The pictures I’ve posted of me and the elephants received a lot of attention, so I figured I would write a post about it (since this post is image heavy, I made the pictures smaller. Click on them to see full size!)
Up in Chiang Mai there are many available options for trekking and wildlife interaction. There is the Tiger Kingdom where you pay to have your picture taken and pet some tigers (babies or adults). I have heard various reports that it’s either great, or it is very exploitative of the tigers, some people even thinking that they mildly sedate the tigers in order to keep them calm. The treks available usually include a hike up a mountain, an elephant ride, bamboo rafting, and a trip to a tribal village. Again, I felt like some of this seemed like it was exploiting either the people or animals, and I heard the hikes are straight up a mountain, no switchbacks. No thanks.
After doing a little research, I decided to book a day trip to the Patara Elephant Farm. It was the most expensive option, which doesn’t make much sense for a budget backpacker, but when it comes to the welfare of animals,
I’m willing to pay a little more money to make sure I’m not supporting an organization that mistreats their animals. Patara Elephant Farm is actually a breeding camp with a goal to aid in the repopulation of elephants in Thailand. In order to help finance their organization, they have the “Elephant Owner for a Day” program where they teach tourists about the history of elephants in Thailand, general care and upkeep, how to ride elephants, and a few key Thai phrases (that the elephants may or may not respond to). It’s a totally hands on experience where you (with the help of that elephants trainer) are responsible for taking care of your elephant.
Pat, the owner, is incredibly knowledgeable and makes learning about these
creatures interesting and fun. After a 30 min. intro, you are given a basket of fruit and led to meet your elephant. As you approach you yell out your elephants name (Nui was my elephant) and say, “CHA!”. The elephant trumpets back to you, and that is apparently the elephants way of saying you can approach. I think they’ll let anyone approach if they see that basket of fruit.
After the feeding, we checked the wellness of the elephant, brushed the dirt off, and led our elephants to the creek for a bath. It’s a little bit of work since elephants have quite a lot of surface area, but it was fun watching the elephants roll around in the water.
The morning routine takes about an hour and a half, and then we were f
ed a delicious snack – coconut and sticky rice – because like the elephants, we were working hard too! Then they showed us how to get on the elephant to prepare for our ride up the mountain. There are three ways: have the elephant lay down and climb up from the back; hoist yourself up from the elephants raised leg; or climb up the trunk. We were required to try two of the three during our adventure, and I was not graceful doing either.
Getting used to sitting on the elephant was difficult, because there is nothing to hold on to, besides elephant ears. You control the movement of the elephant by kicking their ears (like horseback riding, kind of) and yelling a few different commands that we wrote on our wrists to remember. Thai elephants don’t understand English. They don’t really pay attention to Thai words either, as my elephant Nui would always stop to eat (ALWAYS) and my constant yelling of, “Pai! Nui, Pai! Yana!” (Go! Nui, Go! Bad!) didn’t seem to do any good.
After clambering to the top of Nui, my elephant, and getting used to feeling
like I was going to fall off, our group of 12 set off for our elephant trek. They warned us before we started that this might be the most difficult elephant trek in Thailand. I thought they were kidding. The incline of this “hill” was near vertical at points, with a totally eroded path and sometimes nothing but stones for the elephant to step on. We meandered up and down cliffs on paths that were smaller than the elephant, up steps that were a couple feet high, and down some serious drops and across creeks. All without ANYTHING to hold on to. Eventually you learn to trust your elephant (well, most people learn to trust, others have serious trust issues that they probably need to work out with someone other than an elephant) and you realize that they are more surefooted than you will ever be.
At the end of the trail is a small waterfall and a little pond. Time for a delicious lunch of more kinds of sticky rice than you can ever imagine, all wrapped very eco-friendly in banana leaves. What do you do with the leftover food and wrappers? Feed it to the elephants, of course.
We also got into the water on our elephants (they advertise swimming with elephants in the brochure, I just didn’t think the elephants would be swimming while we tried to stay on). Elephants love to lay down in the water, sideways, and roll back and forth. With you on top, or again, trying to stay on top. It’s like a bizarre version of bull riding, and again, not a graceful activity. But it sure is a heck of a lot of fun, as long as you make sure to keep your leg from getting trapped underneath the elephant.
Finally, you learn another riding method, legs over the front of the elephants
head. Nicer on your knees, but scarier in terms of stability issues. One more ride through a river and along rice paddies, and your day owning an elephant is over. It’s one of the most fun experiences I’ve had traveling, and this entire (long) post can’t even do it justice. If you are ever in Chiang Mai, I would highly recommend that you spend the money (about $200) and learn about the amazing elephants of Thailand.
Check out http://www.pataraelelphantfarm.com or go to TripAdvisor and search for it (It’s the number one attraction in Chiang Mai!)