Volunteer with Elephants in Thailand

Support community efforts to reintegrate elephants that have previously been put to work in the tourism industry.

Durations: 1 - 12 weeks
Critical science

Critical science

You'll contribute to vital conservation research targeted at protecting the earth's most valuable ecosystems.
Ethical engagement

Ethical engagement

Using the UN's SDGs as a framework, we've made a commitment to positive, constructive and sustainable impact.
Beautiful adventures

Beautiful adventures

You'll spend your days exploring some of the world's most breathtaking, exhilarating and remote wildernesses.

Program information

Travel to Thailand’s Chiang Mai Province and volunteer with elephants relieved from working in the tourism industry. Assist with monitoring the elephants’ behaviour as they are reintegrated into the forests and work alongside mahouts (traditional elephant keepers) and other locals to establish alternative livelihoods. Discover the unique culture of the Karen community, and the lush mountain forests of Northern Thailand in your free time.

Join a program abroad and save up to 15%!

Book by 30 September
Book with confidence
Travel flexibility. Transfer for free up to 45 days before travel. Because life happens. Terms and conditions apply.
Dates & Prices
What's Included
Life On Base
Free time
Cultural Immersion
Speak to alumni
Parent Info
Your Impact
Our Ethics
Program ethics
Qualifications & Training Options
Support & Safety
Live Updates

Program overview

Volunteer in the mountain forests of Northern Thailand and spend time in the fields with elephants relieved from working in the tourism industry. Leaving behind their lives in the tourism industry, these gentle giants now live more natural lives as a semi-wild herd in the Chiang Mai Province – an area famous for its traditional elephant keeping communities.

Volunteers can learn about elephant behaviour and contribute directly to the elephants’ wellbeing by providing working alternatives for their owners, mahouts and locals, allowing the elephants to live in the forest. You will observe elephants alongside mahouts who draw on generations of knowledge about elephants.


Learn about Asian elephants

Gain an academic understanding of elephant biology and behaviour, and experience the bond they share with their mahouts and the role they play in Thai culture first-hand.

Explore Huay Pakoot

Experience the unique Karen culture and lush mountains of this beautiful region of Northern Thailand while observing elephants in their natural habitat.

Be part of the real deal

Contribute to ongoing environmental projects that address critical challenges aligned to the global UN SDGs.

Join ethical initiatives

Join local conservation partners and qualified professionals to ensure your efforts are highly ethical, meaningful and sustainable.

Experience unreal adventures

Venture outside typical travel itineraries to get exclusive access to extraordinary remote habitats, rare species and unique ecosystems.

Make friends for life

Share epic experiences with like-minded, passionate changemakers from all over the globe.

Enjoy a hassle-free, safe trip

With expert local staff and 24/7 support at every step – you can relax and enjoy the experience stress-free.

Take a break

Disconnect from the digital world and reconnect with nature, yourself and your purpose.


Some of the example typical activities you could participate in on this program.

Fieldwork training

Learn how to identify species, conduct surveys and population assessments, and assess threats to terrestrial ecosystems and ecosystem-level processes.

Elephant surveys

Hike through the nearby forest and hills to collect data on elephant and elephant behaviour.

Elephant health checks

Our ethical conservation guidelines usually prohibit any direct handling of animals. However, on this program it’s necessary to complete weekly health checks on the elephants, looking for any physical signs of ill-health.

Biodiversity surveys

Survey various species essential to the local ecosystems, including birds, mammals, insects and reptiles. A highlight of these surveys is our hike through the idyllic and remote mountains to reach a cave where you’ll conduct biodiversity surveys of reptiles.

Citizen science data

Input data collected from conservation surveys into local and global citizen science databases such as eBird and iNaturalist.

Adult English classes

Teach English classes to the wider community to boost skills and improve ecotourism opportunities.

School classes

Deliver workshops to schools on English language skills, environmental and conservation issues, and sport and wellness activities.


  • Data collection
  • Data entry
  • Population ecology
  • Species identification
  • Survey research
  • Wildlife conservation


Some of the partners we work with on base.

Huay Pakoot Elephant Community Foundation
Karen Hill Tribe Community

Program details

Dates and prices

Select a start date:

Everlasting summer? Yes please!

Join a program abroad and get a special offer.

Book by 30 September to save up to 15%!
Payment plans. Flexible payment plans allow you to pay in instalments.

What happens next?

Once you apply, a personal Enrollment Manager will be assigned to walk you through the rest of the process.


The following itinerary is an example of the activities and project work that participants might get involved in on this program. More specific details of the program are finalised several months before each start date.


Start the day early with a cup of Roots coffee – locally grown coffee from a local villager who runs a coffee shop next to GVI's research station.


Prepare and enjoy breakfast with your team at the base breakfast bar. Make sure you have your backpack packed for the elephant hike.


Hike through the forest to collect data on elephants. Take part in elephant health checks and record information about their health and behaviour.


Lunch is enjoyed together as a group. Depending on the day's activities, you'll either have a packed lunch or eat at the base.


Attend conservation training, do intern/research work, or use the free time to expand your knowledge on elephants, gibbons and local species.


Deliver lessons at the local school, with a focus on teaching English, sports activities, health and well-being, and environmental awareness.


Conservation activities, including web and village innovation for local businesses, and ecobrick and recycling workshops to reduce our waste.


Gather as a team to reflect on the day's work, and discuss any important aspects, challenges, wins and notices for the day or week.


Enjoy dinner with your homestay family, sharing a traditional Karen dish using ingredients sourced directly from the surrounding area.


Time to relax or get involved in social activities like local quiz nights. Some evenings will include a night hike to conduct biodiversity surveys.


Head off to bed and get a restful night’s sleep ahead of tomorrow’s adventures. Sleep tight!

What’s included?

What's Included
24-hour emergency desk
24-hour in-country support
Airport pick-up (unless otherwise stated)
All project equipment
Food (except on long-term internship placements
Safe and basic accommodation (usually shared)
Pre-program training
Group introductory call
Welcome presentation
Endorsed GVI Specialisation Course
Endorsed Leadership Course
Project work
Sustainable project work
Leadership responsibilities
Data collection and research
Real projects with partners
Remote support
Program training
Weekly group check ins
Remote Academic Internship Supervisor
Remote Career Internship Supervisor
Preferential recruitment on GVI positions
Job portal access
Endorsed Careers Course
Career coaching sessions
Certificates and achievements
PDF reference - upon request
Linkedin reference and skills endorsement
What's Excluded
Additional drinks and gratuities
Extra local excursions
International and domestic airport taxes
Medical and travel insurance
Personal items and toiletries
Police or background check
Visa costs

Life On Base

Located in the heart of Northern Thailand, our research station in Chiang Mai is surrounded by breathtaking mountains, fields and forests. With beautiful hills all around, we have a bird’s-eye view over the fields and forests below. In the rainy season, the clouds roll through the base at eye level. Being the middle of the jungle, elephants can be found throughout the surrounding areas.

When you arrive you’ll be welcomed by the villagers with a traditional Geju ceremony, which they perform for all new participants upon their arrival. During the Geju, food is blessed and pieces of string are tied onto others’ wrists to wish them good fortune.

The project work takes place in the Mae Chaem District, a 5-hour journey deep into the mountains, where the famous Karen elephant-keeping community resides. This community shares a unique and sacred relationship with elephants.

From our research station it’s about a 50-minute walk to the river where you can see buffalo walking about. Despite being very afraid of people and quite shy, you might sometimes see them in the village. The open-air base is divided into two buildings. The older building is usually reserved as a study area – or for staff meetings, presentations and lectures. It has a table with chairs, a hammock for reading, and a few small desks. The newer building is where people socialise. The library is in the new building. It’s small and basic, consisting of a few bookshelves.You can catch some amazing sunsets right at the base, and when night comes, kick back and enjoy stargazing around the fire pit we often hang out at in the evenings. During free nights, we like to watch movies on the projector, visit a villager’s home, or take a night stroll. Games (board and card games) are well received and enjoyable to interact with the local community members. There are also a few friendly dogs around the base.


GVI Chiang Mai allows you to experience the local lifestyle. Each volunteer gets their own homestay with a family in the local community. This al...


We provide transfers to and from the Chiang Mai Airport. If you’re not arriving within the pick-up w...


When it comes to staying connected in Chiang Mai we get great service through the AIS network. All you need is an unlocked phone, and you can eas...


Breakfast is available at base before the morning hikes, and lunch and dinner are typically home-cooked meals provided by your individual homestays. Food is simple but nutritiou...


From November to February, Chiang Mai enjoys its cooler months, when the temperature is mild and mostly dry. The weather is hot and humid between March and June, but as we are b...

COVID-19 Safety

Enhanced cleaning and social-distancing measures in place.

Learn more

Download our Travel Smart Checklist

Essential information you need to travel safely during the COVID-19 pandemic - including destination ratings, flight bookings and tests.

GVI experiences included in your program, at no extra cost.

Offered once a month, expand your adventure with GVI Experiences. These are just some of the activities offered on your program!

We want you to make the most of the chance to live in – and contribute towards –  the most diverse and unique wildernesses and communities on earth. Introducing GVI Experiences – immersive adventure, cultural and wellness activities exclusive to GVI that have been specially designed in collaboration with our local partners to support and stimulate sustainable economic development. 

Enhance your impact. Expand your adventure. Explore your world.

Learn traditional Karen cooking
Taste tradition
Connect with the Karen people's culture
Faith in mountains
Forage for forest medicine with a village elder
The earth heals
Visit Thailand's highest peak
The Roof of Thailand
Explore Thailand's elegant and mysterious waterfalls
Water travellers
See amazing biodiversity on a night trek
The night calls
Take a sunrise hike up Two Tree Hill
Into another world
Sleep under the stars alongside Asian elephants
Starry, starry night

Free time

Joining a GVI program not only allows you to collaborate with communities or work toward preserving unique ecosystems – but it also offers plenty of opportunities to explore the surrounding area or travel further to see what other parts of the region have to offer over weekends.

Field staff are a great source of advice and have helped us put together the following information on local travel options. You can choose to travel before or after your experience with GVI (subject to immigration restrictions), solidifying the lifetime friendships you’ve established on the program. Please note that the below options are not included in the program fee, and would be up to you to arrange at your own expense.

Weekend Trips


Pai is an amazingly small backpacker town with a huge street-food market. Tours to the canyon, caves and w...

Local Adventures

Karen culture

The Karen people are friendly, minimalistic, generous to outsiders, and caring towards nature and wildlife. There are a number of community elder...

Village celebrations

Visit the village’s Buddhist temple which is set alongside a sacred lake. During Thai holidays, you may hear chanting coming from the temple, see parades taking place, or witnes...

Night in the forest

Ten minutes away from the village, there’s a campsite in a conservation forest. Upon request, we sometimes take what gear is available on base an...

Football, volleyball and ultimate frisbee

Join other participants for a game of football, volleyball or ultimate frisbee at a field next to the school. Just be sure that it’s not being used by the local students for the...

Hiking trails

Take a hike along the corn fields to watch the sunrise. This trail offers excellent views of the forest. Or take the forest trail – you might even see some gibbons. This is quit...

Smoothies, noodles and fashion

Visit Boh Luh’s Smoothie Shop, a two-minute walk from base. Boh Luh sells delicious smoothies made from mango, banana, passionfruit,

Movie nights

We have a projector at base as well as a large selection of movies. Sometimes we take a vote on which one to put on after dinner (or when we have a quiet afternoon).



If you need to get a workout in, you’ll find our gym on the lower floor of our base hut. It includes a gym bench and weights.


Ping pong

On the lower floor of our base hut, you’ll find a ping-pong table. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself engaged in a heated ping-pong tournament against some of the mahouts!<...

Cultural Immersion

Engaging intimately with a new context teaches global awareness, adaptability and critical thinking – skills highly valued in the modern marketplace. Local and cultural immersion is encouraged on all our programs around the world, and will also be one of the most enjoyable aspects of your experience. Luckily, there are many different activities that you can get involved in during your free time, or before and after your program.

On our community programs, the focus is on cultural topics, while on marine or wildlife programs the emphasis is more on the environmental element. Use your evenings and weekends to explore topics like local cuisine and religion, or how sustainable development challenges are affecting local contexts.

Spirituality and religion

Most people in the village are animists, who believe that all objects, including animals, have a spiritual essence or soul. There are a lot of Ch...


Many visitors to Thailand choose the destination because of its amazing food culture. From street food to culinary delights in the finest Thai re...


There are festivals throughout the year, the most notable being Songkran – the Thai new year


Thai is the official language of Thailand and is spoken by roughly 36 million people across the world. In the village where we are based, the loc...


Claire-Marie Dechany

27 Oct, 2020

The GVI Chiang Mai program with the Elephants is by far the best volunteer program I have ever done! Mixing Community and Conservation, this program will make your experience uniqu ...

Emma Baker

14 Jan, 2020

My name is Emma and I am 46 years old. I have just returned from a 4 week stay at GVI Chiang Mai, Thailand. I really didn’t know what to expect from this trip as I had never tried ...

Kirsty McCreath

06 Mar, 2019

I found GVI through searching on the internet volunteering abroad. I am a huge animal lover and had always been keen on volunteering in different parts of the world to help aid tow ...

Ryan Kennedy

06 Mar, 2019

Hi! I’m Ryan Kennedy, and I spent ten weeks volunteering in GVI Elephant Project in Huay Pakoot, Chiang Mai. I was currently studying at university and off for the summer, so I dec ...

Katie Searle

11 Oct, 2018

When choosing a project in Thailand, the GVI elephant project stood out to me due to its strong animal welfare objectives. Unlike other elephant projects in Thailand, the GVI eleph ...

Elaine Chen

11 Oct, 2018

My name is Elaine and I am an artist that attended the GVI program in Chiang Mai for a month in January. I was working as an animation background artist prior to coming on the prog ...

Sally Houghton

11 Oct, 2018

I have recently returned from being involved in two fantastic GVI programs – teaching Novice Monks in Laos and the elephant reintroduction program in Chiang Mai. My experiences ...

Claire Riddiough

11 Oct, 2018

My time in Huay Pakoot was truly life changing. Although I was only there 2 weeks, the experience had such a powerful effect on me that I have decided to return to take part in a s ...

Jenna Duncan

11 Oct, 2018

The time I spent on the internship in Thailand helped me grow so much as a person. Working with the elephants every day made me realise that this is the sort of thing I want to do ...

Ashley Moss

11 Oct, 2018

In 2014 I made the decision to leave home and have my first big solo adventure. It has always been a dream of mine to travel around the world and work with wildlife, so I felt GVI ...

Jasmin Stevens

11 Oct, 2018

My main focus on project is elephant foraging; which consists of collecting data on the different species of plants which the elephants consume, discovering new species of plants a ...

Natalie Gonzalez

11 Oct, 2018

I attend Cornell University and I am a member of a scholarship program called Cornell Tradition. In order to receive funding from my program, I had to meet certain requirements: be ...

Brittany Chiapetti

11 Oct, 2018

Traveling halfway across the world to work with elephants is a dream I never had until I became curious about elephants and research about them. I got more out of this experience t ...

Lola Ovarlez

11 Oct, 2018

What is so exceptional about volunteering in Chiang Mai is that you do not have to be fond of sciences, to be an explorer or anything. Being enthusiastic is enough. I spent 6 weeks ...

Katie Doull

11 Oct, 2018

The GVI project I had the pleasure of being a part of was the Conservation Project with Elephants in Thailand. I was there for a total of 4 weeks, this was certainly not long enoug ...

Julia Porter

07 Sep, 2018

The GVI Elephant program was a life-changing experience. I chose this program because I wanted to be up close and personal with elephants, not knowing how much of an impact the com ...

Silvi Tiivas

16 Aug, 2018

**A good account of staying with a village family and an appreciation of the new culture encountered.** **Testimonial** Thailand December 2014 - January 2015 (2 weeks) I spen ...

Rose Little

15 Aug, 2018

This summer I spent 3 months on an elephant reintroduction project in Huay Pakoot, North West Thailand with GVI. It was absolutely amazing being able to hike into the forest to see ...

Claire Wigham

25 Nov, 2013

I have had the opportunity to observe and work closely with these social and complex animals, which would be impossible with elephants in the wild. Staying in a traditional Karen c ...

Speak to alumni

If you’d like to find out what the experience of joining a GVI project is really like, simply contact us and we’ll put you in touch with one of our many Alumni.

We’ll try to match you to an Alum based on your location, nationality, age, stage of academic career, gender, and program interests. This allows you to gain insights into the experience that is most relevant to you.

Depending on your location you might be able to speak to an Alum over the phone or online, or meet up with them face-to-face at a coffee shop nearby. We also run a series of small events around the world where you can speak to GVI Alumni, Ambassadors and staff members.

Get a first-hand perspective

Meet us

Meet the team

Get acquainted with the GVI Asia, Thailand, Chiang Mai family

Jonathan Berry

Program Manager

This is Jonathan, the Program Manager at our Chiang Mai base in Thailand. He has joined us from Liverpool in the United Kingdom and has visited this base as a volunteer on seven ...

Liam Ingram

Senior Program Coordinator

Hi I’m Liam, from Shropshire in England. Before working here I worked in horticulture and I’ve been looking to utilise my green fingers here. I’ve been to 3 GVI Hubs in the last ...

Parent Info

‘If only every student could do this. It changes your life in all the right ways,’ says Chris Heritage, parent of Luke Heritage, one of our teen volunteers who has participated on two GVI programs, one in Costa Rica and another in South Africa.

We are a parent-run organisation that is incredibly serious about health and safety, and increasing the impact, as well as the long-term career benefits of our programs. Our programs help young people develop the skills to select a career path that is personally fulfilling, and live a life aligned to the well-being of our planet and the global community.

GVI is a proud member of the Gap Year Association.

Ken and Linda Jeffrey, whose son Sam volunteered with GVI in Thailand, talk about how the experience affected Sam. He also went on to volunteer with GVI again in South Africa. ‘I know it sounds like a cliche but in a sense, he did go away as a boy and he came back as a young man. Both of us could recommend GVI without any hesitation to any other parent thinking about exploring an opportunity for their children to explore the world and to see different parts of it.’

Parent Info Pack

Download the Parent Pack and learn more about:

Our staff: All our projects are run by staff, selected, vetted, trained, and managed by our central office.
Health and safety: Our safety practices include a child and vulnerable adult protection policy and high participant ratios.
Staying in touch: See what’s happening on base, by following a hub’s dedicated Facebook page.
Free parent consultations: We would love to talk to you about exciting opportunities available for your child.


When it comes to support, we ensure that each participant is provided with unparalleled, 360 degree support, from your initial contact with the GVI Family, all the way through your program, and even after, as you become part of the GVI Alumni Team.

As part of this promise, we will ensure, whenever possible, that one of our dedicated staff will be available to meet you at the airport. In most locations, we also set up a Whatsapp group to help with managing airport arrivals. We will arrange with you prior to your departure that, should you arrive in the agreed upon pick up window, a member of our staff will be there to welcome you, easily identifiable in a GVI t-shirt or holding a GVI sign and wearing a friendly smile. This means there will be someone there to greet you as you land, and from there you will be transported to your GVI base to start your adventure and meet the rest of your team.

COVID-19 safety

Enhanced cleaning and social-distancing measures in place.

Learn more


Download our Travel Smart Checklist

Essential information you need to travel safely during the COVID-19 pandemic - including destination ratings, flight bookings and tests.

Your Impact

All of our programs have short-, mid- and long-term objectives that align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). This enables us to report on our collaborative impact across the world in a streamlined manner, measuring which UN SDGs we are making a substantial contribution to. Furthermore, this will help our local partners and communities measure and visualise their contribution to the UN SDGs.

Prior to your arrival on base, you will be educated about the UN SDGs. Then once you arrive on base, you’ll learn about the specific goals we have in this particular location, our various objectives, and also clarification of how your personal, shorter-term involvement contributes to these.

Our aim is to educate you on local and global issues, so that you continue to be an active global citizen after your program, helping to fulfil our mission of building a global network of people united by their passion to make a difference.

GVI Chiang Mai’s programs work in collaboration with the local Karen hill tribe community and village of Huay Pakoot. To promote sustainable ecotourism, we work with the elephant-keeping community to assist monitor the introduction of elephants into their natural habitat after their previous lives in tourist camps.

Your contribution will assist in keeping these elephants in protected forests, continuing the conservation of these beautiful animals and what remains of their fragmented forest habitats, as well as providing funding to keep the project running. We also offer alternative livelihoods and English lessons to the local community. Upskilling in English helps facilitate a self-sustainable ecotourism industry. The goal of this project is to have semi-wild herds of elephants living, socialising, and foraging in their natural habitat – supervised by their mahouts (elephant keepers) from the local village.

Elephant Surveys

We work with local mahouts to track elephants in the forest – collecting behavioural data through observation, taking note of the following:

  • Two-minute interval activity budget on each elephant.
  • Interaction with other elephants.
  • Vocalisation recordings (written not audio).
  • Monitoring stereotyping behaviour.

Every week we do a health check (eye drainage, tongue check etc.) It’s important to note that we have a hands-off approach.

Gibbon surveys

We gather data from song and visual surveys of white-handed gibbons, assisting scientists in expanding their understanding of gibbon ecology and conservation status in the Chiang Mai region. Typically, you’ll assist in survey planning, GPS tracking, camera trap setup, photography, gibbon sound recording, data sheet entries and database input.

Biodiversity Hikes

We conduct day and night biodiversity hikes, recording any species we see, including birds, gibbons, bats, snakes, reptiles, lizards, amphibians, frogs and toads. We add the images to iNaturalist and eBird.

Quality Education

We work with the local government school – with both teachers and students. Our school-based teaching involves English language, health and wellness workshops, environmental education workshops and sports activities. Our community-based lessons involve adult and child learners in the community. These are often informal evening sessions, based around what the learners want to learn.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals

All of our programs have short-, mid- and long-term objectives that align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). We want to be able to measure our collaborative impact across the world in a streamlined manner, so all our staff and volunteers know which UN SDGs they’re making a substantial contribution to. This also helps our local partners and communities measure and visualise their contribution to the UN SDGs.

Prior to your arrival on base, you’ll be educated about the history of the UN SDGs. Then, once on base you’ll learn about the specific goals of your location, the long-, mid- and short-term objectives, and also insight into how your personal, shorter-term involvement contributes to these goals on a global level.

Our aim is to educate you on local and global issues, so that you continue to act as active global citizens after your program, helping to fulfil our mission of building a global network of people united by their passion to make a difference.

Project objectives


GVI Chiang Mai Long-term Objectives:

1. Increase and promote ethical elephant tourism.

2. Create a viable self-sustaining ecotourism program for the village. As well as supporting a stable herd of elephants living naturally in the forested area of the village.

3. Improve standards of living and job opportunities for people in the Huay Pakoot village.

4. Improve sustainable natural resource management in the Huay Pakoot area.

5. Ensure a thriving population of wild white-handed gibbons in the Huay Pakoot area.


The best decisions in international development and conservation cannot be made without accurate and up-to-date data or informed research. Our many field teams around the world collaborate with local and international partners to analyse data and draw conclusions. In addition, many of our participants have used research they have collected on their various GVI projects to complete their Masters, Doctorate, or postdoctoral studies. We also run a fellowship program which connects postdoctoral researchers at globally-respected universities with our many sustainable development programs around the world to support their research and ensure continuous improvement of our best practices on base.

All of our publications are on Google Scholar
Google Scholar
View publications
‘Avian Diversity as a Measure of the Impact of Megafauna Reintroduction into Evergreen Montane Forest.’
Scientific Publication

International Ornithological Congress of Southeast Asia Conference in Thailand

Heather Gilbert and Amy Bradley
GVI Thailand Chiang Mai Annual Report 2018
Annual Report
Liane Fulford
GVI Thailand Chiang Mai 2019 Annual Report
Annual Report
Liane Fulford

Our Ethics

Below is a list of core ethics and best practices we believe are essential to the operation of high quality, ethical volunteer and sustainable development programs. We believe that all responsible volunteer and sustainable development operations should focus upon these principles. If you are considering volunteering, these are some of the key considerations you should question, to ensure that your time and money contributes towards positive change.


We want to constantly develop our own understanding of ethical best practice. In so doing, we aim to provide an exemplary industry standard for other education institutions, international development organisations, and social enterprises. Our Badge of Ethics stands for the drive to always do good, better. Find out more, click on the Badge below.