FINALLY! Time to recap my very favorite part of our entire trip and quite possibly my entire life. As soon as we left Patara Elephant Farm I told Robert that it was one of my top 5 favorite life experiences. I keep a running list of the Top 5 and so far 4 slots are filled; Getting married, getting engaged, getting Renly and Patara in no particular order. Currently I am reserving the 5th spot for the birth of our future children but if I ever get to go back to Patara they may be edged out, sorry future offspring.
I love elephants and knew that they had to be part of our trip to Thailand, but I had mixed feelings about the ethics of some of the elephant experiences. I did A LOT of research and Patara was the obvious choice for us based on everything I read. After having been I still stand behind that 100%.
When we arrived at Patara we spent some time with the owners son who educated us about Patara’s history and the fate of elephants in Thailand. He explained that the owners of Patara founded it with conservation and re-population as it’s main objectives. The elephant population in Thailand has been steadily declining over many years and there are now believed to be less than 2,000 wild elephants. Patara’s philosophy “extinction is forever” was derived from this data and their main goal is to breed healthy elephants. Patara believes in humane breeding (letting it happen naturally rather than forced or artificial insemination) and to date they have had 40 calves born there!
He acknowledged that some people believe it is inhumane to visit elephant camps and that it would indeed be nice if all elephants could live freely and safely in the wild. Unfortunately, this isn’t reality in today’s world. Deforestation means the wild as elephants once knew it doesn’t exist anymore and poachers make it unsafe. The elephants that are safe behind the walls of these huge camps and natural preserves cost lots of money to keep fed and cared for. Tourism is Thailand’s biggest industry and visiting a humane elephant camp is a way to directly contribute your tourist dollars to the cause. For more information about elephant conservation in Thailand, read this.
OK! Now on to the day! We chose the “Elephant Owner for a Day” package which began bright and early with transportation to the farm provided by Patara. We were picked up in a very nice passenger van with great AC and complimentary bottled water. The van picked up one other passenger, a kind women from Atlanta who was traveling solo through Thailand. The drive took about 2 hours up some very steep climbs and our little group of four found ourselves literally in the middle of the jungle.
As soon as we stepped out of the van we were greeted by a beautiful mama elephant, Manoui and her adorable 9 month old, Baby Hanna.
After we had our fill of petting/feeding/playing with the elephants we retired to the hut to learn all about Patara as I mentioned above. We were then given colorful mahout shirts to help the elephants recognize us. Mahouts are the elephants caretakers. Elephants can live 80 to 100 years so they often have two or three mahouts from the same family; a son will become the mahout after his father grows too old and so forth and so on. As you can imagine, after growing up with the elephants and caring for them day in and day out, they develop extremely close bonds.
Once outfitted in our shirts we set off through the jungle to meet our elephants!
After a fairly long walk we came into a clearing and there they were!
Our little group consisted of three female elephants, one of which was Manoui, baby Hanna and a giant bull (male elephant) named Dodo.
We interacted with the elephants a bit more and then sat down for another lesson. This one consisted of elephant caretaking and how to tell if the elephants are healthy. We learned all we ever wanted to know and then some about their bowel habits including how it should feel (dry) and smell (it shouldn’t) and that healthy elephants sweat from their toenails!
We also learned the Thai commands to direct our elephants (think sit, walk and lay down) and the proper way to care for their skin and prevent infection by thoroughly brushing them off and bathing them.
We were then matched with our elephants, supposedly by personality but I think it probably had more to do with size. Haley got the bull, Dodo; Robert was matched with the largest female, Samsee; and I was delighted to be matched with Manoui which meant Hanna followed me around as a bonus!
We got to know our elephants, practicing our commands and feeding them sugar cane. Hanna was hilariously playful and pretty sassy, begging sugar cane from everyone.
Next it was time for a bath! First brushing all the dirt off with palm fronds (elephants throw dirt on themselves to keep cool) and then into the water with our scrub brushes! Elephants love water so they had a ball!
After they were sufficiently clean and dry it was time for a ride. We learned the different ways to mount them and after a few practice attempts, we were all up and riding barebacked (saddles can be painful for them) through the jungle!
We walked about two miles and I was amazed at how sure footed and graceful these giant beings were. Riding through the jungle was so beautiful and surreal, I did my best to soak up every amazing moment.
Towards the end of the ride my legs started to cramp so I was ready to break for lunch when we arrived at a waterfall to do just that. The elephants wandered off to rest and we enjoyed a feast of fried chicken, fruits and pastries laid out on banana leaves in the middle of the jungle!
After lunch we got into the waterfall with our elephants to swim and play!
Once we were all somewhat dry we got back atop our elephants and rode another mile or so up the mountain to meet our van home. Lots of leg hugging and maybe a few tears ensued as we said goodbye. Luckily Patara has a professional photographer follow you around all day and document your experience and the pictures are given to you for free! The discs are given to you upon leaving so knowing I had the wonderful photos to come home to was a pretty great consolation!
When we returned to our hotel we were delighted to find elephant shaped towel animals, an adorable reminder of our wonderful day!
Since it was our last day in Chiang Mai we dined that night at Paak Dang, a riverside restaurant that was fancier than the street food we had been enjoying thus far.
Paak Dang is a delicious restaurant that also aims to give back. Their mission is to change the lives of underprivileged and at risk youth by teaching them the skill set needed to work in a restaurant. On top of this they are also taught basic English and Mandarin, business, management and accounting skills.
The food was outstanding and the service (all of it by young teenagers) was impeccable. I highly recommend Paak Dang if you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai!
With our hearts and bellies full we said goodnight to Chiang Mai and prepared to wake up early for our journey down to the islands! Fist stop; Koh Tao!