Patara Elephant Farm
From the minute I found out that I would be visiting Thailand, I wanted to plan something with Asian Elephants. After a lot of research and recommendations, I decided on a day as an elephant owner with Patara Elephant Farm just outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I’ll try to explain the good, bad, and controversial conversations that are going on about elephants in Thailand. Asian Elephants have a long and sometimes upsetting history in Thailand. I’m no expert, but I’ll try to make sense of it all for you here. For a long time, Asian elephants were used in circuses, logging operations, and with tourists to be ridden all day long with heavy benches on their backs. All of those things are considered to be inhumane today. Although logging operations have ceased (only after a massive flood in the late 1980s), it took a toll on the natural habitat of the elephant. So between logging and the growing human population, there isn’t a whole lot of room for elephants to roam in the wild. And I haven’t even mentioned the sudden loss of income to the mahout (elephant handler).
They think that the elephant population in Thailand hovers a little over 3,000. It is also estimated that 1,000 of those elephants are “wild” and the rest of them are privately owned. So the tourist elephant rescue farm experience was born. It is important to do some serious research before you book an elephant experience, and I’d recommend booking something before you arrive in Thailand. Although you can certainly book something after you arrive, you might be subjected to aggressive “marketing campaigns” by some outfitters, and have a hard time making a well educated choice. Anything resembling circus type activities, or riding an elephant on a chair, is a bad sign. Any rocking back and forth motion (sometimes even seen in zoos) is a sign of mental illness. Elephants that are reproducing is actually a sign of good health and conditions.
Enter Patara Elephant Farm. This day long experience started with an air conditioned van pick up at our hotel. The farm is about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. We began the day with two baby elephants and their mothers. They were wandering around, eating fresh produce and vegetation. The elephants were not shy, and the babies were playful and fun. One tried to use me as a scratching post. We hung out waiting for other participants to arrive. I’m glad we took a while getting acclimated to unfettered access to these animals.
When everyone had arrived, we were given a safety lecture about being around the elephants. When their ears and/or tail stick straight out, the elephant is not happy. As long as their ears and tails are flapping a little, you’re in the clear. We also got some Thai language lessons, since they are used to their own mahout speaking to them. At that time, we also changed into the clothing that the mahout wears, in order to give the elephants some continuity and familiarity.
We were each paired with our own elephant and mahout for the day. I was last, and given the largest and tallest elephant of them all! I don’t even want to think about what that says about me! Boone was a 25 year old male elephant. First on the agenda was to introduce myself and feed him fruit in order to get him to like me. At the urging of my mahout John, I approached Boone with a basket of fruit by saying Cha (hello) and Bone (open mouth). I placed bananas directly into his large mouth, one after the other. After he finished the fruit and some vegetation I had hauled over to him, I told him Deedee (good boy).
As an elephant owner, you must check the elephant for signs of good health. Ear flapping and tail wagging is important. Elephants sleep laying down, so I checked for dirt as evidence to make sure he is sleeping at night. Elephants don’t have tear ducts, so they should always have tears in equal measure. Did you know that elephants sweat through their cuticles? The last health check was to examine their poop. Yes, I said that right. 7-9 balls at a time is normal. But then you need to take it apart and check for clean vegetation, and squeeze it to make sure it is moist. Yes. I touched elephant poop. It actually didn’t smell much at all. I guess that’s veggies for you.
After cleaning the dirt off of their backs, we took a break so the humans could have lunch. Some local people had prepared pork skewers, fried chicken, sticky rice, and all sorts of desserts. It was all included as a part of the day. Any fruit we didn’t eat was shared with the elephants. Lunch was included in the experience. This was also our opportunity to change into our swimsuits for later. Patara Elephant farm actually had an elephant calf born four days before our arrival. So after lunch, all the people and their elephants wandered to the nursery to take a look. Momma and baby were roaming free just outside a of a small barn looking area that is used by Patara’s veterinarian.
Then it was time to ride the elephants. Of the two elephant rescue farms that I liked during my research, one allowed you to ride them, and the other did not. It’s definitely a personal decision. They are ridden bareback up on their neck very close to their heads. Their shoulders and back are not made to support your weight. If you’ve ever seen old photos of people riding elephants sitting on a bench, those rub their skin raw eventually. Although there are several ways to mount the elephant, there was only one way to get on top of Boone. He leaned his head and trunk low to the ground. I stepped on his trunk and he raised his head high in the air so that I could climb over his head. Once on top, I turned around, brought my knees up high above his ears, so he could still flap them.
Boone and I were the last ones ready, and alone in the jungle a little while we caught up. My mahout guide walked faithfully beside or behind us, encouraging us with his kind words and demeanor along the way. It was in that quiet moment that I was completely awe struck. The idea that I was riding an elephant through the jungle in the middle of Thailand was truly amazing. I was in the presence of an mysterious animal, even though I’m still not sure how I feel about the idea of the Elephant rescue farm. I’ll talk more about that later.
Our goal was to get to the waterfall. There we could scrub the dirt away and the elephants could drink and drink. The toddler elephants (3-4 years old) that followed their moms to the waterfall, submerged themselves in the water and played and played. They were probably washing off the dirt from all their roughhousing through the jungle. In those moments, I couldn’t help but think that those toddler elephants looked happy and well cared for.
After the waterfall, we had a chance to say goodbye to the elephants and the mahouts. We walked out of the woods to the road to be picked up in the van. Our last stop was what looked like home base for bathrooms, changing rooms and paying our invoice for the day. It was also where we received the CD that contained pictures and video that were taken of our group throughout the day. The cost was 5800 baht (about $175 US) per person payable only in cash. They had a small counter with soft drinks, water, and beer available for purchase. The mahout clothing was available for purchase also. We were back at our hotel after a quick shuttle ride back into town.
I know that some people might say that all of the elephants should be released back into the wild. They are wild animals after all. Sadly, there just isn’t enough space to be able to do that. Although, Patara has released several elephants into the wild over the years. Extinction of the Asian elephant is a real possibility. You could argue that these rescue farms might be one of the only options to keep them going. I know others might argue that horses are used in working environments from cattle ranches to trail rides, but no one considers them abused animals. The arguments both ways could go on and on. Believe me, I’m not trying to convince you one way or the other.
As we travel, I hope we all think about the impact we make on these cultures and communities. Only you can decide what’s right for you. I left the elephants with a great appreciation for these huge animals and what it takes to keep extinction at bay. I have to say that Patara Elephant Farm was one of the highlights of my trip.