Getting to know Elephants in Thailand

When our initial plan for Thailand, a ten-day Permaculture Design Course (PDC) at Rak Tamachat farm, fell through due to a change of date on their part, we were on the road and taken by surprise. In spite of many friends raving about Thailand, I was a bit worried it would be overly touristy and that our lack of research would backfire into a lukewarm trip.

Luckily, Facebook saved the day.

We crowdsourced what we should do during our ten days, and the verdict was loud and clear: go play with elephants in Chiang Mai and then go hang out at the beach. Not ones to question the wisdom of social media (especially when supported by research), we planned a week in Chiang Mai and a long weekend at the beach.

Our first day in Chiang Mai was spent visiting Patara Elephant Farm, and it blew us away.

I should start with a disclaimer: we love animals and did not want to partake in a tourist package deal that offered an elephant ride as part of a day trek, where we wouldn’t know anything about where the elephants came from or how they were treated. Fortunately, my friend Dana was on the same wavelength and had done all the research before visiting Patara a few years ago. Win.

Patara – an organization that gets its visitors by word of mouth and their website rather than flyers distributed around ho(s)tels, and limits numbers of visitors to ensure a good experience on behalf of the elephants – rescues elephants from circuses or logging, rehabilitates them, and runs a reproduction initiative. They have about 60 elephants that are “free range” (i.e. they are left to go sleep wherever they want in the mountains), and 20 or so babies.

We got picked up at 1pm, and by the time we drove up winding roads framed by lush green vegetation and arrived at the farm in the hills, it started raining. Our group included two other couples, Canadian newlyweds and a Texan duo.

The first activity was hanging out with a mother elephant and her few month old baby – impressive and fun for a few minutes but then I started wondering what the hype was. After all, we were taking selfies with an uninterested mother and son…

Then the real program started. We went to meet the elephants we would each be assigned to for the afternoon and their individual caretakers, spotting elephants hanging out in fields of tall grass along the way! We would learn commands to feed them, walk them to the river, bathe them, and ride them back to the farm.

My elephantess (that may not be a real word but it should be) was named Tokai, and she was pregnant. Did you know that the elephant gestation period is 22 months? And as baby elephants grow up, they start feeding not just on their mother’s milk but on adult elephants’ poop! Elephants only partially digest their food, which means eating poop is an easy way for baby elephants to get used to eating semi solids before graduating onto proper “adult food”.

Feeding Tokai bananas and pieces of sugar cane was surreal. She barely needed the “Bonn!” command before she lifted her trunk and opened her mouth almost at my eye level. Elephant cheeks are surprisingly smooth and pink on the inside (as are their tongues) and they fold inward, protecting the rows of teeth that look like those old school stone laundry slabs and have the power to grind sugar cane into pulp.

Once Tokai was fed, I learned the commands to make her walk (“Maa!”), stop (“Haow!”), lay down (“Nao Long!”), and get up again (“Luke!”). She did not really need any prompts and followed the other elephants down to the river. I’m sorry to report that elephants walking behind each other do not in fact hold each other’s tails with their trunks as so many children’s books would have you believe. It is still quite magical to see these animals up close, happily headed down to the river for their daily bath.

The bath gives caretakers a chance to check their elephant’s skin and general well-being. It was a brilliant experience. Throw water over your elephant with a woven basket, scrub him or her with a brush, rinse, repeat. And you have to get on the elephant as they lay down in the shallow water so you can reach the top of their head and their back.

After a fruit and water break back on “dry” land muddy from the rain, we all set aside any illusions of grace and got on our elephants to ride them up the hill back home. To get on you could either try getting on their trunk and climbing onto their head/neck (still not sure if that was a joke?), or put your foot on their front leg and use the momentum of the elephant raising its leg to pull yourself onto his or her neck. I opted for the latter, and while I cannot claim to have felt elegant, I did feel kind of badass.

We rode our elephants back to the farm, discovering more of their personalities as some raced while others got distracted by coconuts on the side of the road.

Once we got off, we watched our elephants take off into the tall grass to find a spot for the night, and I secretly wished I could come back in the morning.

In case you were wondering, the rest of our week in Chiang Mai was equally amazing – we did a cooking class, a day trek with bamboo rafting, and visited hot springs and caves. Then we went to Phuket to meet up with old friends… It’s official, I love Thailand.