Walking with gentle giants: A day as an elephant keeper

Walk me with me
In the giant redwood forests & sea,
so by your side, I may be tall & empty
Let me see
the world as you be
For you are a giant with a key,
& I a mere shadow seeking to be free.

I absolutely love elephants. It’s not just because of their impressive memory or the fact that they are so family oriented. Not just for their beautiful tusks, nor the way they speak to one another. There’s a number of amazing things about elephants:

  • They can live up to 70 years old
  • An average elephant’s heart weighs 27-46 pounds
  • They have the longest gestation period of any animal – it takes an elephant 22 months from conception to give birth
  • An elephant trunk has more than 40,000 muscles in it.

The reason I love these creatures so much, is because they are way more human than most animals. Elephants are deeply sensitive & caring beings with a strong sense of community. If an elephant calf is in distress, the whole herd will rush over to soothe & “watch over” the baby. They have greeting ceremonies for friends they haven’t seen in a while; often they “hug” by wrapping their trunks together. Elephants even display reverence & remember their dead – they pay homage by touching the tusks & bones of the deceased with their trunks. If an elephant walks by a place where one of their kin has died, they pause & stand still for several minutes. These animals display compassion, grief, self-awareness & a sense of fun. I see a friend in them.

A place that bears testament to the awesomeness of elephants, is Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It’s not uncommon to see elephants walking around the streets in Bangkok; folks in this part of the world even keep them as pets. The sad reality is, plenty of elephants are spurned from circuses, rejected as pets and abandoned. There are wonderful sanctuaries like Patara & Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, where elephants are rescued & rehabilitated into the wild.

I was fortunate enough to experience a life changing day at Patara Elephant farm, I witnessed these gentle giants up close, and got to be a mahout, an elephant owner for a day. Here’s what the experience entails.

Arrival

We drove into the sanctuary, a little outside town and by the edge of the jungle. To our left, we saw a flash of grey & white, and heard a trumpeting sound welcoming us. Before we knew it, we were by the edge of a herd, standing close to a mother feeding her baby, while a nosy neighbor rummaged his trunk on my shoulder, checking me for food.

That’s when I got it: Dorothy, this isn’t Kansas anymore 🙂

The owner, Pat greeted our group, spoke about elephants in Thailand & conservation efforts. We were all trained in paying attention to the basic signs for reading elephant distress/happiness – flapping ears is the one I remember most.

Meeting our Elephant

Each of us were designated an elephant to care for the day. My elephant friend’s name was Marie, here we are.

Let’s eat!

Caring for our Elephant

We learnt how to bathe, scrub, feed elephants food & water, even check their poop!

Climbing & Riding our Elephant

Getting onto our elephants to ride them bare back was an adventure in itself! Here are some of the creative ways you can mount an elephant.

We had lunch in the jungle… the elephants raided our food soon after. We then made our way to a river nearby.

Mudbath in the River

Elephants love water & bathing… the river was a great spot for them to soak up once more. We further scrubbed & cleaned our elephants.

We hung out in the river, and a small pool with a waterfall nearby. Riding back once more, we said goodbye to our elephants and spent the rest of the afternoon with mothers & baby elephants.

Saying goodbye to Marie, my elephant

I felt very grateful to have the morning & afternoon with Marie, I learnt over her mudbath that she had lost a child to a miscarriage. I felt deeply for my friend, wondered how long she spent thinking of her baby. I couldn’t stop hugging her or hoping to offer comfort in some way. I can’t wait to go back & meet her again someday.

Saying hello to Baby Elephants

I can tell why one would want to adopt elephants, it’s because of how playful & incredibly adorable these little guys are. Well, little in terms of the elephant world at least 🙂 I had an elephant calf come up to me and hug me with its trunk, he hijacked my banana and then wanted to sit on my lap, while I stroked his head. For the record, a baby elephant weighs 200 lbs, and it’s in equal parts joyous & terrifying when the baby elephants push you around, jostle you in the name of play.

I saw in the baby elephants’ eyes, the same look of glee, curiosity, fear & wild excitement I’ve seen in the eyes of human babies. A baby elephant got scared when one of us sneezed and ran away trumpeting, seeking shelter behind her mother’s legs. Another baby elephant decided to drop & roll on the ground in a circle because he discovered a new mud puddle. I saw another one struggle to walk, because his trunk kept getting in the way. These creatures will burrow their way into your heart and their 200 lb selves will imprint a permanent memory in your soul.

It was time to say goodbye, at the end of a long day you’ll be sore, do take advantage of Chiang Mai’s famous spas! Here’s a great post on top spas in Chiang Mai.

For more on what to see in Chiang Mai, check out this post.

Planning Your Trip

Perfect for: Solo travel, Couples, Group travel, eco-tourism, adventure travel
Time: Morning Session from 7:30 AM – 3:30 PM; Afternoon Session from 1:00 PM to 6:30 PM
What To Take:

  • Waterproof pants & shirt (humidity-friendly)
  • Hair tie, if you have long hair
  • Sandals – you won’t want to lug around wet socks & you’re bound to get hot in sneakers
  • Sunscreen & Insect repellent
  • Swimsuit
  • Hat

Address & Phone:
Patara Elephant Farm
Baan Pong Hang Dong District, Chiang Mai 50230, Thailand
Phone: +66 98 549 3644
Book here for the “Elephant Owner for a day” program

Suffice to say, a visit to Patara Elephant Farm has a permanent place the Mojo hall of fame.


Also published on Medium.

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