Well before our arrival in Chiang Mai, our friend Mark (of CrossFit Chiang Mai and the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute) had asked if we wanted him to arrange for us to visit Patara Elephant Farm. Crazed with our cookbook launch, I hadn’t given it much thought, but I figured the kids would get a kick out of seeing some elephants, so I said sure. Why not?
I had no idea that by the end of the day, our kids would be doing this…
…and demanding to know whether we have enough room in our backyard for a pachyderm.
Located about 45 minutes south of Chiang Mai in the mountains surrounding the lush Hang Dong Valley, Patara Elephant Farm’s mission is to rescue and rehabilitate elephants. During the extensive orientation, we learned about the steep decline in the elephant population in Thailand over the past few decades, and Patara’s efforts to protect these magnificent animals. Patara has rescued and adopted a number of elephants, some from horrible (and illegal) working conditions. And unlike some of the other elephant camps around Chiang Mai that cater to tourists to the detriment of the animals, it’s obvious that the staff at Patara care deeply for their elephants. Each elephant at the farm is paired with one human guardian who’s responsible for bonding with and caring for the creature.
As soon as we arrived, we were introduced to the littlest additions to the camp: a trio of baby elephants born just in the last few weeks.
These “little” ones may have been small relative to their mommies, but they were definitely big (100-200kg!) and playful enough to knock us off balance a few times. We spent the better part of an hour playing with the spirited four-week-old…
…before spending some time with the newborn.
After watching the babies interact with their mothers, we headed off to the hillside starting point.
At Patara, each guest “adopts” an elephant for the day, so we donned traditional Karen tribal shirts, listened attentively to the instructions delivered by the owner of the farm, and got ready to spend some quality time with our new humongous friends—even as the skies suddenly opened up and dumped rain on us. It’s not the rainy season in Chiang Mai, but the farm had ponchos at the ready, and neither we nor the elephants were going to let a little rain spoil our day.
We began our lesson by learning how to safely approach and feed (and thereby ingratiate ourselves with) our elephants.
Next up: a health check. One that involves checking the elephant’s poo. Manually.
And wringing it out. And breaking it apart. And taking a big sniff.
Then, we got some practice guiding our elephants around with a gentle tug of the ear…
…before cleaning their backs of dirt and leaves.
Then, it was time to mount our new gentle friends…
…for a stroll down to the waterfall.
Lil-O got his own little elephant—an eight-year-old—and immediately fell in love.
Meanwhile, Big-O and I shared a ride…
…while Henry followed on his own elephant close behind.
At the waterfall, we were treated to a huge lunch spread…
…while the elephants got ready for a swim.
There was no way our boys were going to pass up a chance to swim with their new pals. Ignoring the old wive’s tale that says you shouldn’t swim right after eating, our kids stripped down to their trunks and made a beeline for the water.
With a boost from a mighty trunk (and a helping hand, too)…
…our boys took a dip with the elephant herd.
Lil-O—who can’t yet swim—was fearless in the way that only five-year-olds can be. When his elephant dipped her head below the water’s surface, Lil-O went with her, and disappeared in the murky depths before resurfacing again.
I tried my best not to freak out…
…but neither of my boys were fazed in the slightest. (Plus, there were three guides making sure the Double-Os were safe.)
Even after I figured it was time to get my children out of the water…
…they decided they needed to wade back in to help give their elephants a proper scrub-down.
Henry joined in, too.
Me? I was content to snap photos and wave to my elephant friend.
By the time the elephants were nice and clean (and my boys were caked with mud), it was near dinnertime. Reluctantly, the boys hopped on their elephants for the ride out.
Despite my squeamishness, this was an amazing experience. In the span of a few hours, we all fell hard for these beautiful beasts, and it’s not difficult to see why. They’re smart, playful, and gentle—and they care for each other. After getting up close and personal with these animals—and looking after one for just a day—I can’t imagine mistreating these lovely elephants. Not to sound too hippy-dippy, but our day with the elephants was a strong reminder of the impact we have on our world, and the creatures that share this little blue dot with us.
If you ever have the chance to visit Patara Elephant Farm, do it. It’ll be one of the most amazing experiences of your life.