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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.