I'm Portuguese, live in Lisbon and I'm a travel addict!
I've been traveling since I was a teenager and I've been around the World a few times already.
This is my attempt to share with you my experiences and the knowledge I've collected after more than 20 years of non-stop traveling. Hope you like it!
You can read more about me here.
Hello fellow travelers! Do you like elephants? Would you like to spend a day with one? I went to Chiang Mai, Thailand to have this experience and it was incredible!
I did a lot of research before visiting Patara Elephant Farm, because I didn’t want to visit a place where elephants were exploited and mistreated.
The decision was not easy. Animal tourism is an important part of the Thai economy, though the way elephants are seen in the country culturally (and a bit throughout Asia in general) clashes with the view of those who advocate respect and preservation of all animal species. Unfortunately, an elephant, despite being considered a sacred animal, is seen as a work animal, a mere instrument, something without feelings, that is to be used and abused…
We can choose to see these animals only in natural parks and in their natural environment, and that is the best way to do it, but I still consider projects like Patara, that provide a positive interaction with endangered animals, to be very important for the species preservation because children, young people and even adults, will not want to harm something they know well and with whom they have created bonds.
Plus, real sanctuaries give jobs to many people who would otherwise, exploit the animals in other ways, a thousand times worse. Maybe I’m being naive, but I consider these sanctuaries a ‘lesser evil’.
Conservation efforts are starting to have some effect in Thailand but there is still a lot to do.
I chose Patara Elephant Farm because it was the one, from everything that I had read, which seemed to treat the elephants better and yet I still saw some things that I did not like, and I’ll explain it later.
The first impression of the place was fantastic because as soon as I arrived I was introduced to a playful newborn elephant (only a month old). He was small, but already weighted enough to knock me down with a little touch (which is not to difficult to do 😜).
After this fun moment, one of the founders of the sanctuary did a presentation for about an hour, where he explained the conditions in which elephants live in Thailand. He told us about the abuses that the poor animals suffer and about the conservation efforts that are being carried out. He also gave us some information, with specific examples, of how we can check if an elephant is healthy, if he is well cared for, and if he is happy.
We were told that the elephants we found on the farm, were rescued from other farms where they were mistreated or abandoned by owners who could no longer keep them.
The family that manages this farm considers themselves to be only the caretaker of the elephants, and not their owners, though they did confess to us, that at nights the animals are chained, so that they would not wander off. The chains are long and allow animals to move freely but still, I did not really like hearing this…
According to them this policy was imposed after an accident where an elephant crashed into a car on a road near the farm. The elephant survived the accident, but unfortunately the driver did not.
We have also been told that in Thailand the number of elephants has dropped to almost half in the last 30 years, and the health, reproduction and longevity of the animals are the main missions of this sanctuary, which has a very positive rate of success.
Elephants tend to die of malnutrition, skin infections, and mental problems, so this is the main focus of care.
The farm only allows a limited number of visitors per day. You have to make a reservation online well in advance to guarantee a spot.
On the farm, each person is assigned his or her “own elephant” which basically means that while on the farm, the participant is in charge of the feeding, bathing and health examination of “his or her” elephant.
The animal is chosen according to our height and personality. A person with a timid personality, for example, is given a quieter tempered elephant.
I was attributed a young elephant named Shampoo. To create a bond with the animal the first thing we were asked to do is feed him with bananas and sugar cane. At the same time, they taught us basic voice commands to deal with these lovely creatures.
Then we had to carry out health examination to see if the elephant is healthy and happy. What we had to do is to walk around the animal to observe its behavior – if he is wagging his ears and smacking his tail it’s a sign that he’s happy.
We also had to check if the elephant’s eyes are bright and clear and do not have excessive secretions. Sore eyes indicate illness or pain. The ears should not have any secretions or stench.
To be sure there are no rashes or fungal growth on the body of an elephant, the skin should also be examined carefully as well as the cuticles around the nails.
Finally we had to check if the animal’s poop looks healthy and does not have a bad smell. 😝
The next step is to clean the animal, shake the dirt off his body and then give him a bath and brush him well.
After this process, we could, if we wanted to, mount the elephant – but without a saddle.
We were told that the saddles and chairs are very heavy and can hurt elephants deeply, making their spine crooked, and that’s why they are not allowed on the farm.
I decided to try it, and I climbed up on the elephant and stood on his shoulders.
Shampoo was a young elephant, not very tall, but still when I climbed up on top of him he seemed so high… 😮
Riding an elephant was a unique experience… the trail took us through the mountains and the views were breathtaking.
The day was overcast and hot, and there was a lot of fog. This created an almost magical environment! I felt truly blessed to be there.
Suddenly it began to rain and the road became muddy and the elephants began to slip. I thought to myself – “okay, I’m going to fall through the ravine and my life ends here! I die now, but I die happy!”.
Shampoo, however, had a great balance and we managed to reach our destination without any accident 😄.
One of the things that I did not enjoy during this experience was the way the mahout (trainers) treated the elephants. Sometimes to make the elephant move, when the elephant didn’t want to, the mahout would pull on the animal’s ears. I asked if this hurt the animals, and they insisted that it didn’t, but that’s really hard to believe 😒.
Usually, a mahout starts out as a child in the family profession and is assigned a young elephant to train. So the way they treat the creature is a cultural issue. For them to pull an animal’s ear is perfectly normal and probably they don’t really understand our Western sensitivity.
More than once it seemed to me that the attractions on the farm were the visitors themselves, such was the way the Mahouts looked at us. I guess it’s difficult for them to understand why someone is willing to pay to bathe elephants and sniff their poo!
I think the conservation effort is very important, and places like Patara are needed, but I also think that we have to invest more in education because it is the only way to change deeply rooted beliefs. What good is it to have a sanctuary if afterwards some of the people who work in it and who are in direct contact with the elephants, do not understand the importance or the reason of what they are doing?
Overall it was an amazing experience where I felt that I learned something important and had the opportunity to get to know one of the most beautiful creatures on the planet.
They say that elephants never forget, I hope Shampoo never forgets me. I’m sure I’ll never forget him!