 2-3 pairs of lightweight pants, jeans (hot!) or capris. Activewear/yoga pants are acceptable while being active (or while on the Base), but not suitable at the village, market, temple, etc. Many of our students and staff end up in “elephant pants” very soon after they arrive, so don’t fret if you need help in this area–inexpensive solutions await you in country!
  • 2-3 pairs of shorts/skirts Shorts and skirts for the women must go to the knees or longer!
  • 8-10 pairs of underwear – Quick-dry material is best
  • 3-4 pairs of socks – lightweight cotton or quick dry athletic socks are best.  
  • 5-7 tops (t-shirts and sports shirts)-they can be cotton, or quick dry shirts like capilene or polypropylene. Tank tops are generally not acceptable unless for time at the pool/beach. Keep in mind you will find cool T-shirts and clothes at markets you will be visiting throughout the summer, which can supplement the tops you bring over.
  • 2-3 light, long sleeve t-shirt–breathable is best for the sun and certain areas of the region can get buggy or chilly (if you’re lucky!) at night
  • 1 lightweight hoodie–most likely needed on flights, in movie theaters, and in airports. Most people will be fine without one.
  • 2 swimsuits –for females, two piece suits are fine but no skimpy bikinis please.
  • 1 Sarong/shawl/lightweight towel (not white!)–Many accommodations will have towels for you to use, but it is handy to have something of your own for sitting poolside or visiting a waterfall
  • A nice casual outfit–for special end of program dinners.

Important Items

  • Flashlight or headlamp (rechargeable batteries are preferable)
  • Ultra-lightweight rainproof jacket–fear not if you don’t have one, ponchos are widely available and do a better job!
  • Hat–for the sun
  • Comfortable flip-flops or crocs–Footwear that is easy to clean and easy to take on and off. You’ll be amazed at how often you’ll be taking on and off your shoes. Cheap flip-flops and crocs are widely available in Asia for a fraction of the cost.
  • Closed-toed athletic shoes – shoes that dry quickly, that you can hike short distances in and that protect your feet are best. Shoes will get muddy and dirty, so don’t get too attached to your footwear.
  • A color photocopy of your Passport.

Toiletries:
Most general toiletries are available throughout the region. We suggest packing all items that could leak in a plastic or ziploc bag

  • Deodorant
  • Shampoo and soap – you may want to bring biodegradable or natural soap and shampoo, but they are not required
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush
  • Insect repellent–we suggest a natural option or something with DEET
  • Hydrocortisone/anti-itch cream or after bite
  • Hand sanitizer -1 small bottles. We don’t want you getting sick this summer!
  • Contact lenses and solution (widely available and inexpensive in SE Asia)
  • Sunscreen + Aloe Vera (good quality sunscreen is not readily available in SE Asia and is expensive!)
  • Feminine hygiene supplies-tampons are not widely available in SE Asia. Past staff have suggested trying a diva cup. We recommend you bring what you think you will need for the duration of the summer.

Additional and Optional Items:

  • Phrasebook, guidebook
  • Lip balm
  • Deck of cards
  • Digital camera – Waterproof style shock resistant cameras are great for our trips.  Again, do not depend on your phone–we encourage our students to disconnect from their phones while on program.

Important Reminders

  • SE Asia is a conservative culture with ancient customs based mostly on Buddhism. Dressing respectfully is very important. You will not be allowed to wear short shorts and low cuts tops. Everyone will be expected to respect the people and culture by dressing appropriately.
  • Carry-On Luggage cannot weigh more than 7 kilos (15 lbs.)
  • Check-In Luggage cannot weigh more than 15 kilos (33 lbs.)
  • If your bags weigh more than the amounts specified above, the airlines in Southeast Asia will charge you an excess baggage fee for every kilo over the allowed limit. In past years, we have had students incur significant charges for excess baggage. These fees must be paid in cash at the check-in counter (no USD accepted), so this is a situation that we always try to avoid!
  1. a
    Chiang Mai, Thailand

    The largest and most populated city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is the former capital of the Kingdon of Lanna. Its history dates back over 700 years. Students will explore ancient temples and shop at the famous Night Bazaar.

  2. b
    Lampang, Thailand

    Welcome to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. Students will spend their days learning about conservation practices, elephant care and management all while learning the skills of being a mahout.