I have wanted to ride an elephant for as long as I can remember. On our last full day in Chiang Mai, we did just that and much, much more! Matt and I, along with our friends, Lyndsey and Andrez, went to the Patara Elephant Farm in the jungle just outside of Chiang Mai where we became "Elephant Owners for a Day". This entailed much more than just feeding and riding elephants who were otherwise chained up the whole day and forced to perform tricks like circus animals as so many of the other tourist places do in Thailand. Patara Elephant Farm is a family owned and run farm that adopts, cares for and breeds elephants. They are focused on providing the best care for the elephants so that they live much longer lives that many others in Thailand do.
We were picked up from our hotel, dropped off at the park, and started our day by watching an elephant mother and baby have a breakfast of bamboo and bananas. And we weren't watching from behind an enclosure either - we were standing around, waiting for more people to join us, when out of nowhere, the mother and baby came freely walking up to us! The elephants even let us come right up to them to feed and pet them. The baby elephant was absolutely hilarious! He must have had an itch he could not scratch, because he spent half the time rolling around on the ground, and the other half of the time coming up to us for scratches! It was so cute!
Check out this cute video clip of us with the itchy baby elephant:
The owner of the farm, who spoke very good English, then sat us down and proceeded to tell us all about how Patara Elephant Farm is different, and how the experience you get with them is something most people will never do in their lives. He taught us a little about elephants in general and what intelligent animals they are. He explained that the other farms in Thailand are simply set up for tourists, and the elephants there do not receive the proper care they deserve. We were told that the elephant lifespan has been greatly shortened and the elephant population greatly decreased due to the animals not getting enough fresh water, variety of foods or exercise each day. After hearing about the farm, we were given some "Elephant Owner Clothing" - a knit top with drawstring pants to put over our own clothes, and off we went on a short trek across streams and through the incredibly gorgeous rice paddies of Chiang Mai to where our elephants were at.
Matt and I in our new outfits
On our way to meet our elephants - the scenery in Chiang Mai is BEAUTIFUL!
Elephants roaming about everywhere
Another mom and baby
One by one, the owner of the farm paired us up with our elephants. We were each given a basket of bananas to take to them to make sure they liked us... I'm pretty sure they would have liked us no matter what, as long as we had that bucket of bananas! There were only 2 male elephants in the whole group, so most of us got female elephants. Matt's was a female named Macom. She started off to be more of a quiet elephant, but by the end of the day, it was clear that Matt had the quickest one who always made her own way to the front of the pack, no matter how far back she started! My elephant was another female named Meassy Noi - the same age as Matt's elephant (30 years old)! She was one of the smaller ones in the pack, although she seemed giant to me! The owner of the farm told me that she is the "Great Aunt" of the pack and looks after them all. She was also one of the elephants used in the logo for Patara Elephant Farm! After our meet-and-greets with the elephants, the staff taught us a bunch of verbal commands that the elephants were trained to respond to. "Pie" = "Go" and "Dee Dee" = "Good Boy/Girl", so there was a lot of "pies" and "dee dee's" going on throughout the day!
Matt with Macom
They wrote down the commands on our arms so we would remember them while we rode
We also learned how they check the health of each elephant each morning. Healthy elephants will have dirt on one of their sides from laying down to sleep. If an elephant is sick, they do not lay down, because they know they may not be able to get back up. Healthy elephants will have sweat marks around their toe nails, which is where they sweat from. Otherwise, they are not sweating properly. Healthy and happy elephants have their ears back and relaxed and a swinging tail. We learned that they can tell quite a lot from elephant dung as well, and they inspect it every morning - the amount and smell of it tells how well their digestive system is working, the texture of the fibers tells how strong and healthy their teeth are, and the moisture content tells how well hydrated they are. I know, I'm like an elephant expert now! One of our first interactions with the elephants other than feeding them was to clean them off and bathe them in the river - quite a fun task!
Our friend Lyndsey inspecting elephant poop!
Usually when you are in Thailand, you see a lot of people riding elephants all over the place, but they are all sitting in chairs that are mounted on the elephant's back with a guide sitting on the elephant's head to steer. That was not the case here - there are no chairs mounted on their backs - this was bareback elephant riding! There are a few different ways to mount an elephant, and each elephant can do different types. Mine and Matt's elephants were able to lift their knee up for us to climb up on. They were also able to lower their heads down, you face them, and hop directly up on their heads. They then lift their head back up with you on it, and once you're up there, you turn around and face forward. The first option with the knee is a little simpler, so that's how I did it for my first ride (Matt went the other route). After mounting our elephants, we set off into the jungle and through rivers. I'm not going to lie - I was a little nervous my first ride on Meassy Noi - for a few reasons. 1 - you have hardly anything to hold on to up there, and you are so high up! 2 - you are literally sitting on the elephant's HEAD - not their backs at all - with your knees bent up behind their ears. I felt like I was about to slide right off the front! And 3 - I was used to riding horses, and horses don't like to be so close to each other and get scared and run easily. I kept thinking Meassy Noi would act like a horse, but it turns out elephants are not anything like horses (I started to realize this as the day went on).
We had guides that walked alongside us. When we were going through the river, the guides would leap onto the elephants' backs and ride along with us until we got back on ground again.
My favorite part of the day by far was when we stopped at a waterfall for lunch. They had set up an awesome traditional Thai lunch wrapped in banana leaves for us right by the water. It really was good! The elephants got to cool off and play in the water while we ate, and afterward, we got to join them! This was definitely the highlight of my day, and I wish we could have spent more time there!
Feeding the elephants the leftovers
Check out this video clip of us swimming with the elephants in the waterfall:
After our swim, we got back on our elephants - this time, we tried the head-mounting option, and I actually found this a lot easier (and much more fun!) than the knee-lift option. We proceeded on an incredibly steep trek up into the jungle. I had no idea that elephants could climb up and down so well, especially through such thick and deep mud (they had just been having a ton of rain and flooding in Chiang Mai prior to our visit). We made one more stop, and then we doubled up for our final ride of the day. Matt and I both rode bareback on his elephant Macom, because she was the larger of our two. We spent most of that ride treking throuh a river, which was pretty cool. As always, Macom started near the end, but passed everyone during the journey, and ended up leading the pack! After dismounting the elephants, we got to feed our original elephants another bucket of bananas and say goodbye. Our van was there to take us back to our hotel, but not before the owner had some advice for us and lessons that we can learn from elephants. He hoped that next time we saw an elephant, we would remember our time with them this day and think of them in a different way.
Check out this video clip of us riding our elephants up into the steep jungle. Watch near the end where Matt's elephant Macom passes everyone and takes the lead:
Our final ride of the day - Matt and I both on his elephant, Macom.
Saying goodbye to Meassy Noi
Such an unforgettable day!
Being an "Elephant Owner for a Day" was an incredible experience, and one of the highlights of our whole trip - an experience I am so thankful to have had and will never forget!
Last part of our trip coming up next!