Patara Elephant Farm

I first heard about Patara Elephant Farm from an episode of Samantha Brown. I have been a huge fan of her and her travel shows for years! When I learned I’d be moving to Asia, I downloaded all of the “Samantha Brown: Asia” episodes I could find. Close to the Hong Kong airport, I hoped I would be able to travel around the continent easily (much more so than living in Florida). I could use the episodes as research and information when planning my own adventures. Well, I’m happy to report that this time, the Thailand episode came in handy. While in Thailand, Sam (yes, we’re on a first name basis) went to Chiang Mai. My friends and I were planning on traveling there as well, so I went to work “researching” things to do there and watched the episode (again). One of the places Sam went to was Patara. It looked positively amazing. A place where you could “own” an elephant for the day? Feed it? Bathe it? Ride it? Uh, yeah! Where do I sign up?

Amazingly, I was able to convince my friends that we had to do this. I emailed Pat, the owner of Patara. He emailed me back within a day. We booked a day for my friends and I to be elephant owners.

Early on Thursday morning, a van pulled up to our hotel. The plan was to pick up some other “owners” on the two hour drive to the farm. The drive was long, winding up the hills. At this point, I was hoping it was worth the drive and the nausea from the curvy road. Once we arrived to a clearing, we immediately saw a group of elephants, including a four week old elephant. I was thinking that perhaps they would tell us not to approach the elephants or to stand within a certain area, but nope. We were allowed to pet and feed the elephants from the moment we jumped out of the van. In total, there were 16 “owners” for the day, so we were split into two groups. Our group was with a gentleman named Jack (Pat was out of town looking at an elephant that may join the farm). He shared some facts about the farm before taking us to meet our elephants. We learned that the farm housed 66 elephants that were either rescued or retired from various careers (circuses, exploitation on the street, working on farms). Caretakers are in charge of particular elephants to make sure they are adjusting to their new life and healthy. Some elephants adjust quickly, others take time to understand that they’re basically free and to heal.

Before we got to meet our elephants, Jack took us on a 10 minute walk after having us put on our mahout (the word for caretaker) outfits…they’re actually pretty comfortable and I feel like we really rocked the look. Soon, we came to an area that had elephants of all different sizes. It was breathtaking to see these elephants, each with his or her own personalities. It was odd to be surrounded by such beasts…I’ve got a love/hate relationship with horses: they are spirited and can sense your fear, you don’t know what they will do, make you tense at times. But being amongst these beasts, I never felt as though one would go berserk or put me in danger.

Jack then introduced us to our elephants. I jokingly said I wanted the biggest elephant there…he turned me towards a very tall, very large elephant. His tusks were ginormous. And the first thought that went through my mind (and I’m so sorry to my mom because I know she’s reading this and cringing from my very unlady like language and I apologize to my readers with sensitive ears, but I really want you to know what I was thinking): “Wow, that’s one huge motherfucking elephant”. Jack said, “That’s your elephant; his name is Dodo.” My heart stopped, not because of Dodo’s size, but because Samantha Brown was given the exact same elephant the day she came to Patara. I took that as a sign that I was following the right path in my life and so I waltzed up to the kid (alright, he was about twenty) standing next to Dodo. I introduced myself, and before I knew it, I was feeding the largest elephant in the group.

So, here are some things we learned about elephants and elephant caretaking: each elephants is fed about 250g of food a day. You should check your elephant’s poop daily since it will give you signs as to whether or not your elephant is healthy; oh, and elephants should poop, on average, about every six hours. We then learned some basic commands (none of which I can spell correctly because they are in Thai). For example, you can tell your elephant “good job” by saying “didi”. Go sounds like bye; stop sounds like how; and to tell the elephant to back up you say tong.

After feeding my boy (the elephant, not the twenty year old mahout helping me out for the day), I was shown how to brush the dirt of Dodo’s back. First, he had to lie down (he’s a tall fella). Then, I beat him with a bouquet of leaves. Dirt was flying, but I didn’t care, because I owned this elephant and it’s not everyday you get to brush dirt of an elephant’s back.

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Next, I escorted Dodo to the nearby stream (sans my sweet mahout outfit—I was wearing a bathing suit) so I could bathe him. As I scrubbed his back and behind his flapping ears (a sign he was happy), balls of poop from other bathing elephants floated by, but I didn’t let that phase me (you know, the whole idea of poop in the same stream you are standing barefoot in) at the time. All the mahouts (the real ones) then lined up all of the elephants and we took group photos in front of the clean elephants.

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Now, you are probably looking at my face in the above photo asking yourself, “Hmm, I wonder what Heather is thinking?” Allow me to try to share my thoughts…I was thinking, “OMG, this water is now being sprayed on me—while my mouth is open from laughing. This water is the same water that had elephant poop in it (probably pee, too)…and now it has been sucked up and blown out of an elephant’s trunk…which is its nose so it’s like elephant snot now. This is so gross, but so much fun!”

Following our “shower”, it was time to jump onto the backs of the elephants. We were showed how and I was hoping we could just all go at once, but no such luck. I was up first, and you have seen how large Dodo is, so I knew it was going to be quite the spectacle. First of all, my legs are short and I have no upper body strength at all. So the whole of idea of me climbing (because that’s what it was) on to the top of this beast was really humorous. I told my guy to just push me up there, but no, I was left to struggle to the top on my own.

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Looks like Dodo is laughing at me in this photo.

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Almost there…

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Once atop Dodo, I was told to slide down to his neck, right behind his ears, because it is more comfortable for elephants. I watched the others gracefully get onto their elephants and then we were off. We rode for about twenty to thirty minutes, through the stream and bushes. I have to say, it was comfortable…once I got over the image in my head of me toppling over the top of Dodo. I rode Dodo to where we would enjoy a feast for lunch (included in the day’s cost).

The group dined on Thai classics you could eat with your hands as we watched our elephants play in the pond and wander around, free to roam where they pleased. The mahouts called over our elephants about half an hour later, and we all watched as the elephants enjoyed what was left of our meal. It was simply awesome. But the fun was soon over because we needed to bathe the pachyderms again (some had decided to toss some dirt onto their backs).

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Dodo sank into the pond and I started to scrub him, but it was hard since the pond was a bit deeper than the stream. So my mahout told me to climb onto Dodo’s back. Ha…it was a bit tough with the water on his back. At one point, I was sitting on Dodo’s back, leaning over to try to scrub in one particular spot…and before I knew it, my feet were flying in the air as I toppled over into the pond. I can only imagine the sight, and I’m grateful it was not caught on camera.

Once bath #2 time was over, I climbed onto Dodo again and he took me to the top of the hill, where we were told to change out of our swimsuits since our day was almost over. We donned the mahout uniforms one more time and were told to climb aboard our elephants one more time…for our last ride. Getting atop Dodo this time was easier than the first time, I have to say.

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Our last ride was about thirty minutes uphill. I was comfortable riding Dodo by now; I guess you can say we formed sort of a bond (I bet he does that with all of his owners). Dodo took me to my van, and as I slid down, I took a moment to truly look into his eye. I saw peace and hope…something we’re all looking for. The day ended too quickly and I was sad to say goodbye, but knew that the experience I had was beyond anything I could have hoped for.

Bon Appetite!

Silom Cooking School

I am not a chef by any means. Yes, I don’t mind experimenting occasionally, and I do love baking…but I wouldn’t say I’m a “great” in the kitchen. That’s why, when one of my friends suggested taking a cooking class while we were in Thailand, I jumped on board.

After an already long day (floating markets, tigers…Grand Palace), we located the Silom Cooking School in a narrow back alley somewhere in Bangkok. I will admit, I was a bit hesitant at that point, when we were navigating to find the exact location. But despite the shady surroundings, we went on up to the third floor of the building the school was located in.

A couple of local women welcomed us and showed us into a small dining room with three tables. The four of us sat at a table in the back of the room. We were all exhausted. For me, I wasn’t sure how I was going to stay awake during the lessons. The four of us, along with three other “students”, were taken into another room where we were instructed to sit on the floor. We surrounded our “teacher”, or master chef. She sat in the middle of our half circle with vibrant colored food. She discussed important ingredients in Thai food…lemongrass, various chilies, basil, etc. Next, we were instructed to chop up some lemongrass, coriander leaves, and green onions. We quartered a tomato, too. The different sauces were already measured out on our dishes: fish sauce, lime juice, chicken stock, coconut milk.

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Learning about Thai food

Next, we took all of our ingredients out into the hall where cooking stations were set up. The chef instructed us how to combine all of the ingredients together. Within minutes, we had our first course: Tom Yum Soup.

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After dining on our soup, we went back into the “classroom”. Again, the chef talked about the ingredients that were to be used in our next dish: fried noodles Thai style, or Pad Thai. This is one of my favorite Thai dishes so I was excited to see how it was created (and to see if it was something I could do back home). Once the ingredients were ready to go, we took it all back out to our cooking stations. First we heated the oil and sautéed the garlic before adding in the prawns. The egg came next. My wrist got tired from stirring the egg, but I kept with it (I was determined to make this the best pad thai dish ever). The rest of the ingredients were added, cooked briefly, and placed on a waiting plate. One thing I learned from this portion was that most Thai dishes have sugar in the recipes or are at least served with sugar on the side—I knew there was a reason I enjoyed Thai food so much. I tried taking my time eating the meal I just created, but it was hard!! It was so delicious. At this point, I will admit, I was giving myself a mental pat on the back.

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Seriously, doesn’t that look delicious?

At this point, we were half way done with our class and I was already getting full! Don’t worry, I didn’t let that stop me!

The next lesson was on minced chicken salad. We made that and green curry paste in the classroom together. We needed the paste for our next dish—surprisingly, a dish I ended up enjoying almost (I said ALMOST) as much as the pad thai.

We took the green curry paste, along with other ingredients out to the cooking stations to make green curry with chicken—except, I think we made it with tofu instead of the chicken. We took some of the green curry paste we made as a group and tossed it into a pan with oil. We tossed in the tofu, seasonings, and sauces, stirring constantly until the mixture thickened. Then onto the plate it went, poured over prepared rice. Again, it was delicious! Nothing we ate at the school was bad (I’m sure it is because I cooked my own food and not because of the great instructions from the chef).IMG_1662

Finally, we ended our night with the traditional dessert: mango with sticky rice and coconut sauce (this was already prepared for us). It really was a sweet ending to a great day! If you ever are in Bangkok and decide you want to do a cooking class, I would definitely recommend Silom Cooking School. You don’t have to be highly skilled either to participate (trust me). Not only are you learning how to make Thai dishes, you are actually MAKING and EATING them! Plus, you get a mini cookbook at the end of the night with all the recipes (and more) so you can replicate them when you get home.

Bon Appetite!