An Encounter with Asian Elephants
"Ride an elephant" is on everyone's bucket list, right? And when traveling to Southeast Asia, suddenly that bucket list item becomes a real possibility. The only trouble with this desire is the rampant abuse that plagues elephants (and other exotic animals) in the tourism industry. Knowing this fact, Daniel and I spent a good amount of time researching whether or not there was an ethical way to get up close and personal with these amazing giants during our travels. Luckily, we came across Patara Elephant Farm. And this beautiful sanctuary dedicated to elephants in rehabilitation did not disappoint:
We opted to sign up for Patara's "Half Day Daycare" program - this program included meeting and feeding your elephant, bathing your elephant, cuddling with the babies, and then a 30-minute bareback ride. No bull hooks, heavy saddles, chains or fences were in sight during our time there. After an hour-long car ride from downtown Chiang Mai (prepare for an absurd amount of twists and turns as you ascend the mountain), we arrived at the summit. In front of us: a gorgeous view of the jungle, some wooden huts and patches of dirt, and a herd of grazing elephants.
First, we met everyone that we would be spending the day with - there were 6 of us in our group: a couple from Texas, a couple from Toronto, and the two of us - and we spent some time chatting with them while signing the waivers and other documents. Once the logistics were covered, our guide led us to a beautiful mother-and-son pair. The mother swayed happily in the mountain breeze, flapping her ears and helping herself to a large pile of fruits and grasses. The baby, however, had his eyes on something much more entertaining: us. Our guide had us seat ourself on a small mat so that the eager baby would have time to greet all of us, one-by-one. When I sat down, my greeting was as adorable swipe of his trunk across my face; he even grabbed some of my hair in his trunk and pulled!
When Daniel sat down, though, it was an entirely different story - he trampled him! All 300 pounds of his wrinkly body fell onto Daniel's lap and wouldn't get up. The baby elephant flapped his ears and swayed back and forth on Daniel's lap; he was as happy as any lap dog. We socialized with the baby for nearly an hour as our guide gave us information regarding the elephants' lifestyle. The flapping ears, he told us, were used to cool the elephant off - but they also were an insight into the elephant's happiness. If their ears flapped regularly, the elephant is content. The best moment came when he picked up a piece of the mom's poop to show us - he even broke it open and showed us the colors and textures to look for when performing health checks. Gross, but informational.
After learning about the elephant species, we were introduced to "our" elephant for the day. Each elephant has a mahout (rider) that they are bonded to - that mahouts came, one-by-one, to take us to our elephants. Daniel was led to a female elephant named Bon Jun. By her side, an 8-month baby named Aree was causing mischief. I was taken to the biggest, oldest male elephant they had (they said it was because he was "gentlest" and "well-manned" - which he was!) The 33-year-old Nanalu had giant tusks and the head of a dinosaur. For a time, we "bonded" with our elephant; our mahout taught us different Thai commands (they included 'open' so you could throw bananas and bamboo into their mouths, and the Thai equivalent for 'good boy' or 'good girl.')
These creatures are huge. I came up to the top of Nanalu's leg. When he opened his mouth for me to throw the bananas into, his trunk reached 20 feet into the air (I had to watch out for those tusks though!) His ancient, wrinkley skin surrounded gentle, understanding eyes. I fell in love almost instantly.
After I had emptied the bowl of fruit and bamboo into our Nanalu's mouth, my mahout (who barely spoke English) motioned for me to follow him and Nanalu down the mountainside. When we rounded the dusty bend, I saw a large spring at the wake of a thundering waterfall. Surrounded by just jungle, water and loads of elephants - I rolled my pants up, and followed Nanalu into the spring! Almost immediately, Nanalu lowered his massive body into the water with a sigh and used his trunk to flip some water onto his back (and me.) My mahout handed me a brush and a bucket, and I got to work pouring water over Nanalu's body and using the brush to get some of the grass and dirt off of him. Even while he was laying down, I couldn't reach the top of Nanalu's shoulder. He was so relaxed during his bath, I felt bad when bath time was over! Large and lumbering, the elephants followed their trusted mahouts out of the watering hole. There was one point when I got caught in the middle of the herd of elephants - a mahout just one elephant over yelled at me and told me not to move so that they could gracefully go around me. I had a bit of a flashback to Lion King (Simba stuck in the middle of all of those wildebeest), but I also couldn't help but be in awe as the elephants brushed past me on all sides.
Back at the summit of the mountain, we gathered in a circle (our mahouts and elephants hanging back) as our guide showed us how to mount. For the comfort of these magnificent creatures, there were no carriages attached to their backs, and no ladders leading up to that carriage. Instead, there were two ways to mount: our elephant could lift his leg while we're standing on his knee and, when above his shoulder, we would then pull ourselves up. Or we could stand in the crook of the elephant's trunk and the elephant would lift us up and over his head (we'd then be backward on the elephant's back, so we'd have to do a quick turn before the ride began.) I opted for the first way, and I stood on Nanalu's knee, waiting for my mahout to give him the command that would lift me to his shoulder. With the help from Nanalu and a little extra help from my mahout (pushing the bottom of my feet to give me a boost), I mustered the upper-body strength I didn't know I had and found myself sitting in the crook of Nanalu's neck. With nothing to hold onto except his knobby head, I sat up straight and readied myself for the trail ride!
Daniel and I were the last to mount and the others in our group had already disappeared into the trees. Once on our elephants, little Arnee led the way with Bon Jun and Nanalu walking along behind him. Our mahouts trailed alongside us, taking pictures of us with our camera and chatting with each other in Thai.
After mounting Nanalu, I thought the worst was over. But don't be fooled, because riding an elephant bareback is hard work. With each step he took, his massive shoulders went up, then down, then up, then down. I had to use a lot of lower-body strength to cling to his neck, but then a my upper-body strength to hold myself steady during each lumbering step. But I got the hang of it, and eventually I felt myself relax into Nanalu's gait. For 1/2 hour, we walked steadily along the mountain trail. Trees, mountain views, and a naughty baby elephant wandering off the trail - can you imagine a better hike? I let go of my fears (falling from Nanalu's back was a long way to fall) and let myself take in the euphoria of the moment. Though my body was thoroughly exhausted just 1/2 hour later, it was an experience I will never forget.
- Patara has a photographer that takes videos and photos of the event - but feel free to bring your own camera and/or GoPro. We brought all of the above.
- The driver that picked us up at our hotel and then returned us there was a little crazy. You have been forewarned!
- Though there are ways to interact with elephants humanely in Thailand, there really is no way to interact with tigers humanely. Places like "Tiger Kingdom" have their tigers constantly chained and drugged. If you want to interact with exotic animals in Thailand, check out Patara.
- Each elephant at Patara interacts with one human (other than their mahout) a day. This is a huge difference when comparing their lives to the lives of those elephants forced to carry tourist after tourist in the hot Thailand sun.