Almost as soon as we booked our plane tickets to Thailand, I started looking into where to do an elephant experience. There are lots of places to interact with elephants, some ethical and many not, but if you do any searching online at all, Patara Elephant Farm will start showing up. And it is easy to see why. From what I learned in my research, most elephant farms take in abused elephants who were treatly badly by previous owners and they provide safe, comfortable care for them. Patara does that too, but that isn't their main objective like it is for most places. Patara is more concerned about the fact that in the 70's or 80's there were something like 6,000 elephants in Thailand and today there are only 3,000. So Patara's efforts are focused on healthy elephants who can breed. From what we were told (and if I understood correctly), all 7 elephants born in Thailand this year were born at Patara Elephant Farm. It sounds harsh, but our guide explained that the older, abused elephants are going to die, no matter how comfortable the end of their life is, so Patara will help them recuperate and then send them to another elephant center that focuses on taking care of them while Patara keeps those that have potential to become parents. And then there are the unethical elephant places that let tourists ride in big, heavy rigs fitted onto elephants' backs, two or three people at a time, which even though they are huge animals, causes damage to the elephants' spines which were not built to carry additional load there. Or places that have tourists teaching elephants circus tricks but that don't care for the elephants properly (which are a source of many of the abused elephants that get rescued by one of the ethical elephant centers).
Patara takes care of something like 80+ elephants but they only take about 15 visitors a day. We booked our spots months in advance (like 5 or 6 months in advance) and I'm so glad because our friends are going to Thailand and they tried booking about 2 months in advance and couldn't get a spot for 9 days straight (they were willing to structure their whole trip around a chance to go to Patara and still couldn't get in to the full-day program). Patara does offer an "elephant daycare" program that is a little bit different and shorter, just in case anybody reading this ends up looking into it and that is what our friends decided to do since they couldn't get a full-day spot. Anyway, each visitor gets matched with one elephant and are considered that elephants "caretaker for a day". The tourist side of that is that there is also a Patara guide with every elephant all day long too, helping you complete your tasks, which was really great for us since we had the girls, who were the only kids there that day. Incidentally, I initially found Patara through some blogs of families with children who travel around the world and had been to Patara and talked about what an amazing educational experience it was.
A whole village supports these elephants and works with them and has essentially dedicated their lives to caring for them in some capacity. We were picked up in the morning from our hotel at 8:00 a.m. and drove about 45 minutes into the mountains around Chiang Mai to the main staging area for the day. There we had about 30 minutes or so where we got to meet a 9-day old elephant and his mom and a 2-month old and a 4-year old sibling set with their mom. It was really unstructured time and everybody got to just go right up to the babies and play with them and pet them and feel their wiry hairs that cover their bodies and thick, wrinkled skin and soft ears.
I never knew how playful elephants were until we saw the 2-month old wrestling with a Patara caretaker who clearly loves him. Then some of the guys in the group got right down on the ground to play with the 2-month old who would sit on them or rest his trunk or head on their shoulders. I don't even know how to explain what it felt like to watch that - it's like floating on a cloud just remembering how amazing that experience was. Clara learned firsthand how playful a baby can be when she was right in front of the 9-day old talking to him and stroking his trunk. She put her head down right on eye-level with him and was cooing at him when he bumped her right over onto her bottom. Clara was so surprised to find herself on her bum and we started laughing because it was just so funny that she had been headbutted by a 9-day old elephant and she got up, brushed herself off, and laughed with us. Honestly, normally something like that would have had Clara in tears, so seeing her be able to laugh about it says a lot about what the experience was like for her.
My very favorite thing of all though was how the baby elephant would use his trunk and wrap it around your hand and squeeze, just like a human baby will wrap her fist around an adults finger and hold on tight. I seriously thought my heart would burst. And look at all that hair on the baby! Just like a newborn human looks fuzzy! (at least ours did, lol) Oh, and for the record, it took Rose a little while to warm up to the elephants. She wanted to be held very close all morning and it really wasn't until we started feeding them that Rose started smiling and getting into things, but it's not so much that she seemed afraid as intimidated and just in need of assurance and protection from mom & dad.
The wooden bracelets around the momma elephants front legs below serve a specific purpose. She is so big and her 9-day old is so small that he is having a hard time reaching her milk supply. In the wild that baby would die but Patara came up with these bracelets that the baby uses at as a step stool to reach his mom's milk and latch on. And once he is a little bit bigger they will stop using them. It was really cool to see him figure out how to step up though and get his breakfast.
This is the other mom we met during the introduction period - the one with a 4-year old and 2-month old. The Patara people said that the 4-year old would normally be weaned by now but with the new baby the mom's milk supply is extra rich so they have been having to distract the 4-year old to make sure the baby gets enough to eat. And they laughed and said that at 2-months, the baby has already grown big enough to push the older sibling out of the way a bit and make sure it gets its fill too.
After that magical time with the babies and their moms, we were lead to a covered gazebo and given woven shirts to wear over our clothes. They were actually really cool shirts that were woven by the wives and girlfriends in the village and were helpful in keeping us a little bit clean while working with the elephants. I also read something about how they help the elephants who recognize their workers who are there everyday and it makes them more comfortable seeing the same shirts on the visitors who change everyday. Who knows whether that is true or not but it is a nice sentiment. We were given plenty of water to drink and listened to one of the owners at Patara talk for 30 minutes or so about their purpose and efforts to help the elephants and what our role was in that. He talked about how to tell if an elephant is healthy by observing whether it has tear streaks from both eyes (healthy) and sweats around its nailbeds (another sign of health). He told us to look for an elephant that is flapping its earflaps a couple times a minute because that means she is happy and relaxed. Some of this got a little long for the girls but when the speaker started losing Clara's attention he was really good about being flexible and getting Clara involved as a helper, which was sweet since our girls were the only kids there. Patara clearly knows how to engage children and this was a totally child-friendly experience even if only mostly adults get to do it.
After that we were taken to meet our elephants. They explained that each person would be assigned an elephant based on personality, which mostly meant that the two older women in our group (not old but probably late 50's) were given more docile elephants, the young engaged couple got bigger, more energetic elephants, Rose and I got Tokae, a 20-year old female who is 8-months pregnant with her first baby, and Paul and Clara were assigned to Mehmai and Nahpah - a 24-year old mom and her 5-month old baby.
Then we got to feed our elephants, which was incredible. The command is "bon" (like bon-bon) which means to open up and then you put a banana (skin and all) right into their mouths (not the baby - she was still to little for bananas). Or a stick of sugarcane. I sort of thought that we would put it in their trunks, but nope, you stick your hand right there into their mouths and it is awesome. Each person was given a basket of food and taken to a separate area in a meadowy sort of area where their elephant was waiting. After the elephant takes a piece of food you say "didi", which means "good job". Rose got really into this and would laugh and laugh everytime Tokae would open up and munch down on some sugar cane or banana and then giggle and repeat "didi" with me. That's saying something because Rose can't say many words at all, but she definitely got "didi". The Patara photographer would just roam around with a telephoto lens and take pictures, which is how we have all these shots (many of which aren't in focus, but it's certainly better than nothing, which is what I would have had because pulling myself away from the action to take a picture would have been just too hard!).
After the elephants had their snack, we went back to a covered gazebo area and did a little more education, including analyzing elephant poo to tell whether they are healthy. We had to smell it (it just smells like grass - not bad or anything) and check that it was fibrous to know whether they had any digestive issues. And one guy in our group, Jack (the honeymooner from Englad who was there with his wife Elisa on their 8-month trip through southeast asia), was asked to squeeze it to see how much moisture was in the dung. It was gross but fascinating. And it was a good break from the sensory overload for the girls to wash hands, sit in the shade and have a snack of their own.
The next order of business was to brush the dirt off the elephants, which is another indicator of health because they sleep lying down and should have dirt on both sides, and they throw dirt on themselves to protect themselves from the sun. We were given big bunches of leaves and told to really whack the elephants because the brushing is also good for their skin. Clara had her own little bunch of leaves and took care of Nahpah.
Then it was off to hose down the elephants a bit before trekking through the jungle. Mehmai enjoyed when Paul would point the hose right into her trunk so she could get a drink.
Before riding the elephants, we put mahout pants on over our shorts to protect our legs from the bristly hairs since we were riding bareback on the elephants necks, which doesn't harm the elephants. The girls were so darling in their pullovers and baggy pants. I wish I had more pictures of them dressed like this.
There were two ways to mount the elephants. One was to climb up their trunks and over their heads and the other was by getting a boost from the elephant by standing on their front knee, which they bend for you (it is a learned behavior that most of them were trained to do before they ever arrived at Patara). We used the knee method to mount, but just slid down the trunk to get off. I was probably most worried about this part of the experience. That the girls would freak out, that Rose wouldn't want to stay put in front of me, that it would be scary or hard (lots of people complained about how physically taxing it was to ride the elephant because you have to grip behind their ears with your knees to stay on and hold on to a rope behind you, leaning forward or backwards when going up and down the mountainside at scarily steep inclines. But honestly, I didn't think it was bad at all. I was a little saddlesore after an hour of riding and my inner thighs certainly felt wobbly from use, but it wasn't as bad as I had been afraid it would be. And the girls were awesome. Rose immediately went from being stand-offish to having a huge smile stretched across her face once she was up in my arms sitting on the head of the elephant with her little feet draped across Tokae's forehead. Clara's reaction was a little more subdued and she showed some apprehension at first, but that went away quickly as we started trekking through the jungle.
We were only about 2 minutes into our ride, which lasted about an hour, when Rose completely passed out in my arms. She slept the whole way, lulled by the constant rolling motion and my arm around her, and didn't even wake when I would heave her back up into my lap since she kept slipping forward on the downhill sections. My arms were the only part of my body that was really killing me by the end of the ride, even though I switched them a couple of times to give the arm holding Rose a break. When we eventually stopped, she slid right down to the arms of a Patara worker and kept on snoozing on his shoulder until I could dismount. All 8 of us started out in a group on 6 elephants but my elephant and the elephant Elisa (the honeymooner) was on both wanted to take the lead and would not be held back. Paul's elephant hung back and let her baby wander off into the trees quite a bit so they pulled up the rear. After about an hour, we dismounted and had a snack of incredibly delicious black sticky rice (seriously, it was amazing and topped with some kind of squishy coconut peel thing and I have GOT to figure out how to make it) in banana leaf pyramids and pineapple before it was time to put on bathing suits and give the elephants a proper bath in a pool below a waterfall.
To get their bath, the elephants laid down in a pool of water created by a little dam in the river below a small waterfall. Then we climbed up to scrub their heads and backs first before they rolled onto their sides, one at a time. They clearly love the water and seemed so happy to be scrubbed with the hard, bristly brushes which we were told was good for their skin because apparently even though it is thick elephants need constant skin care to maintain proper health. We also splashed them with bucketfuls of water, which they loved. Clara was good about helping brush Nahpah and throwing water on her, but Rose didn't want much to do with the process and was much happier standing off to the side. I think a big part of that was that she often wakes up grumpy from her afternoon nap and was hungry, but at least she wasn't screaming or whining to get out of the water, even if she didn't love the washing part. Clara and Paul even found out that elephants are ticklish because whenever they would scrub Nahpah's feet she would pull away, only to give them her foot back to be tickled again.
I adore this picture with Tokae and Rose. Tokae looks like she is smiling after her bath. So glad the Patara photographer captured this one.
I was telling Tokae "didi, Tokae, didi" - good job, Tokae, good job.
Then at the end they had all the elephants step over the dam so that we could splash water up onto their backs and get a group pose. Having seen this already on blog posts, I knew what was coming but I didn't tell Paul or Clara that we were all about to get sprayed back by the elephants. It was pretty hilarious, even though I knew it was coming, although that was when Rose decided she was ready to get out of the water.
After drying off and changing (wish I had known beforehand to bring a towel), we had the most delicious lunch spread out on banana leaves in a little hut built up on the side of the mountain overlooking the pool below. There was cold fried chicken (delicious), pork satay, fried bananas, dragonfruit (best I had on the trip - often it was kind of on the bland side, sort of like bland kiwi, but this was excellent dragonfruit), oranges, bananas, two kinds of sticky rice, and a bunch of Thai finger foods, some sweet and some savory (I have no idea what any of them were called). We were all so stuffed after gorging ourselves on the food and it seemed like we hardly made a dent in it. After we had finished eating but while we were still in the picnic area, the other group came through to wash their elephants in the river (the original 15 or 16 people had been split into two groups). One of the elephants knew exactly what to do and she made a break for out hut on the hillside and used her trunk to feel around while we all squealed until she saw that pile of bananas next to Paul's feet in this photo, which hadn't been eaten, and swiped them into her mouth with her trunk. It was hilarious and awesome to just see her trunk exploring in search of food and we were all dying over it. The elephants eat any leftovers, including the banana leaves (although I don't think they get the chicken), so at least the food didn't go to waste. I would say that this was my 3rd favorite meal of our trip (#1 being in Krabi on a boat and #2 being in Cambodia on the way back from Beng Melea).
After that we had a short 10 minute or so ride on the elephants (Rose stayed awake for this one) to take them back to where they would be turned loose for the rest of the day.
While we waited for our driver to take us back to our hotel, we had a beautiful view of some of the gardens where they grow strawberries right next to rice, papaya, mango, lettuce, bananas, and onions. All in this one little space. It was beautiful. Then we were driven back to our hotel and arrived around 4:30.