When I found out I would be moving to Thailand I immediately thought of all the exciting and adventurous things I was going to do, the main one being to ride an elephant. I've been here about a year and a half, and have only now gotten around to doing it. After seeing many elephants chained, with marks on their body from abuse and captivity I wanted to be selective in the place I went. Elephant riding is a very popular tourist activity but in reality the population of Thai elephants is declining significantly, with roughly 4,000 elephants currently in Thailand but approximately 100,000 in 1900.
The North is the most popular place to go to see elephants and experience the life of a mahout, an elephant caregiver. After much research and personal recommendations my friends and I decided to go to Patara Elephant Farm, and I think I can say the experience exceeded all of our expectations. After a long hour and a half drive through the green mountains of Chiang Mai we came to the elephant camp, located at the bottom of a deep valley. Elephants were roaming freely, with mothers taking care of their babies, young ones wrestling with one another, and all in their natural habitat. Right away you notice how highly emotional these amazing creatures are, and these were the happiest elephants I've ever seen.
Once arriving at the camp we were each assigned our own elephant for the day. Each elephant has its own trainer that stays with it every day, so they are given a lot of care and attention. My elephant was the smallest of the group, and only 7 years old. About 1 hour of the day was spent actually riding the elephants (because as we learned, it's not healthy for the animals to be ridden all day.) We rode them bareback and were instructed to sit on the elephant's head. Getting on and off the enormous creatures was a challenge at first, and you can either climb up its trunk, or the elephant is trained to raise its leg for you to use as a sort of step. Sitting atop these animals was not as terrifying as it might look, since their size makes them feel quite stable. It was a bit nerve racking when they started literally trekking up the mountain though!
Aside from riding the elephants we also fed and bathed them, and learned about different ways to determine how healthy they are. I had no idea that elephants sweat through their toes, that they will flap their ears and tails when they are happy, have life spans equal to that of humans, and are pregnant for two whole years before giving birth! It was interesting to talk to the elephant caregivers, who were part of the Karen tribe, and said that elephants are treated as pets in their culture. They are not meant to be work animals but respected and treated with care. One of the missions of Patara Elephant Camp is to increase the elephant population in Thailand. They take care of the physical and emotional needs of the elephants with the hopes that they will be healthy enough to reproduce. Many of the elephants that come to this camp were work or circus elephants prior to arriving. A lot of times they have been abused and it takes a long time for them to become healthy enough to be able to reproduce. In order to get these animals out of captivity this family owned organization must purchase them at a high price. The “elephant for a day” program they offer helps support this organization to work for this cause.
You can check out more on their website: http://www.pataraelephantfarm.com