This post is a little overdue (I visited Patara Elephant Farm back in January), but I was waiting on some pictures from that day, and am just getting around to writing about it now. I knew when I first decided to go to Thailand that I wanted to spend some time with elephants. Elephants are one of my favorite animals. I think that they are just fascinating and intelligent creatures. Thailand has a problem with many elephants being mistreated in the tourism and manufacturing industries. Elephants are chained up and beaten until they become submissive to their owners. The ones in the tourism industry are forced to give ride after ride to unsuspecting tourists, requiring the elephant to have a seat strapped onto its back to support multiple riders at a time. Those in the manufacturing industry are often forced to carry heavy logs all day long and are given insufficient food and water and are treated very poorly.
My friends and I only wanted to participate in an activity with elephants if we knew that it was under humane conditions. My friend Alex did some research and found Patara Elephant Farm, that offered a program to take care of an elephant for the day. Patara rescues elephants from some of the conditions mentioned in the previous paragraph, and allows them to live as normal a life as an elephant can, while still remaining in captivity. They are given room to roam around during the day and return to their sleeping quarters in the evening. Each elephant has its own trainer or “mahout” that acts as a caretaker for the animal to see that all its needs are being met. Several elephants have given birth here over the past few years, providing evidence that the elephants’s social and emotional needs are being cared for, since unhappy elephants don’t reproduce.
The morning of our volunteering day we woke up bright and early, excited for the day’s events. A representative from Patara picked us up from our Air Bnb in Chiang Mai, and drove us to the farm, about an hour’s drive outside of Chiang Mai. When we arrived, we were given special clothes and pants to wear as honorary elephant mahouts, and were given a brief background on Patara and the itinerary for the day. One of the mahouts explained that an being an elephant trainer is a very time consuming job, as they spend over 12 hours a day with their specific elephant, more time than they spend with their families! As such, the bond between elephant and mahout is a very strong one, and helps to make the job a rewarding one.
It was then time to be assigned our elephant for the day. The head mahout explained that he would match us up based upon the elephant’s personality or temperament. My charge for the day was a 17 year old mother named Bon June, and with her came her 2 year old daughter Aree. My friends found it comical that I was chosen to have a “motherly” personality. Looking on the bright side though, I now got to take care of 2 elephants for the day!
It was then time to introduce ourselves to our elephants. To curry favor with them, we were given baskets of fruit to feed them. The elephants loved this, and were very aggressive, using their trunks to try to scoop all of the fruit up at once. We fed it to them one at a time while slowly stroking their sides. Even though Aree was only 2 years old, she was almost up to my height, and definitely outweighed me by at least 3:1. I was a bit hesitant dealing with them up close, but I soon grew accustomed to working with these gentle giants.
After feeding them the snack of assorted fruits, it was time to check their hides to see if they were healthy. Having moist and smooth skin ensured that the elephant’s temperature was properly regulated. Both Bon June and Aree’s hides were healthy. Next up was checking the elephants’ dung. Fresh elephant dung should be moist. Even though it is possible to check on sight alone, the head trainer showed us how to squeeze the dung to release the excess water. This proves that the elephant is staying properly hydrated and is drinking enough water. Elephants are constantly eating and drinking-an average adult elephant consumes over 300 kilograms of food and nearly 200 liters of water a day! I helped Bon Jean drink from the water hose. First she would suck it up her trunk before transferring it to her mouth. I find it fascinating how dexterous an elephant’s trunk is. Throughout the day, Bun June would suddenly decide to wander off and Aree would promptly follow after her. I would have to coax them both back in order to finish whatever we were doing at that time.
It was then time to give the elephants a bath in the nearby pond. To get there we would ride on the elephant, directly behind the neck. The elephant trainers explained to us that this is the only way to ride the elephant that does not cause undue stress to it, as opposed to strapping a bench on their back at the many tourist attractions. Riding on top of Bon June was a little daunting at first. It also was not the most comfortable experience, but still a unique vantage point. I was able to scratch her ears as we made our way to the water. The trail was a bit hilly and had a few rocks in the path. I felt a bit bad for the elephants as they gingerly picked where to put their feet next, the older ones appearing more comfortable at this than little Aree.
After about a half hour we reached the pond and dismounted from the elephants. They eagerly made their way into the chilly waters, and several of them took the opportunity to defecate. It was now elephant bathtime! The trainers showed us how to properly scrub their hides to ensure cleanliness. The elephants greatly enjoyed being rubbed and cleaned, similar to how most dogs like having their bellies rubbed. We all enjoyed this experience as well, as the elephants’ happy spirits were contagious.
When bathing time was finished, we were instructed to stand behind the elephants for a group photo. Unbeknownst to us, the elephants found this a perfect time to spray us with water from their trunks! While I know that they’ve been taught to do such it was still funny nonetheless.
Lunch was a delicious spread of meats, fruits, and various other Thai dishes. Way too much for us to finish! The elephants also ate and rested nearby. Remember, it takes a lot of time to eat 300 kilograms every day! After we finished eating our lunch, we were able to spend some time with our elephants, although they were a bit preoccupied with eating. Soon enough, it was time to say goodbye and be off on our way. I fed Bon June and Aree some leaves and thanked them for only running away from me a few times over the course of the day, their mischievous sides showing. (Maybe that was why we were matched up? haha)
Before we left Patara to head back to Chiang Mai, we were given the opportunity to meet the newest addition to Patara, a two month old male named Namploo. Although only two months old, he already weighed 100 kilos, more than me! He behaved similar to a puppy, displaying a ton of energy. The trainer told us to sit down on the ground and when we did, Namploo would come bounding over to us. Since he was so young, he hadn’t fully mastered how to use his trunk, and it was comical to watch him move it slowly. He was able to use it to tickle me however, as it went straight for my neck, causing me to laugh in surprise! Namploo acted in a similar fashion with the others-you never knew what he would do next. When he came up to Laura, he even put his front legs on her shoulders and stood up on his hind legs. After awhile, he grew tired of playing with us and returned to the safety of his mother. Baby elephants are for sure giving puppies a run for their money in my opinion.
All in all it was an incredible day and experience. We were glad to be able to participate with an ethical organization that is truly looking out for the elephants. I highly recommend Patara Elephant Farm if you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai! (Note that they are booked up often, so it’s wise to make a reservation several weeks in advance).