DEEP in the mountains 60km north of Chiangmai, dawn breaks with not the cockerel's crow but the trumpeting of elephants.
I am in Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued jumbos where there are no rides, performances or work for the wrinkly ones in the 30ha grassy valley.
It is the start of my 10-day stay as a volunteer at the park founded by Ms Sangduen Chailert, 44, in 1996.
By 7.30am, rumbles, brays and baby elephant shrieks work up a symphony to wake you.
From the rustic bamboo hut where I sleep every night, I tumble out to gaze at a family group of three adults and two babies playing just 20m away.
The park's current herd of 30 includes disabled, blind, orphaned and rescued animals of all ages. The mahouts, or handlers, are each assigned to look after one elephant. Most are from the Karen hill tribes of Myanmar.
They are trained not to use metal goads on the elephants, typically accepted in Thailand, as a taming tool. I watch the mahouts remove the ankle chains and the elephants amble off.
The day warms quickly. By 9am, the entire landscape looks crisp and fresh in the golden light.
We start work. Using a shovel for the first time, I am clumsy and slow in picking up one pellet of coconut-sized poop at a time. Calculating how many trips I have to make to the poo pit with the wheelbarrow, I think I might take all morning to complete the task.
Jen, a tough Canadian girl who has already volunteered at the park three times, shows me how to flatten the pellets with my feet before scooping.
She says matter-of-factly: 'Don't worry, elephants are vegetarians.'
It is a breeze after that. For several mornings, I actually enjoy this routine.
Late morning is the only frenzied part of the day when truckloads of food arrive. Bags of fruits are sorted, washed to remove herbicides, cut and put into baskets for each elephant.
At noon, the mahouts, volunteers and day visitors gather to feed the animals which eat up to 150kg of food daily in the wild.
The feeding moment with an elephant is unique, you gain an elephant's trust with kindness and, in return, you put your trust in the gentleness of this majestic animal.
I learn to place the fruits just below the tip of their curled trunks. As the trunk consists of over 100,000 muscles, the dexterous organ can pick up the smallest bananas to the biggest pineapples.
After the elephants' feed comes a hearty lunch for the volunteers, with no less than 12 dishes in Thai and Western styles. Meal times are best to get to know one another, as volunteers come from many parts of the world.
Going for a bath with the elephants after lunch never fails to be the highlight of the day. Visitors and volunteers march to the river, holding little buckets and brushes in this twice-daily routine.
Ahead of us, the younger jumbos are already splashing about in the water as they chase each other and submerge themselves like submarines to launch surprise greetings on the adults.
Despite looking bulky, elephants are excellent swimmers. They sometimes make a dash for the opposite bank where crunchy sugarcane plantations lie, but the mahouts keep a close eye on them.
Otherwise, they are content to lie on their sides for us to scrub their heads and backs.
It is the first time I get this close to an elephant, touching the length of its back while scrubbing sand and mud off its wrinkly skin.
More grazing time for the elephants follows the bath, until a 4.30pm soak before they are kept in chains with crunchy cane grass for the night.
They used to roam free at night until a series of crop-damage incidents provoked the neighbours and caused the death of one of the herd from herbicide poisoning.
For the rest of the afternoon, volunteers help with a multitude of tasks in the sanctuary. There are always feed and waste to be cleared, fruits to be plucked, trees to be planted, potholes to be filled, fences to put up, signs to make or, simply, dogs to be patted as more than 30 of them run free.
I never for a moment miss the Internet, TV or phone.
This tranquil sanctuary, however, has seen tumultuous times. Ms Chailert's love for elephants started at a young age when one was given to her family. It was a token of appreciation to her grandfather who cured a man's illness.
Growing up with an elephant treated like a family pet, her interest in the species grew and led her to the conservation and research on herbal medicine for animals.
When Thailand outlawed logging in 1989, many elephants became unemployed overnight. They used to be deployed for hauling the logs.
Says Ms Chailert: 'I saw the poor conditions that they lived under, the cruelty and suffering and felt I could provide a better place for them.'
She has also since set up Elephant Haven, a 100ha jungle in the mountains, leased from the government. There is also Jumbo Express, a veterinary service that travels to camps in the border region to provide health care.
The projects are funded by donations from volunteers and Gem Travel, a tour agency in the city.
International conservation groups have contacted her for exchanges, and the park has also since been featured in National Geographic magazine, on Discovery Channel and in other media.
Ms Chailert notes that the population of the Asian elephant is still on the decline.
'There is less land available and elephants are used for begging in the cities. They are facing a tough time and, if we don't do something now, they won't be with us for much longer.'
How to get there:
REGULAR and budget flights to Chiangmai are available daily. Prices from $192 (Tiger Airways).
Day trips from 9am to 5pm are US$68 (S$107) inclusive of hotel pick-up.
Weekly volunteers pay US$260 per week inclusive of accommodation and meals.
Bookings and travel arrangements can be made at www.elephantnature park.org
5 things to do
1. Do follow the Jumbo Express
team of vets and volunteers who travel up the mountains to remote villages to administer medicine to the elephants. The trip is only for volunteers who sign up for two weeks' stay.
2. Do take a hike to the nearest village and its temple. With quaint idols and a disused collection of playground rides, it feels like time has stood still. You will also see lush padi fields in this two-hour walk.
3. Do join the weekly four-hour trek up to Elephant Haven with the jumbos and mahouts and spend the night in the jungle. Listen to the local stories told by Pom, assistant to Ms Chailert, and sample Karen food.
4. Do spend one lazy afternoon reading or watching the elephant families from the viewing platform of the treehouse (above) in the compound of the park.
5. Do try river-rafting or mountain-biking with an experienced outdoor adventure operator in the village.
1. Don't expect tourist-style rides on the elephants or performances.
2. Don't ask for warm showers and laundry service.
You gain an elephant's trust with kindness and, in return, you put your trust in the gentleness of this majestic animal