Right after visiting Elephant Nature Park (ENP), I thought I’d gotten my elephant fix. A week later, though, I was singing a different tune. I wanted some quality time with an elephant and Patara Elephant Farm promised just that with its Elephant Owner for a Day program.
Patara is the #1 activity on TripAdvisor for Chiang Mai, Thailand, and we’d also gotten a recommendation for them in Australia, so I contacted them for availability. A day visit costs 5,800 THB (190 USD at the time).
Brian felt like he’d had enough of an elephant experience at ENP, so I went to Patara alone. I was excited, but in the days leading up to my visit, I was also concerned. I’d seen and heard many horror stories at ENP. Lek had stopped talking to Brian and walked off when he mentioned Patara. What if they mistreated the elephants? I knew they had two newborns, each less than 10 days old, and I had a lot of questions. What if I didn’t like the answers?
Patara’s driver picked me up just before 8am, and already the experience was different than ENP. There were just three of us in the van for the 45-minute ride to the farm. In total, there were 20-25 tourists present, and we were subdivided into two groups after owner Pat’s welcome and introduction. I never saw the other group again.
Patara is a private farm owned and run by a Thai family. They house 29 elephants, many of whom came to them from unsuitable homes like circuses and logging camps. Pat, one of the owners, refers to his activities as adoption instead of rescue because he says he doesn’t want to be thought of as a hero. He is doing what he believes must be done to prevent extinction. His motto: “Extinction is forever.”
Patara’s primary purpose is breeding. As such, their elephants range in age from newborn to early 50s. They have four breeding bulls and donate sperm to the Thai government’s artificial insemination programs, although Pat prefers to let nature take its course in his own program. When female elephants are in heat, they choose a mate and are released to the wild together for a “10-day honeymoon,” as Pat calls it. Breeding is not mandatory, however. My elephant, Prao, has not been interested in any of their males to date and hasn’t been bred.
Pat’s description of the elephant situation in Thailand was more balanced than that of ENP. Although the Asian elephant is endangered—there are approximately 3,200 domesticated elephants and 1,400 wild elephants left in Thailand—many people are working on the problem. The Thai government is involved through the Thai Elephant Conservation Center - Lampang, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit initiated the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, and Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) built the world’s first elephant hospital, for example. There is also the Elephant Parade, an international public art project benefiting Asian elephant charities, including FAE.
As I mentioned, I had a lot of questions, and Pat had pragmatic responses. Instead of banning elephant painting shows, for example, he suggests that use of non-toxic paint be required. Because of his breeding program, I also asked Pat what they planned for the babies: Would they be released into the wild, or kept for training? He said he had released seven elephants to the wild so far but that the newest herd members would probably be kept at the farm. Of course, that led to my questions about phajaan training. Pat didn’t shy away from the questions and in fact encouraged me to ask them in front of the group. He asked which version of the infamous video I’d seen, as there are several edits, and encouraged me to find the full 30-minute video (Note: I haven’t been able to, but I welcome comments from anyone who knows how to find it). He gave me a lot to think about, and I was impressed by the forthrightness of his responses.
On the way over to meet our elephants, we met the newest members of the herd. This cutie was about 24 hours old:
We then got to love on the older baby, who was about 10 days old. Looks tiny and cute, doesn’t she? Well, this little lady already weighs 180lbs and accidentally knocked one of the other guests over in her excitement.
Next, came the work. My elephant “ownership” program involved checking Prao’s health: A visual inspection of her mental state (happy elephants flap their ears and respond to their names), digestive health (dung sniffing, anyone?) and overall well-being. Then, I learned some basic elephant commands, brushed off the dirt she had sprayed on herself to keep cool and took her for a bath. Patara’s idea of a bath was a lot more involved than ENP’s; it involved real scrubbing from top to bottom.
And then came the riding. Sitting atop an elephant places you pretty high off the ground and, at first, you’re certain you’ll fall off. Once you have your bearings, the real discomfort begins. While I understand from Pat that riding the elephants bareback provides them with healthful daily activity and keeps their feet in good shape, it was pretty uncomfortable and not something I would choose to do again.
Prao liked to be up front, so we quickly took the lead and maintained it most of the day. And Kao took pity on me in the bright sun and insisted that I wear his hat.
Note: Riding bareback is very different than riding atop a basket, which is very heavy and can cause permanent injury to the elephant. As with many topics regarding elephants, conservation and tourism, elephant riding is controversial. Here’s an interesting blog post I found on the topic.
After riding for quite a while through the jungle, up steep hills and over streams, we settled for lunch alongside a river.
Some of the guests decided to swim with the elephants, but I watched from shore and enjoyed the break instead. Then, we cleaned up our leftovers, fed them to the elephants (only the non-meat items) and began the trek back to camp. I wasn’t wearing a watch so I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess the whole experience lasted about six hours. It was enough. I was tired after my hot day with Prao and Kao but I was also happy to have done it.
I would definitely return to Patara, but I think my elephant riding days are over. They have a shorter program where you stay around the farm and spend more time with the pregnant mothers and babies, and I’ve heard they are willing to tailor your visit as well.
Pros of Patara:
- Great elephant encounter for tourists, including newborn cuddling.
- Lengthy one-on-one time, including health check and bathing.
- Patara has a perfect record of zero deaths in 10 years of operation. That is not true for ENP although, to be fair, ENP has an older elephant population.
- Cool freebies: a CD of photos and videos taken throughout the day is given to each guest. Most of the photos in this post came from Patara. To see some more videos, head over to our video page.
- A long time is spent bareback riding, which provides exercise for elephants, but I’d rather have skipped it.
- Facilities are limited.
- Mahouts carry hooks, although I never saw one used on an elephant. They cover the business end with their hands and wield the butt end as a minor prod on rare occasion.
So, if I were to compare my time at Patara and ENP, who would be the winner? Let’s go point by point:
- On letting elephants be elephants: ENP
- Close-up cuddling, including with babies: Patara, hands down
- Bathing experience: Patara
- Riding: Only Patara allows this but it wasn’t a highlight for me
- Lunch: ENP, with a huge vegetarian buffet
- Personalization possibilities: Patara
- Overnight & volunteer experiences: Only available through ENP
- Elephant care: This one is really a toss up. Patara’s mahouts carry hooks, but I saw some questionable acts on the part of kwans (Burmese word for mahouts) at ENP. I’m not really qualified to judge quality of care, so I’ll leave this one a draw.
There you have it: My Thai elephant adventures in a nutshell. Which would you choose?