Elephant trekking is very popular among travelers in Thailand, particularly in the northern jungles surrounding Chiang Mai. When Brian and I decided to include Thailand on our RTW adventure, it wasn’t a question of whether we would go on an elephant trek, but rather which organization we would book with.
While working on an organic farm in Belgium, we met Kate and Matt of www.twopackedbags.com. At that point we weren’t really thinking about elephants because, as you know, we tend not to plan very far in advance. One day when they were recounting their adventures in Thailand, they told us about their amazing day at Patara Elephant Farm; Kate even went as far as to call it “the best day” of her life. We knew we needed to look into Patara when we were ready to go on an elephant trek.
As budget travelers, we quickly noticed the price tag associated with being an “elephant owner for a day” at Patara. At 5800 baht each (roughly $188 USD), I must admit I was a little skeptical. What really could really set Patara apart from the multiple less expensive options around Chiang Mai?
As it turns out, just about everything about spending a day with Patara sets them apart from other elephant trekking companies in Thailand. Sometimes the old adage is true: you get what you pay for. We decided that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was not to be passed up for a cheaper, less meaningful experience and reserved a day with Patara.
Our day began at 7:45 am when Jack, Patara’s photographer and trip leader, came to pick us up at our guest house. We picked up a couple of other guests and made our way out of the city and into the surrounding mountains. The landscape was beautiful and our excitement (and, in my case, nervousness) to meet the elephants grew and grew as we approached the farm.
When we arrived, we met Pat. Pat and his wife Dao began Patara Elephant Farm over 10 years ago with the mission of rescuing elephants from inhumane conditions and breeding them to help to prevent their extinction. He explained his philosophy pretty simply: “extinction is forever,” and elephant populations in Thailand are dropping at an alarming rate.
After Pat’s talk, we geared up in traditional mahout (elephant trainer) clothing to so we looked more familiar to the elephants, then it was time for a feeding. Like most animals (including humans) the way to get into elephant’s hearts is through their stomach. We grabbed big baskets of sugar cane and bananas and met Maeboondee, our new elephant friend. She ate each and every scrap of food from our baskets, which we were told was a sign that she liked us. We were relieved, as we didn’t really want to make enemies with a 5000 pound elephant. We learned that the “Mae” part of Maeboondee means she is a mother. Before she had her first baby, she was just “Boondee.”
Once our elephants were well fed, it was time to check to see if they were healthy and happy. You can tell whether or not elephants are happy by their ears. If they’re ears are flapping, it’s a sign that they’re in a good mood. Alternatively, if they’re stiff, they may be in a defensive mood. As the health check continued, we checked for dirt marks on their sides to see how well they slept, checked for sweat around their toenails to see if they were perspiring enough, and checked their dung to see if their digestive system was in good working order. Yep, you read that right, we checked their poop to make sure it was moist, the fibers were the right size, and there weren’t any full leaves that weren’t digested properly. I was happy that Maeboondee was a vegetarian.
After the health check, it was time for washing. The elephants at Patara are bathed in the river every day. With a few simple commands, we asked Maeboondee to lay down in the river so we could wash her. We jumped in up to our thighs and splashed and scrubbed until Maeboondee was all clean, then we posed for a few photos while the mahouts (without our knowledge) told the elephants to spray us with their trunks.
Then the moment came that we all were waiting for: trekking through the jungle on our elephants. Before heading out, though, we needed to learn a few important commands for our trek. We learned the Thai words for forward (pronounced “bye”), stop (pronounced “how”), and go backward (pronounced “toy”). I cannot tell you how many times I said “Bye Maeboondee Bye” as I tapped the back of her ears with my feet, telling her to go forward.
After learning the commands, we were ready to jump on board. One of the great things about Patara is that all of their participants ride the elephants bareback, unlike many companies which put a big wooden bench on their backs. The problem with the benches is that they can work small pebbles and dirt under the elephants skin, causing irritation and infection. My heart beat rapidly as I nudged the back of Maeboodee’s leg, asking her to bend her knee and let me climb up. She wasn’t concerned though, and lifted her leg without hesitation.
We set out on the trail and we began to learn about Maeboondee. For starters, those two baskets of cane sugar and bananas were not enough to keep her satisfied. She chomped on leaves and vines left and right as we meandered through the forest. Part of the mahout outfit we wore included long pants, which we quickly realized were meant, at least in part, to protect our legs from the wiry hairs on Maeboondee’s back. As we continued on, I kept looking down at her head in disbelief. I was actually riding an elephant through the jungle.
Each elephant has a mahout who walks alongside as they trek though single-track, often very steep, trails through the jungle. Our Mahout was named Nui, a really nice man who seemed to really love working with the elephants. After riding on Maeboondee’s back through the jungle for a little while, I become very aware of what amazing animals they are. They’re massive, yet so gentile and sweet. Maeboondee listened to everything Nui said, and there is no doubt in my mind that she understood every word. How anyone could possibly harm them is beyond me.
We trekked for about 45 minutes before stopping for lunch near a waterfall. Our lunch was a delicious combination of various Thai foods served in banana leaves. Luckily for us, one of the elephants became interested in our food after we had almost finished. Once he was interested, there was no stopping him, and he devoured all of our leftovers within reach.
After lunch, a few elephants were led into the water and we joined them. In the river, the elephant’s playful sides really came out. They splashed us and hid under the water, playing an elephant version of hide and go seek. I suppose under water is just about the only place a gigantic elephant can successfully play hide and go seek. We splashed around for an hour or so before getting ready for the ride back.
We took a different trail home, this time even steeper climbs and descents as the way there. At some points during the trek, Maeboondee was in mud up to her knees. She trudged through, continuing to pick up one leg at a time and keeping her balance on some very difficult terrain. For the first time that day, the sun came out from behind the clouds and I could see the rice fields glistening from the morning rain.
When we got back to the farm, I was very sad to say goodbye to Maeboondee. I made more of a connection with her than I ever imagined I would. I believe it’s mainly because I spent the entire day with her. We didn’t just show up and expect to get on and ride though the jungle; we fed her, bathed her, and checked her poop, duties I think everyone should have who is lucky enough to get on an elephant’s back and trek though the jungle. They’re amazingly intelligent and kind animals who deserve much more credit than they receive. Everyone says that elephants never forget, so I’m hoping Maeboondee will remember us someday when we return.
Before leaving, Jack gave us two discs of photos and videos from our day with the elephants, one of the many added touches that makes Patara special. If you’re in the Chiang Mai area and want to experience being an elephant owner for a day, check out Patara’s website at: www.pataraelephantfarm.com and make your reservation by emailing Pat at email@example.com. There is a reason they’re rated as Chiang Mai’s number one attraction by tripadvisor. We’re very grateful that we didn’t let our budget stop us from spending an incredible day with the elephants and mahouts. It was worth every single baht!
About the author: Kaitlin
Kaitlin is one of the two backpacks currently galavanting her way around the globe with her husband Brian. She loves adventures of any kind (especially if they involve getting into the wilderness), exploring vegetarian foods in different cultures, and meeting people from around the globe. Her goal in writing for this site is to inspire people to take risks, define their own life rules, and be happy and healthy while doing it.