I have been blessed with some truly incredible days. Being in the stands at the Academy Awards, touring the Walt Disney Studios, skydiving, and being mobbed by a group of crazed Dominican children are just some that come to mind. Well, my day at Patara Elephant Farm easily jumps to the head of the pack on the memorable day scale.
When you think Thailand, elephants are probably one of the first things that pop into your mind. Naturally, it’s a dream to get up close and personal with these extraordinary creatures, but it’s important to do your research beforehand. Thailand is littered with hundreds of tourist elephant experiences but not all are created equal. The typical elephant day consists of you and a partner seated in a large wooden chair strapped to the animal’s back. Please, please do not partake in this. Not only is the chair sitting on an area of the back that will cause damage and pain to the creature, but there is a lot of abuse in training the elephants for this. Just do a google search and you can read much more eloquent articles on these dangers. The same goes for “elephant shows” which included the animals painting and playing football for vacationers enjoyment. This is unfortunately a thriving attraction due to lack of information which is why it is important to support the rescues and rehabilitation reserves scattered around the country.
Anyway, after doing my own thorough research on how I could help and not harm, I learned about Patara Elephant Farm and Elephant Nature Park. My roommate had been to ENP and could vouch for it completely, however I was immediately infatuated with the “Elephant Owner for a Day” experience offered at Patara.
Patara is an elephant rescue reserve with just over 50 elephants and counting. The founder of Patara reached out to dozens of those tourist elephant camps (as mentioned about above) and encouraged them to send any retired or unwanted elephants to him at any time. All of the animals have come from tragic pasts and horrible conditions and are now cared for and looked after. Patara even strives to set some back into the wild but unfortunately the likelihood is that they would be recaptured and forced back into their previous lives. Therefore most stay on the expansive property and roam freely. That is where the “Elephant Owner for a Day” program comes into play.
Elephant care givers are called Mahouts which is essentially what you become for the duration of the day. You complete all the daily tasks from feeding, bathing, and riding all while learning about Patara and general elephant care. The downfall for most people with this experience is the price. The elephant owner program is $5,800* Baht or $180 USD. For Thailand, yes this is expensive. Was it overpriced for what you get? Hell no!! As stated before, this was probably the best day of my life and I would pay five times that price to experience it again! On top of that, an experience like this would probably cost $800 in America. Just bite the bullet and pay. You won’t regret it, I promise.
Included in the price is pick up and drop off from your hotel in Chiang Mai, a full day in the park, lunch, and (the best part!) a CD at the end of the day filled with high quality photos and videos of your experience. All the photos featured on this blog and any of the footage of me in the vlog above were taken by the workers at Patara. It really is icing on the cake and allows you to live in the moment and not fumble with cameras all day. I still brought my video camera and took some footage but over all I just let them handle it and was not disappointed in the final product.
It is important to book your day in advanced because Patara only lets in a small handful of people each day and they get booked up quickly. You can make a reservation through their website. I made my reservation about 2-3 months in advanced and they only had one day with spots left in the time frame I gave them. There is no need to pay upon reservation (you pay at the end of the day in cash) but they have an honor system and due to popularity, please show up if you have a reservation.
I waited outside my hostel. The email said to be ready at 7:30. The minutes ticked by. They were late. It was my last day in Thailand – if they didn’t show up I would have missed my opportunity to cuddle an elephant. Just as I started to go into a mini panic, a man with a Patara polo walked around the corner. “Grace?” He said as I let out a sigh of relief. We climbed into the vehicle and had a nice chat about my time in Thailand as we headed off to pick up the other couple. Once we were all accounted for, the drive out to the farm took about two hours with a short bathroom/breakfast break. Getting to the reservation involved some serious off-roading, so pop some dramamine if you get motion sickness like me.
We pulled up to a dirt clearing and were immediately greeted by a mama and her calf. It was a shock to the senses and really put it into perspective what we were going to fill our day with. We immediately were allowed to greet the animals and grab a few photos. This was also the time that you could change into your swimsuit or go to the toilet if you hadn’t already. Beware: the toilets are all but open with very little privacy. There were about fourteen of us all together but we were then split into groups of six to eight. My group consisted of myself, the couple, and a family of four. Once in our groups we had to hike out to the location of our own elephants. The farm is massive and the hike took about 20 minutes. Trekking through the jungle was a great start to the day. Once we reached the clearing we saw about a dozen elephants roaming the valley. We were lead to a small open hut were we were given some general instruction and history of Patara.
We were then given the official Mahout tunic which the elephants would recognize as care takers. Our guide then pointed out the seven elephants that each of us would be parenting for the day. He ended on a the largest and particularly rambunctious, male elephant named Dodo. “He’s a bit crazy,” he warned. I let out an uncontrollable cheer, which is why I believe I was lead over to him a few minutes later. “You’ll be with this big guy,” he said. I gulped. I’m the only one who has to deal with tusks. We were taught some Thai words that the elephants would recognize such as “deedee” or “good boy” and how to ask them to lift their trunks. Apparently, the way to an elephant’s heart is through their stomach which is why we started the day feeding our new babies. We were told that an elephant will decide if he trusts you by looking you in the eye and accepting your “offering” of food. I felt very much like Harry Potter and Buckbeak as I offered bananas and bamboo to a creature who could kill me in more than one way. But, low and behold, he took the bait. I gazed at him and he gazed back. It was instant love. Dodo was a giant teddy bear and I wanted to keep him for all time. I found out that Dodo had been rescued from an elephant show down in Phuket where we was forced to paint and play sports for ogling tourists. After we fed them we learned more about elephant health.
- They fan their ears when they’re happy.
- Many elephants have very watery eyes and it appears that they are crying. This is not the case at all and it is actually a sign of good health. When an elephant’s eyes water it is a sign that they are properly hydrated.
- The toe nails should also appear damp.
- Lastly, we had to smell and touch some elephant poop. Yep, and it smells surprisingly alright. Also a sign of good health.
Then it was time to cool off. We had to brush down our ellies with soft brushes to get off the dirt that they cake on themselves to cool down. We were basically exfoliating their skin. Next it was time to lead them into a shallow stream nearby. Once in the water we used buckets to drench them and brushes to scrub off the mud. Each elephant has a usual Mahout who serves as your own personal guide for the day. He helped me to get the proper technique in brushing the rough elephant skin. Near the end of the bath all the humans were gathered in front of the elephants for a picture. Moments later we were being sprayed with water by our elephant hosts! Yes, they really do spray water through their trunks! I guess they were just returning the favor!
Next, it was time to ride! Patara, of course, does not utilize the dangerous chairs. At Patara you ride the elephants solo and bareback. They teach you where to sit and place you legs so as not to hurt the animal in any way. Elephants are very strong, they can most definitely hold you, you just need to be placed in the right position, unlike the chairs.
There were three ways to climb aboard.
- The elephant lays down and you simply climb up onto its back. He then stands up and – boom – you’re all set. This is the easiest way for you but the most annoying way for the elephant. Nobody ended up using this method.
- The next way utilizes the elephant’s, well, extra appendage. You basically climb aboard the trunk and the elephant lifts you up. This looked quite fun but due to Dodo having tusks, it wasn’t an option for me.
- I had to use the last and most difficult way. The elephant lifts up his leg which you then use as a glorified step stool. You use the ear and a rope safety attached around the elephant’s belly to scramble up. It wasn’t to difficult, I just underestimated the hight and needed a boost from the Mahout!
Getting down was not so graceful. I fell on my butt both times. It takes practice, I guess!
Once we were all securely atop our babies we started our trek. Dodo seemed like the leader so he stormed ahead. We tramped through the jungle, up hills, and through streams. All was going just peachy until Dodo decided he wanted a snack in the form of a nearby tree. He reached up with his trunk to pull down some yummy leaves and low and behold a shower of fire ants came raining down upon me. So here I was, 12 feet up atop a wild animal and being bitten by enormous, exotic insects. The ants were also biting Dodo who started to flail his trunk up onto his head to beat them off. Thankfully, I am a very calm person and I went to work squishing the dozens of ants scattered about his head.
After that situation was settled, Dodo began to get very vocal. It frightened me at first because not only was the sound he made very,very loud but it also reminded me of something. What was it? Then it hit me. He sounded almost identical to the sound of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. It was uncanny. I then remembered that they had used an elephant’s bellow as the framework to create the dinosaur’s roar. Now, I totally see why!
Once we reached our destination we were greeted by a large pool of water and a waterfall. We dismounted our ellies and as they went off to find some food, we humans settled down for a glorious Thai lunch. The spread was amazing. Fresh dragon fruit, mango and sticky rice, and chicken were just some of what we had. We all ate our full but were soon joined by our elephant hosts who wanted to finish off the leftovers.
Then it was time to get in the water! We all clamored into the river and swam about with our elephants as we scrubbed them down. One by one the elephants made their way up the bank and left us humans behind to climb up the waterfall and splash each other like children.
After a cool-down and a dry-out we set out for the final stretch of the day. I road Dodo through some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen and had a surreal “this is actually my life right now” moment. Once we reached our departure destination we all said sad goodbyes to our elephants who we had fallen in such love with. They truly are incredible creatures. It was time for final photos and moments with Dodo as I made peace with the day being through. We then paid and were given our photo/video CDs and were driven back to Chiang Mai.
If you can’t tell by this novel of a blog post, it was a very full day. It was worth every penny and it is my number one recommendation if you find yourself in Chiang Mai. If you are looking for an experience that you can tell the grandkids about one day then this is it. You learn about rescue and conservation and develop a deep bond with the elephants of Thailand. I replay this day over and over in my mind and dream of the day when I can relive it again.