Thailand is known for its elephants and nowhere in Thailand can you find more opportunities to experience the elephants than in Chiang Mai. Unfortunately not all of these tourist opportunities have been created with the best interest of the elephants in mind and the Thai elephant population has suffered because of this.
When we decided to visit Chiang Mai we knew we wanted to do an elephant experience, but only if we could be part of something that was as good for the elephants as it was for us. After numerous hours of research, reading and chatting with people online, we settled on Patara Elephant Farm in the mountains outside Chiang Mai. From the moment we booked our time at Patara we couldn’t wait to get there.
We were up early that morning in order to have breakfast and be ready in time for the pick-up from our inn. Jack drove us to Patara from our inn, stopping along the way to pick up a couple in Chiang Mai. About an hour later we were in the mountains. Dense vegetation and windy roads meant you couldn’t see much beyond the road, but eventually we rounded a curve and as we approached Patara you could see the grass fields and the beautiful land of the facility.
Jack led us to a main gathering area where we were introduced to two mother elephants and their two babies. Let me just say that yes, we signed up for an elephant experience and yes we boarded Jack’s van that morning knowing we were going to an elephant experience, however getting out of the car and walking across a field to four very inquisitive elephants who want to know who you are and if you would like to play with them, isn’t something you can really prepare for. The mothers were patient and kind while the babies were rambunctious, playful and powerful despite being less than 6 months old.
We were given grass to feed them and time to spend with them. At the time we thought this was just keeping us occupied while the staff got things ready for the day. However, looking back I think this time was for us to get comfortable with the elephants. I mean who couldn’t help but fall in love with these little elephants and become comfortable with the situation?
Patara’s experience is called Elephant Caregiver for a day and they take it very seriously. After getting to know the mothers and their babies, we were sat down for a brief intro discussion from Pat, the owner. We learned about Patara, how they are different from other elephant facilities in the Chiang Mai region and what their goal is. They explained their goal for breeding and introducing domesticated elephants back into the wild. From there we hiked out to the area where our elephants live. We stopped along the way to gather grass from the field workers, to feed to our elephants. Once we arrived we were each assigned to an elephant and their trainer. And just like that we became elephant caregivers for the day.
My elephant was an eight year old male and Alan had a female as well as her 5 month old baby. I won’t even attempt to write their names, since there is no way I will come close to getting them right. First we introduced ourselves to the elephants, approaching them with instructions and commands from the trainers, we made sure they were ok with us and that their demeanor stayed calm and happy. Next it was feeding time. Breakfast consisted of small banana type fruit (tasted different though, yes we tried them) and sugar cane (yes we tried that as well). And each piece we fed to them one by one. Using the commands to “open wide” and keeping them happy and calm with reassuring “good job” as we went along. Of course these elephants speak Thai so we had to learn each of the commands in Thai.
After feeding and getting to know our elephants, it was time for a lesson on healthcare checks. Healthy elephants sleep laying down and they alternate sides during the night. So, first you have to check and make sure that an elephant is dirty on both sides.
Then you have to sweep it. Yep, sweep it. Gotta get the dirt and debris off before you get them wet, otherwise you’ll have a real mess on your hands! Then you have to make sure they are sweating, another sign of their health. Any guesses on where an elephant sweats from???? Around their toenails! They should have a damp ring around the cuticle type area of the toenail. And, how do you check the toenails? You get underneath them and run your finger along the edge of the toenail. Do you know what’s more intimidating than being next to an elephant? Being underneath one!
And the final step in the daily health check is the poo check. Yep, that’s right. The best way to make sure that everything inside is working correctly is to check what comes out. They explained all the details on how it should have water run out when you squeeze it and how the “pieces” that come out should be similar in size and there should be at least five of them, but honestly all I heard was “you have to smell it”. And all I could think was, there is no way I am smelling elephant poo! Well I figured someone else would bow out and then so could I, but being the last to go, after no one else skipped their turn I couldn’t be the only one that refused, so I did it. And honestly it smelled like grass. Turns out that a healthy elephant doesn’t eat anything but grass and some fruits so there really isn’t anything to make it stink. Thank goodness!
Next was bath time. This was one of the best parts of the day! We led our elephants down to the river and as they laid or kneeled in the water we used a scrub brush to clean them from top to bottom. Let me tell you, bathing an elephant is no easy feat, but wow, is it amazing! The trainers were there every step of the way to make sure you got every last part and show us how to take care of areas such as around the eyes, the ears and even the tusks!
After they had been scrubbed and scoured it was time to rinse them. Big elephants and little buckets, meant this took a while. Thank goodness they returned the favor!
After all the hard work it time to learn how to get up on top of our elephants and go for a ride. All of the elephants had ropes around their midsection for us to hold on to for stability. Of course, I held on pretty much the entire ride and Alan never held on once. (You may notice in some of the pictures that Alan's elephant also had a chain that it carried. Elephants are herd animals and since these elephants live out on a plantation and are not fenced in they would naturally roam as herd. Patara keeps one animal in each herd on a chain at night, so that the entire heard will stay in their camp and not wander into the mountains or nearby villages. The chain is loosely around their ankle and long enough for them to be able to roam, without leaving the plantation.)
Once we were on our way and we got use to the height and swagger of the elephant, it was the most peaceful experience ever. The elephants are so large and you might think they are almost clumsy or akward. However, they are just the opposite. Very meticulous about each step and almost graceful.
We rode for awhile, until we arrived at a waterfall. Needless to say everyone was ready for refreshment! The staff had a beautiful picnic lunch set up for us on this beautiful bamboo platform over the waterfall.
While we ate, the elephants filled up on fresh water
Once we were finished eating it was time for a little swimming. The elephants loved the water and pretty much just hung out and let us climb on and enjoy riding through the water. The babies were a little more adventurous and got a little feisty during the swim time. My favorite line from the trainers to Alan was "watch your leg, the babies like to get your legs." He quickly figured out what they meant!
After we got dried off and back in our clothes it was time for the ride back to Patara.
We took a different route back and we got to see how well elephants can climb.
One last creek crossing and we were back at the Patara facility.
After we got back to the area where we had started the day we had time to hang out with our elephants, take more pictures and have a few closing words from Pat. The trainers also spent a few minutes choosing a "care giver of the day" and luckily I was chosen from our group. Our "prize" was a kiss from our elephant.
It was the weirdest feeling kiss I've ever had!
Elephants give messy kisses!
Pat's closing words gave us a chance to reflect back on the day and the bigger picture of elephant preservation. Patara lives by the mantra that extinction is forever and never will that thought hurt your heart more than when you have fallen in love with these amazing creatures.
I am not an animal person by nature. I love my cat and would love to have a dog, but I am not drawn to animals in general. So, I was not prepared to be so captivated by the elephants. They are such a large and somewhat intimidating animal, yet when you come to them with love they return it. They are so kind and gentle. Each has a personality and they let it show. And the more time we spent with them the more we realized they are very much like humans.
Pat's last bit of advice to us was something I will always remember: live like an elephant. Elephants never rush in to anything, they think through each step (in every aspect) they take and make sure it is wise and safe. If only everyone could have the opportunity to spend a day at Patara. The world would be a much better place if we all lived like an elephant.