Way back before we took our trip, one of the things that we told everyone we wanted to do was go to an elephant farm to take care of an elephant for a day. We wanted to ride elephants! We had read reviews and found that the elephant farms near Chiang Mai are very reputable – they don’t hurt their elephants or anything like that, which unfortunately does happen at elephant farms at other places around the world. Once we actually got here and did some more research into exactly what farm to visit, we ran into a little trouble. Most of the farms specifically said that they would not allow anyone to ride elephants, as it harms them! However, after digging a little more, we found that it only harms the elephants when someone rides on them with a wooden platform – these platforms are capable of carrying multiple people at once, and put a lot of stress on the poor elephants’ backs. So, we found a rescue farm that allows bareback riding, read all of the reviews very carefully, and booked our trip! Even though we booked at the end of February, we weren’t able to secure a spot until the week before we left Chiang Mai! These places are seriously busy!
The big day finally arrived, and we were picked up early in the morning by a driver who took us to the west side of Doi Suthep, about an hour from our condo. We got out and immediately saw some elephants waiting for us – including some babies! We had seen many elephants up close during our time in SEA up to that point, from feeding them at Chiang Mai Zoo, to watching people ride them in Cambodia, but watching them wander around with no chains was something different. They just looked so happy – the babies in particular! Between the wrinkles around their eyes, the slight upturn of their mouths, and the way they trotted around and rolled on the ground, they behaved more like puppies than any elephants we had ever seen! It was seeing them up close in this context that gave me the greatest appreciation for just how wondrous these creatures are. It’s actually surreal being so close to so many animals that are this big. And the way they move is so purposeful, calm, serene…it’s easy to see why so many cultures worship these magnificent beasts!
More and more other tourists started to arrive, but we all were given plenty of time to play with the elephants without direction. Once we all had our chance, they rounded us up and gave us a short introduction on the farm, and what we’d be doing that day. Wild elephants in Thailand are becoming incredibly rare, so farms like Patara help to increase the elephant population by rescuing elephants that are no longer needed for the teak logging industry, and by breeding those that are in captivity. They also rescue elephants from unhealthy living conditions such as circuses and begging. (Until recently, many elephants and their mahouts (life long handler) no longer needed for logging or farming were used on the street for begging!) Patara’s elephants can have between two and three babies every year – an impressive feat given that the birth cycle for elephants is about once every five years! Hopefully one day, wild elephants will be able to thrive again in SEA – and with the way the government seems to be cracking down on the ivory trade, that seems like a possibility!
We split up into three groups of eight and went to different parts of the farm. After a short hike up a hill, we were introduced to our elephants! My elephant was a young adult male named Champu (which means “pink”). Julia was lucky enough to get a mother and baby – Saiton (which means “sunshine”) and Jumbo! We were given a basket of food – sugar cane and bananas – and fed them. They would teach us many words that day; the first ones we learned were “Boan”, which we said when we wanted the elephants to lift their head and open their mouth, and “Dee dee” which is the equivalent of “Good boy/girl!”. It was important to bond with these creatures before attempting to ride. The elephants had quite the appetite – eating the bananas three or four at a time, peels and all!
After they ate, the elephants took turns drinking. There was only one hose at this part of the camp, so the elephants had to wait their turn – which they didn’t like doing! The elephants took a long time to drink. Each elephant seemed to have its own method for drinking. Some put the hose in their mouth, others filled up their trunks (while holding the hose with another part of their trunk – it’s very impressive how agile they are with those things) and then shot that water in their mouth. Still others used their trunks like a straw, and swallowed the water directly through their trunks. If one elephant took more than four or five gulps in a row, the next elephant would just take the hose away and start drinking!
After everyone had fed their elephants, we sat back down and talked about the ways to make sure that your elephant is healthy. The first thing is to check their poop! This was actually not nearly as gross as we expected – elephants don’t digest their food for very long, so their poop doesn’t smell at all (believe me, we checked). If the poop does smell bad, or has anything other than green/yellow grass in it, it’s the sign of a problem. Besides the poop, there are three basic things to check to ensure a happy, healthy elephant. First, the elephant should be flapping its ears and wagging its tail. That means that the elephant is happy – if the ears and tail aren’t moving, the elephant could be lethargic or hostile for some reason. Second, the elephant should be dirty on both sides of its body. Elephants sleep by laying on one side, and switching sides every forty-five minutes – and they only sleep for four hours! If the elephant’s sides aren’t dirty, it means that they didn’t sleep or are having issues sleeping. Third, the elephant should have wet cheeks and toes. The wet cheeks are from tears – the elephant secretes lots of tears as long as it’s hydrated (like a dog’s nose). The wet toes are from sweat – the only sweat glands on an elephant are on its cuticles!
After we checked the health of our elephants, it was time to give them baths! (As a double check, all of the elephants had already been inspected, and one was taken off duty last minute because she was almost due! Elephants’ backs become very dirty, because the elephants will constantly throw dirt and grass on themselves to protect themselves from bloodsucking flies that lay eggs on their skin! In the wild, elephants will wash themselves, but Patara is a short ride away from the closest water source, so we get the fun task of washing them instead! Before we could ride them, we cleaned them off a little bit so that we wouldn’t slide down their muddy backs (or get dirty ourselves). The trainers gave the elephants a command to sit down on their hind legs, so that we could reach their backs. Grabbing large bunches of straw, we whacked our elephants to get the dirt and straw off. I was a bit worried at first at hitting Champu, even with something as light as straw, but I could tell he really enjoyed it – it’s like getting his back scratched!
With our elephants clean, we finally got to ride! There are a few ways to get on an elephant from ground level, and it seems to come down to personal preference for the elephant. Some bent their front leg like a ladder which lifted once the rider placed their right foot on it. Champu prefers to curl his trunk for his rider to step on, to climb up over his head! Saiton kneels her head way down on the ground, so Julia was able to slightly jump, then climb on her head directly! It was a bit tricky (and scary) to turn ourselves around once we were on the top of our elephants – the only thing we had to grasp was a single rope that went around the elephants’ bodies, and the elephants are tall enough that a fall would be quite painful!
We rode the elephants by sitting just behind their head, on the back of their necks. Our legs were bent, knees up around their neck, heels pressed into their shoulders. Pressing our feet forward would tell the elephant to move forward; pressing just the left foot would tell the elephant to turn right, and vice versa. Pressing both of our heels back would tell the elephant to stop or turn around. Each physical command was accompanied by a verbal command. The elephants were very responsive to all of these commands, but they seldom needed them – the elephants knew where to go. Even though they liked to poke their heads off the beaten path for a few meters, there was no chance that they would veer off in a completely different direction.
The path to the water source was steep and narrow – I never would thought an elephant capable of walking on this path, much less a whole pack of mounted elephants! But the elephants are very methodical and sure-footed, never faltering or slipping a single time. The walk to the water source took almost an hour, and actually became quite tiring towards the end. With our legs constantly flexed, my quads started shaking with fatigue. Walking up a steep hill meant gripping tighter and leaning forward on the elephant’s head, and walking downhill meant leaning way back and holding on to the rope behind us. But even with how tiring it was, riding Champu was simply magical. Walking through the forest path with little sound but the footsteps of our elephants (and the occasional trumpet blast from another elephant), just taking in the sights and sounds, and I couldn’t help but think every thirty seconds how cool is it that I’m riding a freakin’ elephant right now?
After the long ride, we were greeted with lunch! Listing out everything in the meal would rival a feast description from one of the Game of Thrones books, so I’ll just show a picture instead. It was way too much food, and we gave all of the leftovers (sans meat) to the elephants!
After lunch, we got to bathe our elephants! It’s hard to pick out the single best part of our day, but washing and playing with our elephants has to be a contender. Although the elephants are truly massive, they are so in control of their movements that we never felt worried, even when surrounded by elephants on all sides. The younger elephants would roll around in the water, and even the adults liked to play by shooting water at themselves and each other.
After their baths, it was time for one last short ride to the road where our shuttle awaited. We said goodbye to our elephants and felt sad that we had to leave after just having met them! This experience was truly once-in-a-lifetime – another guest said that even if they came to Thailand to only do this before flying back home (twenty+ hour travel time and all), it would be worth it. Thankfully, we did so much more on our trip to Southeast Asia! This excursion in particular is one that we will remember for the rest of our lives.