Chiang Mai 2012: Patara Elephant Farm (Day 3)

On our third day, we visited Patara Elephant Farm, which is the one activity I looked forward the most in Chiang Mai. It wasn’t cheap, we paid 5,800 baht for a full day of interacting and taking care of the elephants, but I also feel the money was well-justified seeing how all of the elephants were roaming free in a spacious meadow, well-cared for, and just from the sheer amount of food they eat in one day I’m sure they are not cheap to care for.

Day 3 – April 27, 2012

A driver from Patara picked us up at our hotel at 7:30am. From there, we fetched a few more groups and drove to the farm, which is located about an hour drive away from the city and up in the mountains (this means cooler weather!). I slept through the entire ride but woke up just in time as we were driving into the farm. I spotted a few elephants grazing around the meadow and woke everyone else up in excitement.

We were lead to the briefing area, an outdoor wood hut with a few wooden benches, where there were already about 30-something people sitting around. We were later split into four groups of 8-10 people and never saw the other groups again for the rest of the day. Within the vicinity of the hut, there were also two small baby elephants, one only slightly bigger than the other, with their respective mothers. Everyone was super excited because both of them were extremely playful and curious.

We met the owner of Patara Elephant Farm, Pat, who talked about the history of the farm. Pat claims to not be an elephant lover any more than the rest of us, but he started off rescuing one female elephant about 20 years ago and have successfully brought more in since then.

He informed of us of the alarming rate the Thai elephant population have decreased over the past decade – they nearly halved their population in just ten years, due to threats from us human beings (poaching and poisoning due to their destructive nature to farmers) and lack of natural space for them to live. However, on the more positive side, Pat revealed that last year and this year is an exciting time for them, due to the two babies who were born healthy, as well as a few other female elephants who are expecting next year!

I was a bit distracted throughout the briefing because the two curious baby elephants, who seem to be inseparable from each other, would come into our hut and playfully nudge us with their not-so-small head and inspect us with their tiny trunks.

That’s Pat in blue shirt being sandwiched by the two babies. The hands pushing the babies are the mahout’s hands, trying to guide them out of the briefing area to stop distracting everyone.

This one demands to be let through. Why, you ask?

Because on the other side a mahout is trying to lure him out, so that he stops distracting our briefing. Danny gave in and let him pass.

Each of us are assigned one elephant per day at Patara. After the briefing, we were instructed to carry these big baskets of elephant food down and meet our elephants. The baskets of food, consisting of chunks of sugar cane and some sort of pumpkin-like fruits, were really big and heavy. We had to walk down a hill and cross a small river to get to the elephant keep, and my arms were hurting by then!

The babies crossed the river with us as well! I’m not sure if you can hear from the video below, but our guide was explaining how the baby was just born in December (so about 4 months old at the time) and wasn’t sure how to do things as an elephants yet. She drank the river water with her mouth instead of with her trunk like usual elephants do. Still learning I guess! :)

We were taught how to inspect our elephants to make sure they are healthy and had a good night sleep. We were also taught how to approach the elephants and see if they accepts us. You do this by approaching them with an arm raised, food in hand, and walking to them from their front as to not startle them. Here is Serena demonstrating how to approach her elephant:

Serena called the elephant’s name, Nui, and she responded (that’s the loud sound you hear in the beginning). If the elephant takes the food from your hands, that means they have accepted you. You have to continue feeding them and making sure they are comfortable with you.

I was assigned to Mari, a 32-year old female elephant rescued from a local circus. She was so gentle and calm that we had no problem getting along throughout the day.

After feeding them, we were instructed to clean the elephants. Because elephants sleep on their sides at night, there are a lot of mud and dirt that needs to be cleaned before they can be bathed. Obviously since these elephants are big, it would be hard to clean them while they are standing up. Elephants are really intelligent animals and can understand several commands so we were taught a command to tell them to crouch down or lay on their sides for cleaning! I was amazed at how quick and responsive they are to these commands!

We then led our elephants into the river and began cleaning them with hard brush and water. It was seriously like cleaning a medium sized car, except the car understands what you’re doing and are watching you!

If you are wondering why there are so many pictures of us, it’s because Patara gave us a DVD full of pictures at the end of the day, all inclusive within the 5,800 baht price tag, so you don’t have to worry about carrying your own cameras.

Here is one of Serena cleaning her elephant, Nui, in style. Nui is a 12 year old female elephant, who was also rescued from a local circus. Nui is a sassy one though, she wasn’t just rescued – she basically ran away in the middle of her circus act, presumably because she decided she won’t put up with it anymore and just up and left. She was described as a playful girl, but has wisened up and is currently one of the mothers expecting a baby this year!

After cleaning the elephants, we went back to our hut to dry off. We were distracted by one of the bigger boys who came into the hut looking for food. I’m with him though, I was also pretty hungry by then!

We were then taught how to ride our elephants, since none of them were equipped with chairs or any sort of support. There were three ways to mount your elephant, and I chose the easiest one :P

Then we took a walk out of the farm, and onto the mountains. It got pretty scary and steep and some points, but the elephants took it well.

After about 20-30 minutes ride, we arrived at an open area with small waterfall. I was most delighted to see that our banana leaf lunch is served and ready to eat!

It was so good that I had THREE of those drum sticks on top of all the sticky rice, dessert and fruits we had. After we were done eating, whatever leftover was given to the elephants – but only the banana leaves and fruits. Elephants can’t eat leftover chicken bones and meat.

We spent some time soaking at the waterfall. You can also opt to bathe with the elephants, but I didn’t feel like getting myself too wet, so we just sat at the side and watched. The elephants were so happy playing around, sprouting water at each other playfully. We were also joined by the two babies and their mothers here.

After about an hour at the waterfall, we went back to the farm the same way we came in – by riding our elephants. The pack of elephants walked in line to the wooden hut.

When we reached the hut, we noticed one of the baby elephants, the smaller one, started making loud panicky noises, which in turn made the rest of the pack go wild with loud noises as well. It turns out the mother had stopped across the river and was separated from the baby. The mother started calling out to the baby and it promptly ran back across the river to be reunited with his mommy. Soooo cute!!!

This boy is dirty again after playing in the mud, but apparently they were smart – the mud act as a sun block for them, and also to ward off bugs that feast on their blood (similar to mosquitoes, but much bigger and scary!)

While we were sitting in the hut resting, we got to observe some elephants interaction with each other. Apparently elephants form friendship outside family relations, just like humans. One of the younger boy is particularly close to another much older male elephant, even though they had only met at Patara. You can often spot them by each other’s side. I find this extremely endearing!

Towards the end of our visit, I was still sitting in the hut and I spotted my elephant Mari as she seemingly spotted me as well. Then she walked fast and straight towards me, stopping only a few feet away. Serena asked if it’s because she remembers me. I’m not entirely sure about that, but it sure seemed like it. I could feel her watching me with her large, human-like eyes. I went up to her, rubbed her trunk and said good bye before she was taken by her mahout back to her living area :(

I left Patara with a heavy heart. I really wanted to spend more time with these gentle giants and one day was definitely not enough. A visit back to Chiang Mai to one of these elephant farms is definitely in the future for me!

On our way out we spotted the two babies again, this time accompanied by three adult elephants walking back to their living area.

Exhausted after a day of taking care of the elephants, we opted for an easy dinner by the river recommended by our hotel again. When we got to the place though, it was closed due to a royal family visit :( so in the end we were dropped off at a touristy restaurant by the Mae Ping river. Upon entering the restaurant, we were asked if we would like to sit on the boat for an extra 300 baht per table. We agreed since the weather was nice and 75 baht per person is really cheap.

Halfway through finishing our dinner, the waiter informed us there will be no more orders after 8. We were confused but thought nothing of it, until they started turning off the lights and revving up the boat’s engine… and then we were off on a surprise cruise! Apparently the 300 baht table includes a 45 minute boat cruise down Mae Ping river! We were pleased by this surprise. It was a nice, memorable way to end the day!

Next up, is our ziplining adventure through the jungles of Chiang Mai.

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