I have been blessed with many wonderful life experiences, but our day with the elephants at Patara Elephant Farm in the mountains near Chiang Mai is undoubtedly one of the best. Hubby and I are still rhapsodizing about it two weeks later!
As an ardent animal lover, spending time with these magnificent creatures was a priority in planning this trip. There are many elephant camps and farms to choose from, all with different missions and practices. Patara Elephant Farm, which offers an “Elephant Owner for a Day” program, was ultimately the right fit for us. Patara rescues elephants from the logging industry and circuses and works to improve their health. You won’t find elephants performing tricks or dancing here (though several did sway back and forth continuously – a leftover habit from their former occupation.) The Thai-owned organization also runs a successful breeding program, with 14 babies born in the last seven years. Receiving no government money, the success of the program is dependent on tourist dollars and we were happy to do our part. Not only did we get to spend an entire day taking care of our own elephants, we got to play with the three babies running around the farm.
The Patara staff picked us up at our Chiang Mai hotel at 7:45am and drove us to the farm. It started to rain almost upon arrival and the staff quickly handed out ponchos, though all efforts to remain dry would soon prove futile. For the first hour or so, we learned about the farm and the elephants Patara cares for. The average elephant eats around 500 kilos of vegetation and fruits per day! Signs of poor health can be found in their excrement so we were shown how to examine its quantity and texture. A lump was even passed under our noses for an olfactory inspection! (It smells like grass.)
After the briefing, we were introduced to our elephants. Hubby got a big mamma elephant and her toddler Baifern while I was assigned to a strapping eight-year-old male named Terasu. Mine was the only one with prominent tusks, but that didn’t stop me from snuggling up to the big teddy bear. We fed them handfuls of whole bananas and bits of bamboo to win their affection, then began the tedious process of cleaning them. Using large leaf bundles, we brushed the loose dirt from their skin. Terasu decided to eat my brush halfway through, perhaps playfully testing his new owner for the day. He also snatched the water hose I was using to wash him off with for a quick drink. Each elephant has his or her own trainer who made sure we knew what we were doing, but all the work was left up to us. This is a very hands-on program!
Once the elephants were clean and we were covered in mud, we were all given soft cotton garments to put on over our own clothes to protect the elephants’ skin during our ride. One of the trainers demonstrated the various ways to climb on top an elephant, first using Terasu’s leg as a step and pulling himself up. He also showed the alternative technique of going over Terasu’s head, walking up the trunk like it was a steep sidewalk. The trainer made it look so easy that I decided to try it too, but let’s just say I was a little less graceful. It took everyone several minutes to mount their elephants and then we were off for our ride. The elephant’s gait is slow and steady, lifting only one leg at a time. I found it to be easier than riding a horse, although one unique challenge was that most of our elephants would charge off the path when something appetizing caught their eye. This could be a be a bit scary given the great height. Ours was a slow-moving parade as these quick snacks were a frequent occurrence. The trainers walked next to us as we used our new Thai command words in an effort to control the elephants.
We dismounted after about an hour and a half to give the elephants a break and to stretch our legs. This also allowed us another chance to climb back up. The second time I stepped on Terasu’s leg and pulled myself up. It was just as difficult as the first time. Thirty minutes later, we found ourselves by a river where the elephants rested while we ate the lunch Patara provided.
Finally, it was time for all of us to cool off! The trainers led the elephants down to the water while we changed our clothes. We learned how to bathe the animals, scrubbing them vigorously to remove all the dirt from the trail. The elephants seemed more interested in playing in the water, especially the baby Baifern. Their frolicking made it quite difficult to stay upright and we all got absolutely soaked as a result.
We walked back to base camp and then came the sad realization that it was time to say goodbye to our elephants. I will admit to getting a little teary eyed when I dragged myself away from sweet Terasu, who treated us to a bow before ambling off.
Our sadness was soon abated as we stopped by the “nursery” to see two new babies and one very pregnant female. These curious youngsters wanted to play and charged at us to gauge our strength. Most of us got knocked over by the surprisingly strong little ones. But if you did manage to hold your ground, they would circle back and try again even harder, happy to have found a worthy target. We were positively giddy by the time we left!
Patara Elephant Farm
Pricing: Elephant Owner for a Day program costs 5,800 baht (193 USD) per person CASH ONLY