While we were staying in Bangkok we tried to book a day at Patara Elephant Farm. This family owned preserve focuses on the rescue, breeding and conservation of the dwindling elephant population in Thailand. Carolynn and Jeremy went here during their visit to Thailand and had an amazing experience. They’ve never steered us in the wrong direction so we decided we had to go too!
When I emailed the company it took them a really long time to get back to me. When they finally did, it was bad news. They were booked solid for a month. I wasn’t surprised, considering the glittering reviews Patara gets online, but I was really disappointed. Jarred and I started looking for alternatives but we weren’t happy about what we saw. We learned many of the other places that house elephants treat them poorly, make them do tricks all day and at worst, beat them with hooks when the animals “step out of line”. As much as I thought getting a painting done by an elephant would be really cool, I would never want to encourage a practice that hurts them.
We finally booked an alternative that seemed reasonable and then pretty much put in on the backburner. We finished off our stay on Bangkok, flew to Krabi Town and didn’t really think about the elephant stuff again until we were started looking for a home base in Chiang Mai. It was there we learned that most guesthouses can book excursions for you. The place that we wanted to stay at didn’t have any room, but mentioned Patara in passing as a really popular day trip they could book for us. We asked them if they had room any day that week, and sure enough, there was space for two!
We were picked up early in the morning for our Patara trip and drove 45 minutes around the south end of Doi Suthep – Pui National Park. When we arrived we had to sign some waivers and as we were reading through, we got our first look at the elephants!
Before we could get near the elephants, we received a crash course in elephant health and emotions. Among other things, we learned that their eyes had to be moist, only their toes sweat (!!) and they are happiest while eating! When we were finally allowed to get near our assigned elephant, we introduced ourselves by bearing a basket full of bananas!
Jarred naturally got the largest elephant, Boon. It means “dad” and Boon was definitely the big man on campus, having fathered 28 babies!
My elephant, Bonpak, was the only one in the group with tusks.
With introductions made, we had to delve a little deeper into the health aspect. The most memorable part was sniffing the elephant poop. Thankfully, an elephant diet consists mostly of fruits and grasses, so the poop smelled like wet hay. That didn’t stop us from making faces though.
Next we had to clean our elephants! They have a habit of throwing dust on themselves to protect their skin from the sun and insect bites, so we had to dust them off good. We put together bunches of palm leaves and got to work. At first, I felt like I could hurt the elephant with how hard I was smacking him with leaves, but he was loving it!
Afterwards we changed into our bathing suits for my favorite part of the day – washing the elephants. There was a shallow pool to get a good scrubbing.
And there was a deep end for a nice soak.
I got to polish Bonpak’s tusks with sand.
The final rinse with all the elephants in a line!
They got to get us wet too!
Once all the elephants were squeaky clean we were given a change of clothes –Mahout outfits! The outfits were the same the trainers wear. Now we were ready to ride our elephants!
I was glad to learn that the rides were allowed because it’s good exercise for them – the fact that people enjoy the rides is sort of a happy side effect. Also, we rode them bareback because those huge wooden structures you sometimes see elephants strapped into are bad for their backs and skin.
We rode the elephants for almost an hour. I appreciated that the Mahouts guide them down a path, but otherwise pretty much let them do what they want. If the elephant wants to jog, it gets to jog. If it wants to stop for a snack, it gets to snack for as long as they want. Jarred elephant stopped often for snackies and would even take some on the road!
It was finally our turn to eat, and Patara put together a feast for the group. Like all things in Thailand, there was no rush and we ate at our leisure.
The extra chicken went to the Mahouts and the extra fruit went to the elephants. You’re supposed to feed the elephants by saying “bon” and putting the food right in their mouths, but there was a crafty mama elephant that took a whole bunch right out of my hand with her trunk!
We got to hang out with the babies who were absolutely adorable. They’re curious about people and really intelligent. They’re like 500-pound toddlers with no notion of how heavy they are.
We had a shorter ride on the elephants down the river and then, sadly the day was over.
It went by so fast! I know several people on TripAdvisor said Patara was an experience of a lifetime. It was no exaggeration! I hope we’ll get to go back to Chiang Mai someday and visit our new friends Boon and Bonpak again.