The name, Thailand is synonymous with palmtrees, beautiful beaches, and elephants. The first two items can be found everywhere in Thailand but the latter, elephants, are becoming less and less ubiquitous. When a tourists visit Thailand one of the main things they want to do is see and ride an elephant; we were no exception. Our first time to Asia, we made it a priority to visit an elephant farm and ride an elephant. What we didn’t know until after visiting Patara Elephant Farm is how badly some of these elephants are treated. Let’s start with a little history.
Polishing my elephant’s tusks with sand from the river bottom
Why are there so many elephants?
Up until 30-40 years ago, elephants were a basic part of life in Thailand. They were used for transportation and farming in most parts of the country. That’s right, transportation, many families would use their “pet” elephant as their “car”. Most farming families had at least one elephant and some had more. This elephant was part of the family receiving proper care and daily feedings. Due to the work load, the elephant received daily exercise and walks which kept the elephant active. With the introduction of tractors and cars, elephants lost their jobs. This led to a surplus of elephants in the country. For those of you who haven’t taken care of an elephant, they are a BIG responsibility. Elephants can spend 12-18 hours a day feeding, eating 200 to 600 pounds of food per day, and drinking up to 50 gallons of water. The cost to feed an elephant became overwhelming for all the Thai farmers, so the elephants were let free. This is why there are old stories of elephants walking the streets of Bangkok. Now, all of the elephants have been moved out of the cities to sanctuaries like Patara Elephant Farm.
Collette Feeding her Elephant
Feeding my elephant. Rather intimidating with his tusk resting on my shoulder
Things to for in Elephant Parks
Not all elephant parks are the same. There are many BAD elephant parks that abuse and mistreat elephants. To help you choose the best one look for some of these things.
Riding Bareback – Elephant’s are very strong and they were excellent workers when it came to pulling logs or farming. However, their bodies aren’t built to carry heavy loads on their back and shoulders. The wooden seat many camps use isn’t good for the elephants and can harm the elephant. At any good farm like Patara Elephant Farm, they only let you ride bareback on the elephants head.
Bonding Time – At Patara Elephant Farm, they have a Mahout assigned to the elephant. This Mahout works with the elephant up to 18 hours a day. This close bond not only helps the elephant relax and be comfortable but also makes it safer for riders. At Patara you also get plenty of one-on-one time with your elephant to create a bond through feeding and cleaning. This bonding experience allows you to build some trust and become comfortable with your elephant.
Circus Shows – None of the activities done in the circus shows, soccer, painting, or standing on two feet is good for the elephants. While it may seem exciting to see, many of these activities aren’t beneficial for the elephants’ physical or mental health.
The Patara Elephant Farm Experience
At Patara Elephant Farm you are an elephant owner for a day. Your day starts with feeding the elephants a combination of sugar cane and bananas. This intimate and messy feeding experience is rather intimidating feeding a 12 foot tall giant by hand. My elephant found it necessary to rest his heavy tusks on my shoulders while I fed him.
Smelling elephant dung – poop.
After the elephant has finished breakfast, it’s time to clean them. This is done in two steps, first you brush all the dirt off with a straw broom. After that, it’s time to take a bath. This is the highlight of the day. The entire group of elephants and people jump into the river to bathe the elephants. Here you get to scrub your elephant with a brush from head to toe. It can be a tiring experience if you have one of the bigger elephants. Collette’s elephant just wanted to play. While she was trying to scrub the elephant, he continued to roll around in the water, splashing and spraying everyone like a little kid.
Scrubbing my elephant in the river
Baby elephant wrestling – One of the funniest moments of all of our travels was at Patara Elephant Farm. A baby elephant wanted to wrestle one of other members in our group. The baby pushed him down in some shallow water and continuously headbutted the guy in his chest (softly). Everytime the guy tried to get up, the baby would push him back down. As an onlooker we couldn’t help but laugh at the situation as the baby was playing like a big Saint Bernard. After a few moments, the baby then wanted to wrestle me. The elephant would charge me and I would shove back. (picture wrestling with a large dog) Then he would turn around and act like he was walking away to only turn around and try it again. The hilariousness was how big the baby was but he tried to be sneaky with his attacks. The human characteristics of this baby elephant were humorous and enlightening. It was fascinating to see how animals like to play exactly like humans do.
After playing and washing the elephants it was time to go for a ride. We rode the elephants through the surrounding forest and rivers to lunch. The elephants were taken to another location for their second feeding of the day while we enjoyed a wonderful Thai lunch. Once finished, the elephants announced their return with some loud trumpeting. The remboucious baby ran to our lunch table to grab any leftover food. While sitting at the table his long trunk reached across our plates to grab some of the remaining fruit. The guides tried to clean up the mess before any other elephants could get to the food.
Enjoying our Thai lunch in the country side
After lunch, we rode the elephants back to the main entrance and said our final goodbyes to our new friends. After a few more photos with our elephants, we hopped in a car back to Chiang Mai.
Photos – Another great thing with Patara Elephant Farm is they take photos of you throughout the day for free. At the end of the day we all received CDs with our photos on it.
Riding my Elephant through the river