“Dan, come look at these photos!” It was another rainy day in Muizenberg, South Africa, and Lucy had something to show me, as a few of us volunteers were killing time in the internet cafe. She showed me photos of her friend at a place called “Patara Elephant Farm” in Thailand. They looked amazing! The things she was able to do with elephants looked like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Let’s try and go there next year!” she said. Fast forward a year later, and it’s actually happening!
We booked a day with elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is in the north of the country. But to get there, Lucy and I had to take a grueling 20 hour bus ride across the countries! Ughhhhhh. It was supposed to be 20 hours, but it turned into about 26 hours. At one point, I was woken up in the middle of the night and told to get off the bus to help push it out of a mud ditch. Over a dozen of us pulled and pushed the bus from falling over a cliff! About a half an hour later, we finally made it to the Laos/Thailand border where we had to sit and wait even longer for another ride to Chiang Mai. It was tedious, but finally we made it. Where did we go first? McDonalds!
Patara Elephants Farm is the most popular and sought after Elephant excursion in northern Thailand. I booked our trip there when we were still volunteering in Saigon. Early morning on the 31st of July, a van came and picked us up from our hostel and drove about 40 minutes to the farm. From the start I knew this place was something special. Acres of trees, fields, and streams filled with dozens and dozens of happy elephants! We changed into proper local attire, a poncho kind of thing and big elephant pants. All I had were my stupid hiking boots but soon decided to just go barefoot for the rest of the day. Best decision I’ve made on this trip so far.
Patara Elephants is different from the other countless elephant farms, sanctuaries, reservations etc in Thailand. This one is ALL about the elephants. No abusing whatsoever, no chains, no circus tricks. This particular one is all about caring for an elephant. It’s a bit more expensive than other places (5800 baht) but more than worth it. The groups are small and we are given a ton of information about the current state of elephants in Thailand. The best part was, we each were assigned our very own elephant! Lucy was partnered with a younger elephant by the name of Phoo. I was partnered with one of the bigger elephants, an 8 month pregnant mama by the name of Maebooton. That’s probably not how you spell it. We were assigned these elephants based on our personality. Lucy had Phoo because they are both small and little. I had Maebooton because she likes to eat all the time. We’re gonna get along great!
First things first, we had to let the elephant grow comfortable with us. The guides gave us bananas and sugar canes to feed them to show them “Hey! I’m your friend. I have food!”
Next we had to do health checkups on our own elephant. It was a five-step process. First, I had to check to see if Maebooton was waging its tail and flapping its ears. Flappy ears and wagging tails equals a happy elephant! Kind of how a dog wags its tail when its happy. Second, I had to check to make sure Maebooton was sweating properly. How on earth do I do that? By wiping the sweat from the top of it’s giant toenails apparently. Maebooton, didn’t have that much sweat because this pregnant girl has just been standing around chomping food. My guide let me know that it was okay and that she will sweat on the trek later on. Third, we had to test the poop. We had to find some relatively fresh elephant poop, grab it with our bare hands, smell it, and then squeeze it! Surprisingly, the elephant poop here didn’t have a foul stench. It actually smelt like grass and dirt (which is a good thing). Then we had to squeeze it for moisture. If you squeeze the dung and are able to get drips of water out, that means the elephant is properly hydrated. If the dung was too wet or too dry then something was wrong.
Fourth. I had to check if Maebooton got a proper good night’s rest the night before. Elephants sleep on their sides for about four hours and switch sides every 45 minutes or so. I had to check Maebootons sides for ground marks. She had them on each side of her body, her cheeks, legs, and ears. If I couldn’t find any, then she was probably standing up all night which is an indication that something might be wrong with her. Lastly, I had to check and see if Maebooton was expending moisture from her eyes properly. When an elephant evenly distributes moisture from it’s eyes (as if it were crying), it means its a healthy elephant. Too much moisture from one side and not the other is an indicator for illness. These aren’t elephant tears! It’s just a way for them to clean their eyes or something like that. Afterwards, a quick rinse from all the dirt and debris!
Once all that was finished, it was now time to go on a trek through the jungle with our new best friends. I know elephants are huge and strong, but I’m a heavy guy and thought that I was putting too much stress on the elephants back. Not the case here. Instead of sitting on the back, I was instructed to sit right on the head, right behind the ears. So up I went!
Maebooton didn’t seem to mind that I was sitting on her head. I could feel her thick elephant hairs grinding into my leg, but it was tricky to adjust because I wasn’t secured to anything and didn’t want to fall off! There was no harness or saddle to sit on, just me and the elephant. There were guides walking by foot that shouted commands just incase things got crazy. I rode on Maebooton for a solid hour as she stomped through the jungle. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous a few times. Maebooton would decide instead of staying on the path, she would go wander off to a nearby tree, lift her head, raise her trunk and grab a branch of leaves. Whenever she did this was like riding a bull. I had barely anything to grab onto and her movements were abrupt and not fluid at all. I almost fell off a couple times! It would of resulted in an injury for sure. Not to mention, she had no concern for my well being as she would whip branches at my head and body as she happily ate. The guides below laughed when this happened. I found it amusing as well, as long as I didn’t fall off!
We eventually made it to a waterfall where we enjoyed a very tasty and authentic lunch in the jungle. Tons of various fruits, sticky rice, drumsticks of chicken, and pastries galore! It was delicious and I stuffed myself!
Soon after, we all had to give our elephants a bath in the river. And not just some splashes of water, we had to scrub every inch of our elephants down! Maebooton is one huge mama! This was gonna take forever. But I had fun doing it the entire time.
Once Maebooton and the other elephants were clean, the guides lined them up and it was time to take photos!
We rode our elephants back up to the road where we bid farewell. Maebooton paid little attention to me as she was busy eating (go figure).
This elephant experience was totally worth it and I’m glad we came across it. If you ever go to Chiang Mai, I highly recommend you try out the Patara Elephant Farms. Book in advance to avoid the frustration! We had peace of mind knowing that these elephants were well taken care for and never ever abused. Unlike other elephant farms, this one has had zero elephant deaths and 29 successful elephant births (and counting!). Lucy and I went back to Chiang Mai, where I was finally able to get some new blue kicks and hang out for the remainder of the night. The next couple of days, we were anxiously awaiting to reunite with two very neat people we met in Vietnam, by the name of Sophie and Tom. 🙂