If you travel to Thailand and the surrounding countries, you will have the opportunity to spend time interacting with Asian elephants. You will also probably have the chance to ride an elephant sitting on a big metal frame on the animal’s back, something we noticed disappointingly was offered at Chiang Mai zoo. This is really not something we would advise as it can cause serious harm to the elephant.
Instead, we opted to research places online before we left the UK, searching for somewhere near Chiang Mai that rehabilitates elephants who have been treated in this way in the past and genuinely cares about the welfare of the animals. We had no exact budget for this as it was something we were both happy to plan as the highlight of our time in Southeast Asia, and spend enough money on as was necessary for a sanctuary that we both felt comfortable supporting. The place we found resoundingly well recommended and highly rated online was Patara Elephant Farm and we opted for their ‘Elephant Owner for the Day’ program. We booked this activity a couple of months before travelling to Thailand as they only have a few slots each day and fills up quite quickly. For the full day program it costs 5,800 Thai baht per person (around £110/$165 in June 2016) which, at first seemed a little pricey for an activity in Thailand however, we knew we would have to pay more to get an experience genuinely in the best interest of the animal. We understand that not all budgets will be able to stretch this far however, please make sure the sanctuary you are going to is cruelty free.
In order to book one of their programs, you can email them on firstname.lastname@example.org with the dates you are in Chiang Mai and they can advise on their availability.
The sanctuary picked us up from our hostel and drove us up away from the city to their enormous plot of land in the Chiang Mai mountains. When we arrived we were encouraged to go over and greet a mother and baby elephant that were eating in the shade, they were completely free to roam and the baby (1 month old) was full of energy, bounding around exploring, trying to sit on people’s laps and stealing the hose to try to spray everyone. This is just incredible to see and have such freedom to experience. After a while of playing with the baby and feeding its mum, we sat down and were told all about the project of Patara, their goals and their unique elephants. Patara are more than just a sanctuary, they aim to rescue, rehabilitate, reproduce and reintroduce elephants into the wild. We felt the ethos of Patara fitted exactly what we were looking for. We were soon convinced Patara were dedicated to sustaining the population of elephants when we arrived at the sanctuary as there were many healthy baby elephants.
When the talk was over, we were separated into groups of about 6 people and taken with a new guide further up the mountain. As we followed the path, we passed elephants that were just roaming the land and taken up to a little wooden shelter. Here our new guide spoke to us and taught us more about caring for elephants, how to know if they are eating well, sleeping well, how much they should drink per day and so much more. He then chatted with us and tried to learn a bit about us, to decide who would suit which elephant. This was so special to be assigned each an elephant based on our personality. He then taught us how to introduce ourselves to our new friends which included feeding them fruit and saying their name. My (Josh) elephant was actually one and a half elephants, a mother called MaeMai and her 2 year old son, Napar. It was beautiful to see the mother and son together as many other elephant sanctuaries split their elephants up. The son was hilarious and kept stealing fruit from the basket when I turned around. It was so eye opening to see the genuine intelligence and sense of humour the animals have and heartbreaking to consider that other “sanctuaries” chain their elephants, keep them on concrete floors and walk them with up to 3 people on a frame on their back. Elisa was paired with a lovely teenage male called Pai who was a little boisterous!
After introductions with the elephants and some bonding over a fruit basket was complete, we learnt the handful of phrases the elephants understood (good girl/boy, come here, open your mouth, lie down etc) After that we were then taught how to check the elephant’s health, gave our elephants a brush and a wash down. We then had a short ride on the elephants’ shoulders to a waterfall, something I was a bit sceptical about until I saw the sanctuary used no chains or baskets. We just hopped onto their shoulders and rode them bareback as they all followed the guide at the front through the jungle.
There is a great debate as to whether you should or shouldn’t ride an elephant. Before we got on the elephants we were given a full insight into the structure of an elephants skeleton and how, despite their size, their back is very weak which is why you should never ride in a basket. Many ‘so called’ elephant sanctuaries still use baskets despite knowing this. In order to train an elephant to allow people to ride in a basket, they usually go through a pretty unpleasant process of training when they are a calf that aims to create control of the animals through fear. This is something we are both completely against and we chose Patara as we knew this was something they actively worked to prevent and that they rescued elephants who were in that position from all across Thailand. It was clear at Patara that the whole ethos was positive reinforcement, similar to training a puppy, giving them praise and treats of fruit for working with the team of guides. Another important factor at Patara is that if an elephant isn’t keen on joining in or don’t want to do something then they’re not forced to, they have the choice. The elephants were free to go where they wanted and you went with them rather than them coming with you.
My little Napar was a constant source of amusement as Memai wouldn’t go anywhere without him trotting along at the front where she could see him. This held me up a few times as he roamed around in the bushes at the side and at one point jogged ahead to play with one of the guides further up, causing Memai to terrifyingly sprint to catch up with her son!
Pai was a little more laid back on the way to the waterfall but did enjoy trampling through bushes in order to reach the tastiest leaves. The ride was a little bumpy however we were told to always trust in the footsteps of the elephant – this is a phrase which has stuck with us throughout our trip.
Once we reached the waterfall we were shown how to safely get off the elephant and we washed them in the pool, using a brush to remove any parasites and dirt they picked up since their last bath. The guides then took us humans into the waterfall itself to get clean and refreshed before lunch. The lunch they prepared for us was magical, a buffet of local food on a big leaf, there were lots of different rice dishes, meat and fruit that they served us in a treehouse by the waterfall. The guides told us to take as long as we wanted and we bonded with the other travellers over the beautiful food. All the food was grown within a few kilometres of Patara and put together by a team of locals.
The whole day was amazing and it was so special to be paired with an elephant. The care and attention that goes in to running Patara is incredible and there is always a mahout or guide on hand to answer any questions. These are locals who work with the elephants everyday and it was clear the elephants loved being around them. The mahouts also offered to take hundreds of photos on your camera/phone and their camera. While we were on the elephants the mahouts looked after our bags and offered us free water throughout the day. Nothing was ever too much trouble at Patara!
It was a lovely surprise at the end of the day that all the photos and videos they had taken of us throughout the day were given to us free of charge on a CD. Perfect end to the perfect day.
Love Josh & Elisa x
For more information visit their website.