Asian Elephant Encounter

Of all the things that I was looking forward to experiencing in Thailand nothing was higher on my list than riding an elephant. Elephants have always fascinated me: they’re huge, gentle giants shrouded in ancient myths and steeped in historical tradition. Usually standing between 7-9 feet tall (2.2-2.7 meters) and weighing between 3-4.5 tons they’re massive especially when standing right next to them!

At the recommendation of a colleague we booked our trip with Patara Elephant Fam just outside of Chiang Mai. While elephants of ancient days would work in logging, elephants of today are usually on a different path: circuses, walking the streets as their mahout begs for money from tourists, or giving rides to tourists. Many organizations have sprouted up to care for elephants but as you might expect taking care of a multi-ton animal is prohibitively expensive. They eat up to 330lbs (150kg) per day plus any necessary medical care on top of that. The elephant population in Asia has dropped substantially the last few decades and these magnificent, gentle creatures are sadly considered to be vulnerable to extinction. Elephants are still routinely slaughtered en masse for their ivory tusks. Each year about 8% of the remaining 470k are poached and their greatest predator is unfortunately humans.

Patara is a really cool albeit a relatively expensive company (5800 baht or around $190 USD). They rescue elephants. It used to be the case that an elephant was always trained with a man and his son. An elephants lifespan is roughly equivalent to a humans (60-70 years). So this way the elephant can get to know both men and when the father retires the son takes over. But caring for an elephant is just like caring for a child: it’s a 24/7/365 kind of task. And unlike babysitters for kids or kennels for dogs it’s difficult to find someone else to care for an elephant. Which means that a mahout’s job is a 7 day/week gig. No late nights with friends because they have to work early in the morning. Thus many of the younger mahouts decided they would rather not own an elephant and thus these elephants need to be rescued.

Patara is the only elephant rescue center that always has a greater number of elephants than the number of tourists that come each day. This enables the elephants to have a break and not be constantly over worked. Plus the staff all really cares for the elephants; no abuse of any kind occurred. That may seem like it not even need to be said, but in talking with other tourists who attended other camps I heard that the staff would hit or punch elephants as they verbally abused it. I love a good deal, but I love the ethical treatment of animals much more.

We were picked up at our guesthouse in Chiang Mai and whisked up into the mountains about 40 minutes outside of the city. Upon entering the compound my heart just about fell out of my chest: for those that have seen me interact with young children you know how much I love seeing the light inside of them as they play, learn, and explore. Baby elephants are just like toddlers except they weigh several hundred times as much. They were mischievous, no doubt, but oh so cute. They would run around trying to get into things they weren’t supposed to (our extra backpacks or any other place food might be stored), quickly suckling a bit of milk from mom, and then running over to whomever happened to have some food.

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We each had an outfit to put on over our clothes to keep ours clean. The bottoms were just like large thick pants that you tied tight with a string and the tops were big vests that just went over your head. With our livery donned we all looked like authentic mahouts…well, except for the notorious unauthentic GoPros that Brian and I were each saddled with.

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The real mahouts gave us sugar cane and then smiled and laughed to themselves as all the elephants, realizing that it was feeding time, stopped milling the hills grazing for scraps and walked swiftly charged to the mass of people handing out the good stuff.

We were taught the command for them to lift their trunk as it made it easier to slide the sugarcane into their gaping maw. I’m not sure how it’s actually spelled in Thai, but to me it sounded like the French word for good: bon.

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I had a GoPro on the whole time I was feeding them and even when we ran out of food they would be reaching out with their trunks searching for more by both smell and touch. We were taught to open our palms and show them that we had no more food otherwise they would just keep at it! They’re hungry herbivores! Here’s a video of my first experience feeding them!

After a few more minutes each of the mahouts separated their elephants from the herd and staked a little claim of ground away from everyone else. We were then each given a huge basket of food made up of both bananas and sugar cane. The main instructor Jack then assigned us an elephant along with that elephant’s mahout. James (my mahout) and my elephant Minwee (I’m guessing at the spelling, but it’s phonetically correct) became my friend for the day along with her baby Ra. Minwee was 14 years old and had a very healthy appetite. I should’ve asked for more details about her background, but my mahout only spoke a little English and I speak zero Thai.

Like most animals, elephants respond well to food; it bonds them to those that give it to them and we were told to tell them “Dī Dī” (phonetically: dee dee) which is “good good” as we stroked their trunks and rubbed their sides. Unlike most places where elephant calves are separated from their mothers to be better broken and more easily trained, the calves from Patara stay with their mothers. What this meant for me is that I had a naughty little elephant trying to mosey its way in on the food I was supposed to be giving Minwee. My mahout and I had to partner together to make sure they both got fed without taking all of the other elephant’s food.

Once we hit the bottom of the basket my mahout went down into a nearby gully and came back with a big stack of grass. They must have hid it there early that morning so that the elephants wouldn’t be able to find it first. Once that was gone Minwee started to wander around picking up leaves with her trunk, so I did one better and started gathering them for her and feeding them to her. It seems like she would eat just about anything that was put in front of her.

We got a little elephant daily care lesson next. Did you know that a healthy elephant sweats from its toes as well as its tear ducts? Did you know that you can tell how old and how healthy an elephant is based on the feel and smell of their poo? Jack made sure we all did and he also made sure that the photographer was ready as he got each of us to give the droppings a whiff starting with me. He explained that healthy elephants sleep lying down. Only a sick elephant sleeps standing up. And even though they only need 3-4 hours (after all, elephants have fantastic memories and REM sleep is all about organizing the subconscious and moving memories from short term to long term memory), they’ll get dirty and dusty on each side. I somehow was the lucky person to be used as an example, so they gave me the command to make her lie down which I apparently uttered as more of a question than a command. So after some prompting by the real elephant handlers, she rolled onto her side and basically looked like a dog that had just responded to the command “play dead”. Next they handed me this brush made of banana leaves and told me to basically whip it back and forth to clean all the dust off before watering her down (mud=mess). It basically looks like I was beating my elephant, but I promise that was not the case. I was even told that I had to do it harder to make sure to get all the dirt off. One thing I didn’t realize was how hairy elephants are: it’s almost like the bristles of a hair brush which means you really have to get in there to clean them off.

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So after the group was done laughing at my inability to properly issue commands to my elephant, I guided Minwee over to the hose which she deftly put directly into her mouth to drink. Once she had her fill I took the hose and used my fingers to create a sprayer and then got her nice and clean from her short evening of sleep. Since we were done before anyone else we led her down a path to a clearing and my mahout grabbed a bunch of bananas (the technical term for large tiers of bananas) and I fed mom and baby. The naughty Ra though would reach out and grab the big stem and try to pull them all into his mouth at once.

We walked back up the hill to join the rest of the group just in time for a demonstration on how to get up on an elephant: there are three simple ways and one difficult way to do this:

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  • grab the top of the elephant’s ear, issue a command, and tap the back of the elephants leg with your left foot. The elephant will bend its right leg and then you climb up its leg: left foot on the underside of the bent leg, right leg on top of the thigh, hand pulling you up by their ear and then swing the leg over and hoist yourself up. It’s pretty amazing to do and this is the way I did it because I think it’s the most fun. Plus it looks pretty cool too.
  • Issue a command and the elephant bends down and rolls on its side: you climb on and then it gets back up. This just seemed like the lazy way of doing things not to mention was a lot more work on the elephant’s part.
  • Another command gets them to bend their head forward and extend their trunk; you do a little hop, skip, and a jump and you’re on their head…backwards. Then you very carefully turn yourself around without falling down.
  • Or you can just run and jump…although I suspect they told us this just to see if anyone would try it. An elephant is pretty high up, so unless you’re an Olympic long jumper I think it’s better to use one of the first three methods.
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    After everyone was up it was time for “family photos” before we were off to the jungle for a nice trek to the waterfall. I was really impressed with their camera equipment: this wasn’t a point and shoot that they had but was a Canon Mark II with a 70-200 ML 2.8 zoom lens…that’s upwards of $1200 USD just for the lens. And it delivers nice sharp photos with creamy bokeh.

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    We trekked for 30-40 minutes up through the jungle. We went up hills and then back down. We were instructed to lean backwards when going down and lean forwards when going up to make it easier for the elephant to balance. Jack said that he does this every day but he prefers to walk with the elephants vs. ride because otherwise he has to get a massage when he’s done because he gets sore. I can certainly understand this because when properly riding and elephant you sit on his neck with your legs bent and toes pointed back squeezing the elephants neck for your balance. And after only an hour and a half riding this way I was sore for several days after.

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    The big elephants everyone was riding knew the drill and for the most part were good. But Jack joked that a trek through the jungle for an elephant is like a kid wandering through Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: everything is delicious and edible. Minwee only needed extra persuasion a few times from my mahout guide in the form of a few stern, properly pronounced commands. But the naughty babies were running all over the place. The larger elephants made a somewhat consistently straight line, but the babies would weave their way back and forth largely ignoring anyone else.

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    My leg muscles started cramping up just as we arrived at this gorgeous covered hut in the middle of the jungle. Some of the staff had went ahead and a veritable Thai feast spread out before us: fried chicken, sweet sticky rice, bananas, other fruits I don’t know the name of, and much more. We all dug in and got a chance to get to know the other people in our group: it was made up of a younger couple traveling for their honeymoon and then a group of four: an American that moved to Thailand almost two decades ago to become an English teacher along with his Thai wife, her friend, and his mother who was in town visiting.

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    After having our fill the man’s mother talked about giving some of the leftover bananas to the elephants. I scoffed and told her that I was sure that the guides would eat the rest of the food. It was such an overabundance of really good food, that to give it to the animals seemed like a waste. But one of the guides gave her the go-ahead, and she started feeding one of the elephants that was slowly sneaking up on us. Of course,this just burst open the flood gates and the rest of the elephants charged over right away. I suspect that the guides encouraged this to help create a memorable experience. The elephants descended upon our table and started scooping up everything they could with their trunks. I know that there are over 40,000 muscles in their trunks but even so you’ve never experiences how dexterous they are until you’re standing in-between them and food! A few of the guides ran in and started bagging some of the food they shouldn’t eat like the friend chicken. Despite their attempts I noticed several pieces of friend chicken end up being consumed, so I know that there are at least a few elephants that are omnivores.

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    It was back up on the elephants to descend the mountain. We went through some fairly steep grades, and I’m glad that Minwee’s footing was secure. We crossed a road and meandered down near the creek. There was a waterfall nearby and then a pool of water that was probably between 2-10 feet deep. We changed into our swimsuits and then jumped in the water. We were taught how to scrub the elephants down; it involved throwing water on them with a bucket and then pushing the brush back and forth. I was told I wasn’t doing it hard enough, and was surprised how hard I had to press in order for them to think I was doing a good job. We did this for a while and then took them to shallower water and finished brushing their legs, ears, butts, and trunks. Then we went back to the water hole to play with the babies. They liked to pretend that they were submarines and dive underneath you and then use their “periscope” (trunk) to search you out. Only one of them really let us ride on top. Our guides told us to just jump on and see what happens. Most of them would dive to get you off or rub up against another elephant. In the latter case I was worried about getting my foot smashed in-between them or having one of them accidentally step on my foot, so I would jump off on my own before they had the opportunity to turn my foot into a pancake.

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    We were told that they wanted to take one more “family picture”. But what that really meant was that just as we were posing the mahouts would whisper some secret evil Thai command that roughly translates to “suck up water with your trunk and then spray it at the tourists while we take a picture”. It’s too hard for me to transliterate from Thai, so I’ll just leave you with that English translation and a picture or two.

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    The mahouts then took over again to bring them all back up away from the watering hole while we went farther up to explore the local waterfall. We came back just in time to see the one bull elephant we were with mount one of the females. Instead of giving them their privacy everyone pulled out their cameras and GoPros to make our own amateur elephant porn. In circus acts elephants often go up on their hind legs. But in real life the only time this happens is when they’re mating or when a bull tries to get fruit from really high up. He needed a few tries to successfully accomplish what he was trying to do and even then one of the mahouts was holding the elephant cow as the bull did his business.

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    After the director called “Cut!” we all rode our elephants back up to the top of the hill to our waiting van. We got our last pictures, said our goodbyes, and tipped our mahouts for their help. Then we were whisked off to another part of the camp where the little babies were.

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    It was here that we met Pat the owner. He explained how he got started and about the dire straights that the elephant population is in. They’ve already returned 6 elephants to the wild and he hopes to continue for many more years. He told us that his goals were not only to take care of the elephants but to also take care of the guys that worked there along with their families. He wanted to make sure that they had good lives and could afford to send all their children to school. This made me feel really good because while it was quite a bit more expensive than other elephant operations (by local Thai comparison, not American) I felt that it was an investment into the future of Asian Elephants.

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    We got to see a few of the babies and play with them up close. One of them started ramming me, so I backed off. Another one was lying down by his mom’s feet; We were told that sleeping with elephants is supposed to give you good luck so naturally we had to quickly lie down with them!

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    There was one of the helpers that I just thought looked exactly how I had expected someone who cared for elephants his whole life to look. It was clear he loved them and I thought this photograph represented the essence of his existence.

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    We then went back to the “gift shop” where we changed our clothes, washed our hands, paid, and received our DVDs of all of the wonderful shots that they took.

    This was one of my favorite experiences in Asia! If you ever make it to Chiang Mai, become an “Elephant Owner for a Day” with Patara Elephant Farm.

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