Finally, the day I had been waiting for arrived: our day at Patara Elephant Farm, where we participated in a program called “Elephant Owner for a Day.” We were picked up at 7:45am and had about a 45-minute drive out to the farm. When we arrived, we joined a group of twelve other people who were interacting with several elephants – two mothers, and various babies of different ages.
We were encouraged to touch the elephants, and the trainers were quick to take our phones to take photos of us with the elephants. Just observing them up close was so much fun! Then we fed them some bananas, which they were very happy about. Towards the end of the session, they brought in a pregnant elephant who is due later in January. You could see the baby bulging out both sides and moving around; I got to feel the baby moving and even hear his heartbeat! It was unbelievably cool.
After an educational session about Patara’s mission (Rescue, Rehabilitate, encourage Reproduction, and Reintroduction of the elephants to a happy, healthy life – which doesn’t necessarily mean releasing them to the jungle), we were split into smaller groups of six. Domingos and I were with two Swiss couples traveling together who mostly kept to themselves.
We walked over to another area to meet our elephant companions for the day, and I was matched with a 10-year-old male, Poo, who was very friendly and playful. His trainer was named Bang, and Bang was a lot of fun. He took charge of my phone and took around 400 pictures with it that day!
First, we fed our elephants – important in establishing friendship – and spent time just getting to know them a bit. Bang had Poo give me kisses on my cheeks, where he put the end of his trunk on my skin and sucked.
It felt very weird! We had some more education on elephant health – skin, eyes, nails, and poop. Yes, I picked up elephant poop. It’s a lot cleaner than human poop and smells like grass and sugarcane! We also learned a few basic commands (stop and go), and then used a clutch of reeds to beat some of the dust off the elephants’ sides. Then we went down to a big shallow pool area to really clean the elephants. We scrubbed them all over with a brush (harder, harder!) while the trainers had a great time laughing and throwing buckets of (very dirty) water all over the elephants and us. For some reason, I ended up about 10 times as wet as all the other people around me; I’m not sure exactly what happened.
We then got up on our elephants using their legs to climb up, which I did about as ungracefully as possible. Once I was up, it was an amazing feeling, though a little scary to be perched up so high! You sit very forward on their necks, with your knees up on their head above the ears.
All of the elephants were standing around calmly, but Poo, being your average prepubescent boy, was swaying back and forth and back and forth and back and forth while we waited to set off. Eventually, we got moving, and Poo always pushed to the front of the line. We rode through a very steep jungle for about 40 minutes with the trainers keeping pace alongside, taking photos and giving instructions.
We passed another small group, and Poo stopped to twine trunks with another young male. My trainer told me that they were brothers! How sweet is that? We eventually arrived at a gorgeous clearing, where the staff had an amazing lunch spread out for us. There were several kinds of sticky rice, pork skewers, fried chicken, fruit, deep-fried bananas, and various desserts. I think the six of us only managed to eat about 15% of the food there!
After lunch, we had a very short ride on the elephants back to our starting point, where we sadly said goodbye and returned to real life via a van ride back to Chiang Mai. It was a truly unforgettable experience, and I will definitely go back and do it again next time we travel to Chiang Mai.
Back in the city, we had dinner at a restaurant in the Old City, and then ate a delicious dessert at a small food stand run by a young Muslim woman: thin roti fried with bananas inside and drizzled with chocolate and condensed milk.