By jeni | November 19, 2008
Ahh the elephants. I’ve been waiting to do this post, partly because I was waiting on the pictures from John, but partly because I think I’m mad at the elephants. Well, not the elephants themselves, more like nature in general. Mother nature, she is a cruel mistress. Let me start from the beginning though, and then I’ll get in to why I’m saying this.
On our last day in Chiang Mai, we spent the entire day with big, beautiful, gentle, amazing incredible elephants at the Patara Elephant Farm. I will never forget this day. And I’m sure anyone who has a chance to do this feels the same way.
We made our reservations for the elephant farm way in advance, because according to everything we read on TripAdvisor (which, by the way, has been awesome for all of the travel planning we’ve done) we needed to do that, so of course that’s what we did. And when the day finally arrived, we were all super excited but a little nervous about getting up close and personal with these animals.
As luck would have it, there were no other people on the tour that day (they normally accept a max. of 8 peeps, one per elephant) but given it was the low season for tourism, it was only the four of us (me, John, my sister Amy, and John’s brother Dave).
Our ride arrived at our hotel at about 7:30 the morning of, and we drove for about an hour north of Chiang Mai to the elephant farm. Once we arrived we had to hike through a bunch of muddy rice fields to get to a little hut, where we were each given a basket of bananas, and a knit poncho-type thing to wear over our clothes. According to one of our guides, we had to wear these so the elephants would recognize us as their “owner” for the day. They are not attractive. At all. But I guess they did the job because we never had any angry elephants.
So after we suited up and doused ourselves in sunscreen and bug spray, which turned out to be absolutely useless, we were ready to meet our elephants. Amy got Dodo, the star of the elephant farm and the one they use to show us how to do everything (approach, command, feed, mount, etc.). I got a pregnant lady elephant named Mamoon (totally blew the spelling I’m sure). She was already about 13 months pregnant and it was crazy to see the baby move inside of her. John got a mama elephant and her baby, who was crazy and rambunctious and followed everywhere, and Dave got a big ole’ lady whose name I forget.
We started by meeting our respective elephants and bribing them with our big baskets of bananas and then checking to make sure they were healthy, including smelling their dung. Nice.
We then proceeded down to the river, where we washed everybody off and generally had a good time. Oh yeah I should mention that each elephant had it’s own real trainer, guys that live and work with these elephants every day, so we weren’t ever really on our own.
Once everybody was nice and clean, it was off for a ride. Only after we had all of the commands written on our arms though. Oh and there was the little matter of getting on the elephants. This is a process and can be quite scary. Some of us had more success than others. Here’s Dave doing a nice job of getting up.
There are a couple of ways to sit on the elephants, but we started on their backs, just behind the head. Your supposed to keep your knees bent and your legs scrunched up behind the ears, both to keep your legs from getting sore (you’d be pretty sore if you tried to sit like you were on a horse the whole way) and to make it easier to give the elephant signals with your heels behind the ears. This also helps you balance so you don’t have to hold on to the ears as much if you don’t want to. John demonstrates nicely here.
We walked for quite a while, mostly through forested area, on our way to our lunch spot. The elephants totally knew the way, but they’d stop and munch on whatever they could get their trunks on from time to time. John and my elephants especially wanted to eat the whole time, I think because mine was pregnant and his was still coming off of her pregnancy. Bleeding heart that I am, I was worried about my girl, but the owners told us the exercise was good for her and they had to walk her on days even when they didn’t have visitors, so I felt a little better about it after I heard that. John probably described it best when he said that carrying a human for an elephant is a little like us carrying a backpack. It’s not really heavy or burdensome, but gets annoying after a while.
After our walk we reached another spot by the river where we stopped to rest and have lunch, an awesome homemade Thai picnic spread. We got to feed whatever we didn’t eat (aside from the meat portions) to the elephants. My girl was a beggar and couldn’t wait to get some goodies.
After lunch everyone had gotten dirty again, mostly because it was a hot day, and apparently the elephants will pick up dirt and drop it on their backs to act as a natural sun/bug repellent. Luckily they never did this when we were on board though. Anyway, we did a little more cleanup in the river and just kind of hung out and played around for a while. Oh I fell in the river too, but we didn’t get a shot of that. We all got totally immersed though. I cannot begin to tell you how bad we all smelled at the end of this day.
After people lunch, it was time for animal lunch, so we all got back on board and went a short distance to our stopping point, which was actually a little village. The trainers of these elephants work for Patera elephant farm, but it’s so much more than a job for them. It’s their life. They live in these little huts by the farm and they come from families who have worked with elephants for generations. Their wives sew the poncho things we all had to wear and their kids think of these elephants as the family pet. They also grow the grass (seed flown in from Australia) that comprises most of the elephant diet (the fruit we gave them was only a treat). They spend every day (and night) with these animals. And you can tell they love them, but they also drive them crazy. This was especially true of the baby, who was a little ADD and running all over the place half the time.
We learned all of this from one of the owners, Dao, who picked us up from our hotel and then sat and ate lunch with us and answered all of our million questions. She also told us a lot about the plight of elephants in Thailand. They’re rapidly becoming extinct, and many of the domesticated elephants live in terrible conditions, working in the crowded city streets of Bangkok or being forced to do silly trick like balance on little balls under duress and threat of abuse. She was proud of the humane way she and her husband took care of their elephants, but admitted that even their situation wasn’t perfect, because perfection would be the animals living out in the wild. That said, it gave us great peace of mind to talk with her and learn about everything they do to take care of these creatures.
After that pit stop, we were set to make our way back to our starting point. This time however, we learned how to ride on the head. Now this was a little scary at first because you are literally hanging out on the head of the animal, so when they move (e.g. raise their trunk up to get some food from a tree) you move too. Once you get used to it though, riding on the head is nice. It gives you a little room to relax and just enjoy the scenery.
By the end of the day we were all exhausted and smelly, but we had such a wonderful time. Truly an experience of a lifetime. A couple of days afterward we all developed weird rashes on our legs, John getting the least of it due to his long pants. Of course I’m a walking calamity so mine ended up getting infected, and it’s weeks later and I’m still in Singapore fighting the infection. It’s taken ten days of some hardcore antibiotics, but I think I’m finally getting over it. That part has been a bummer, but I wouldn’t trade this experience, skin infection and all, for the world.
P.S. We’ll also be putting up large versions of all the pictures very soon.
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