I traveled to Chiangmai, Thailand, in great part to have a real one-on-one experience with an elephant or two. I did a bit of research before the trip, but knew that once I got there my plans were likely to change.
Elephant tourism is a hot-button issue in Thailand where the elephant is the sacred animal of the kings. It is also becoming a more controversial issue in all of Asia as elephant populations become more threatened and less protected.
My original plan – to spend a few days at one of the “elephant camps” I’d read about turned out to be not such a great idea. When I dug deeper into reviews and critiques of elephant experiences for tourists in Chiangmai, I became more leery of the whole experience. After much debate and consideration of the costs (this was an EXPENSIVE day) I chose Patara Elephant Farm for my elephant adventure. It was an incredibly good choice.
The car from the elephant farm came to pick me up at my hotel at 7:45. A lovely couple from the neighboring hotel (from The Netherlands) were going on the same trip. I was SOOOOO nervous that I didn’t speak the whole car ride. Must have seemed like I didn’t want to talk to them, but eventually the elephants broke the ice!
Pat, the founder of the farm, gave us about an hour-long orientation before we even saw the elephants. This introduction was super-informative, focusing a lot on elephant conservation (and abuse) in Thailand, and the process of choosing an “elephant tour.”
This farm is rated the #1 Chiangmai attraction on TripAdvisor and is mentioned in Lonely Planet. Pat explained the “marketing” processes whereby tour companies bash each other and the whole “elephant tourism” thing, then try to sell you theirs, which is “the best.” It was interesting hearing all of this from his perspective. He was dead-on consistent with my experience as a tourist.
This elephant farm is a breeding center, having birthed 10 elephants, with one about to give birth while I was there. Its active breeding program takes the female in heat “on honeymoon” with one of the three studs off-site for ten days – no artificial insemination here!.
There are 24 elephants on the farm, many of whom have been “rescued from” other farms or relinquished by owners who can no longer keep them. Because the sacred Thai animal, no elephant is thought to “belong” to anyone.
The family who runs this farm is merely the caretaker of the elephants that are on site – it doesn’t “own” them. That said, at night the elephants who live here are chained up on very long chains so they don’t wander into the street. This policy was instated within the last year only because a local farmer ran into one. The elephant survived the crash; but the farmer, sadly, did not.
Pat also explained that while Thailand used to have 6000 elephants (in the 1980s? I don’t remember this detail), the population is now down to around 3200.
So the longevity of the animals is another goal of the center. Elephants tend to die of malnutrition, skin infections, and mental issues. These are the primary focus of good elephant care.
The elephants on this farm eat only locally grown food and drink the water directly from the river that runs through the property. Interestingly, elephants can sense when water is contaminated and are very sensitive to chemicals. They thrive best with truly organic produce and clean water, and will even reject water that is full of chemicals or pollutants. Unfortunately, this means they can die of dehydration when not provided with the cleanest of water to drink.
Health, breeding, and longevity are the primary missions of this program. They have not lost an elephant their whole time in operation.
Pat explained how elephant “conservation” groups in Thailand actually pose a problem for farms like his because they paint a very dreary picture of the elephant’s plight. When they do so, they garner funds from people who want to help.
What they don’t realize, however, is that this strategy actually takes money AWAY from the elephants that are healthy and thriving. So he and his staff struggle to fund this farm.
The program I participated in is called “elephant owner for a day.” Literally, participants are in charge of the health check, feeding, and bathing, of their assigned elephant.
While we sat and listened to Pat, the elephant keepers “sized us up.” They watched us to figure out which elephant would “fit” us each best. Pat also emphasized that the elephant “ride” was NOT going to be the highlight of this trip like it was in other elephant programs. I could argue that point, but won’t.
We were split into two groups, most of the children and families in one group, and the childless ones in my group. There were seven people in my group.
We were escorted over to our elephants by mahout Jack who explained that we were now going to meet our elephants. And I was to be first. Gulp.
He also told us that “just like Survivor! Thailand!” we would be “graded” by our elephants’ mahouts and there would be a “best elephant owner” award at the end of the day. It was nice to have a goal, but I wasn’t very confident about winning.
He pointed at my elephant (Nuey) and explained that the proper way to approach is from the front, with plenty of food (how else does one make friends?!?) He told me I could approach my elephant and introduced me to her keeper, A.
I asked if the keeper was going to go with me, and he said, “Wait! You need to call her first!”
I called, “Nuey!” and she raised her trunk and trumpeted loudly in response. I could not make this up if I tried.
I approached Nuey and looked for the telltale signs of a happy elephant: ears flapping and tail wagging from side to side. Jack explained that Nuey had been on honeymoon recently and they thought she was pregnant. I can attest to the way she ate all day that they’re probably right
We did the “health check” that had been explained earlier which was:
- walk around the elephant and make sure they have mud on all sides, in ears, in eyes, etc. This means that they slept properly which, for a healthy elephant, means that every 30 minutes they get up and move around, choosing a different way to go back to sleep. Check – she had mud caked everywhere.
- check the cuticles around the toenails. This is where elephants sweat. Nuey had a nice rim about 3/4 of an inch around her cuticles. She was sweating properly. Check.
- poop check. Not as bad as one would think. Elephants should make six to seven large, round (as big as a 16″ softball!) poops. She did. The poop should have moisture in it; you must squeeze it to find out – yuck. Check. Smell it for foul smells. Well, it was poop but it smelled fairly decent. Check. And check the fibers – younger elephants can grind food up smaller, hence, smaller fibers. She’s ten – short fibers. Check. She made 6-7 poops shortly after the health check, too. Very healthy elephant.
I then learned my first command – “Bon!” which means that she is to lift her trunk up for me to stuff food in her mouth. Having an elephant mouth your hand is a very strange sensation. She was gentle. When I chickened out and pulled my hand out too fast, she either caught the food with her trunk or picked it up off the ground.
The trunk is truly amazing, looking more like a hand than anything. Of course, being a healthy, well-fed elephant, she used it to clean any surface she was on free of ALL foodstuffs. And then some! She was very gentle but also very hungry.
When we were finished making friends over a basket of goodies, it was time to unchain her and lead her down to the river for a bath. I tapped on her foot that was chained and undid the chain. Then I grabbed her by the ear and said “Ma!” which meant come with me.
I led her by the ear into the river (with no help from A!), where A gave her the command to lie down. This was a good elephant. She laid down and we started throwing water on her and scrubbing with plastic brushes – every surface of that elephant. She seemed to like it.
It took about 1/2 hour, and at the end of the bath I was drenched. The other elephant “owners” and I were lined up in front of our elephants (backs to the elephants – suckers!). We then learned another fun command – “Kaboom!” or something like that. Given this command, the elephant sucks water into its trunk and shoots it as far as it can. In this case, all over us. Payback!
Our elephants were escorted by their keepers away from us for a break so they could “dry off” and be prepared for our ride. I thought this was when they got “saddled up” or something like that – heh, funny.
Each elephant was equipped with a rope tied under its front shoulders. That’s it. We were then corralled around Nuey, my elephant to learn the three ways to mount the elephant.
Jack explained that for the first two we would receive ten points; for the third five. We all joked around about getting up on the elephant. I was about to cry I was so nervous, and I was to be first. Nuey was standing right there, patiently waiting for me.
The three ways to get up on an elephant are:
- tap the front right leg in the back. The elephant will then lift that leg, making two steps – one on the calf, just above the foot, and one above the knee. You grab the top of the ear and the rope on the back and use these two steps to hoist yourself up. To get down you tap on the shoulder below your right foot and the elephant raises her leg, reversing the process.
- tap on the elephant’s forehead and she raises her trunk. You then step on the trunk and mount the elephant from the forehead side. You are then facing the wrong way on the elephant and have to turn around. To get off, you tap on the forehead again with your foot and “slide” down the face of the elephant. Again, I cannot make this up.
- instruct the elephant to lie down and you get on, then she stands up. Boooooo. Boring. And only 5 points – truly out of the question. Tthe fact that I couldn’t remember the commands for lying down and getting up had nothing to do with this choice.
I chose method 1 and was swiftly atop Nuey. I then had to slide WAY forward – you must almost sit on the elephant’s forehead in order to tuck your feet behind the ears for stability and steering.
No hands allowed – this is how you sit on the elephant. It’s not like there’s anything to grab onto anyways, except sparse, inch-long prickly hairs. That would NOT save you from a fall.
At this point you just have to relax and let the elephant do the work. Lean forward when she goes up hill, and backward when she goes down. With a few commands – “Bpie!” for go, and “how” for stop – we were on our way.
The ride was fairly mellow, flat, and just a little challenging (across the river). THEN we got to “the jungle” where the path to the waterfall awaited. The path was about 60 degrees steep, narrow, and super-muddy. That was where we were to go up. Seriously, if I hadn’t done it I would not have believed it was possible. One by one our elephants carried us
- up this hill
- up and down some others that were equally steep
- over a guard rail
- down a paved road
- and up again to the waterfall.
Nuey was a really good girl, only occasionally getting distracted by a low-hanging snack. All of the elephants were remarkably sure-footed. While it was not a FAST ride (thank goodness – I would not have wanted a fast one!) it was a reliable one.
After about an hour, the elephants heard the waterfall and started to speed up. Pat had told us that the elephants’ joy for water, swimming, and THIS waterfall were a sight to be seen. He could not have prepared us for what the elephants did.
Nuey was OBVIOUSLY excited to get to the water. Once she heard it she couldn’t be held back by ANY of the others. She busted her way through the crowd towards the water; A quickly helped me off of her when we got to the river.
I then watched as she literally waded and then jumped into the river. Totally submerged – swimming. She was in the water for the whole two hours or so we had lunch.
I didn’t know elephants swam or got this excited about water. Apparently Nuey has lived her whole life on this river and is the most avid swimmer of all the elephants.
We ate lunch and then some of the other elephant owners for the day slid down a small waterfall into the river to swim WITH two of the elephants. No way was I going to get into the water with those creatures! Water alone makes me nervous, but swimming with elephants?!? Was I crazy?!?
Logic got the best of me and I remembered what Pat had said, “Many people can say they have gone swimming with dolphins, but who can say they have swum with an ELEPHANT?!?”
Now I can. I waded into the pool where Nuey played with the other elephants, the owners for the day, the keepers – everyone. It was a veritable water orgy. Literally – one of the males mounted one of the females towards the end of our time there!
Nuey, true to her nature, was very gentle and aware in the water. I rode her as she swam around the pool, being careful not to be crushed between her and the rocky waterfall.
She fully submarined to pull things (cans, weeds, food, and other various debris) from the bottom to “present” to the keepers. Eventually A had me stay on her and instructed her to get out of the water.
Dolley, the woman from The Netherlands, was on another elephant who was also instructed to get out of the water. Then the REAL fun began, and the two elephants engaged in a “KABOOM!” fight. Dolley and I were consecutively flooded with elephant trunks full of water. The two elephants sprayed EVERYONE. It was pure joy.
When I got off Nuey to give others a turn, Jack told me that we would have to wait a while to go back to the elephant farm – the other elephants hadn’t had enough “play time” in the water. Are you kidding? Play away!!! It was so fun to watch them – and they needed the fun and a cool-off.
When it was time to leave the waterfall we got back on our elephants for the shorter ride back to the farm. It was mainly on a paved road. The ride is not NEARLY as smooth on the paved road, and Nuey was very interested in the snacks on the side. She was distracted but I really couldn’t blame her. She hadn’t eaten much, she had played hard, and she had dutifully delivered me to and from the waterfall.
When we got back to the elephant camp I was instructed to remove my feet from behind her ears and cross them on her forehead – while she was moving! A told me to hold onto her ears. Honesty, this was super-scary but I realized it was for a photo-op. I tried my best to not look scared while I basically balanced on my butt on her forehead and crossed the river back to the camp.
When we got back, A told me to tap her on the face and slide off, which I did without thinking about it. He looked surprised that I hadn’t balked. By this time I trusted Nuey and him so much that I would have done just about anything.
Back at the camp we relaxed a bit and were introduced to the baby elephant twins. They were so cute – and already trained to raise the trunk and the foot – not that anyone could ride them yet!
After a while we re-gathered for the elephant kisses. Another woman in my group and I were named “elephant owners of the day” and were instructed to “receive kisses.” This meant that we had to turn our backs to the elephants again. Hadn’t I already learned my lesson? We were instructed to close our eyes.
We did as we were instructed, and the result was this:
The elephant kisses felt like a combo raspberry and wet willie. They sucked on our arms with their trunks, making loud farting sounds. Someone had a trunk full of mud, too, which she fully slobbered all over my left arm. It was sweet and I laughed REALLY hard.
What an amazing day full of learning, challenging myself, and getting to know one of the loveliest creatures on earth.
Jack said that Thais believe that touching an elephant just once can bring a person good luck. If that’s true then I am full of luck for a lifetime!