Yesterday I went to a doctor's appointment. The doc was your typical 60+ year old Jewish doctor, with many fascinating stories and much knowledge to share. In the middle of him examining my gait, we started talking about traveling. It turns out doc, much like me, is an avid traveler. He started telling me a few of the stories from the multiple trips he's taken to various parts of the world. "But, this" he said as he made his way toward his little working space and pulled out a picture of him and his wife on an elephant "was the most amazing experience I've ever had". I looked at the frame housing the picture, and it said "Chiang Mai, Thailand." I excitedly pulled out my iPad and showed him a few pics of my own from my experiences riding elephants in Chiang Mai. I have to agree with him, it truly was an unforgettable experience.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s “Rose of the North” and is a cultural and natural wonderland. Before traveling there, we had read that Chiang Mai is definitely THE PLACE to have an "elephant experience". I started researching the various places where we could ride some elephants, and wound up finding the Patara Elephant Farm (http://www.pataraelephantfarm.com/) (it is among the highest ranked on Trip Advisor). The experience sounded unbelievable, "be an elephant owner for a day". What that entailed: 1) feeding the elephant (checking out their feces to make sure they were healthy) (not as horrific as I thought it would be)); 2) bathing the elephant; 3) riding the elephant through the jungles of Thailand; and 4) swimming with your elephant.
Patara Elephant Farm
It was by far the most expensive of any of the places I had found (approx. $250 per person), particularly for Thailand standards, but then I read a little more about the place. They rescue elephants from unsuitable living conditions, such as circuses, and they provide the most space (square footage) than any other farm of this kind, for the elephants they rescue. Above all, they have a greater elephant population than visitors in a day, meaning, they literally assign one elephant per person - or should I say, the elephant selects the person to be his owner for the day.
When we arrived, they made us put on some clothes (over our own) that look like ethnic scrubs. This outfit, while entirely unflattering, served to protect us from the elephants' thick hair poking through our clothes. Additionally, the scent of the cloth is one recognizable to the elephants, and so they immediately feel acquainted with you. We each got a bucket of food, and were taken to be selected by our elephants. At Patara we learned that elephants feel the personality of a person, and they essentially choose you, based on your personality, to ride them. I was called up first to feed "Nui". She was a young elephant rescued from a circus. At first I was so scared to get near her. I held out a bunch of bananas and she chomped down on them. When I saw her huge mouth clasping down toward my hand, I pulled back in fear, and almost screamed. After a few more tries I was a bit more comfortable, but by the end of the day, she was using her trunk to suck food out of my hand, and I was totally comfortable putting my hand in her mouth.
Nui and me
"Ethnic scrubs" and food to go
After we bathed our respective elephant in the river, we were taken to mount our new friends. There are 3 ways to mount an elephant. For my first try, I opted for the beginner mount. The most advanced way to get on is to step on the trunk. They lift you with ease, and you walk across it to get to the head. By the end of the day, I was a pro, getting on advanced-style. I felt like I was in the movie Avatar...we were told that if you are barefoot, your skin touching theirs' creates a connection between you and the elephant. Elephants really are amazing creatures!
I'm sure you've heard of swimming with the sharks...what about swimming with the elephants?
There are many of these places throughout Southeast Asia that are cruel and use unsafe practices with the elephants / tourist attraction. We were told that many of these places will make the elephants stand on 2 feet, play soccer, and do other tricks that, while entertaining for tourists, are unnatural for the elephant's body structure, and so these tricks actually injure the elephants. If in Chiang Mai, avoid that type of place and head to Patara instead. It will honestly be the best adventure of your life...
The elephants having fun spraying our group with water