Thailand’s Best Elephant Experience

first lookAlmost as if they were waiting just for us, several giant Asian elephants approached us from behind and sat down. Differing from other animals, when a two ton domesticated animal sits down next to you and appears to smile, your heart pounds and fascination abounds. Conducting Introductions to each elephant in both Thai and English, the knowledgeable team of mahouts assigned riders to each elephant, probably based on first observations of each visitor’s size and personality. Instructional lessons would follow shortly as we began our day at Patera Elephant Farm,  possibly the most educational and enjoyable animal encounter available in Southeast Asia.

thai trip logoContinuing our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation in Thailand, we just finished an amazing overnight excursion to a remote tribal village high in the hills. After Hanging Out With the Hill People, we expected excitement in the next chapter and the day’s events exceeded all expectations. Conveniently located about an hour from Chiang-Mai, the full day specialized program is tailor-made for those seeking a once in a lifetime opportunity that educates, enriches and provides a meaningful understanding into the special world of elephants.

Unlike many touristy and very poorly managed elephant encounters available in Thailand, all the elephants at Patera Elephant Farm were rescued from unsuitable working conditions and proceeds from the trip help keep them in a natural environment with a sustainable breeding program. Conducted as an educational learning experience and trained in the daily workings of an elephant owner,  the program lives up to its name,  Elephant Owner for a Day”.

All the elephants were rescued from poor working conditions elsewhere

All the elephants were rescued from poor working conditions elsewhere

Featuring hotel pick up and transfer, the training session includes all important aspects of elephant care including

  • An educational talk about the elephant farm’s management and breeding program
  • How to approach and properly mount the elephants
  • Spoken communication techniques
  • A bare-back practice riding session and ride to the river to clean the elephants
  • Trail ride to a waterfall for a picnic lunch and refreshing dip in the water with your elephant; learn how to unchain and walk him to the water
  • An elephant riding trip back to the farm and evening feeding.

Diane and I arrived at about 8:00 AM and met our group for the day. After basic safety instruction and paperwork, the elephants approached and we exchanged formal introductions. Conducting an educational talk, the staff explained how much exploitation exists throughout Thailand with an emphasis on how visitors can help. Walking away with a new understanding, we gained an invaluable insight to the current issues that threaten the wild elephant population.

Interestingly, they spent fifteen minutes explaining elephant dung including the reasons why it doesn’t smell, is good for the environment and what makes its composure unique in the animal kingdom. Encouraged to not only look but even smell and touch, they led us to a big field of the flaky yellow stuff and we all marveled and sifted through the strange yellow poo.

Learning communication skills was next in the program and we all listened as the mahouts ran through simple verbal commands. Guessing many guests have poor short-term memory (like me), they encouraged us to write them down on our arms.


Feeling more comfortable, we walked down a grass trail where the elephants were waiting. Simultaneously kneeling one by one after we uttered the correct command, they patiently waited for their morning cleaning. Consisting of multiple aspects, cleaning an elephant is no easy task. The first part is swatting their enormous bodies with leaves which also allows the elephant some time to grow comfortable with his new “owner”.

MY elephant was too big for a short guy like me so he had to kneel to get dusted.

As the morning wore on and the heat intensified, the time came for mounting the elephant for our first trip, a bare-back walk to the river for part two of the cleaning session. Easier said than done, Diane did fine but I stumbled a few times before successfully making my way on the elephant’s back.

Feeling a huge sense of accomplishment, we all began an organized single file trek down to the river where the real bathing session began.

Armed with wicker baskets and miniature scrubbers similar to bathroom grout cleaners, we watched the mahouts demonstrate how and where to wash the elephants. Seeming to enjoy the pampering, all the elephants indicated their approval (or so said the mahouts).

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Freshly cleaned, the day continued slowly as Diane and I re-mounted the elephants and began a slow walk down the paved highway on the way to a picnic lunch. Appreciating the relative ease of a paved road, the main intention was practice for the afternoon trek up a single track dirt path through the jungle. Indifferent to traffic, the elephants and us slowly meandered down the road enjoying the scenery and we savored our first solo ride on enormously large elephants.

Unexpectedly delicious and surprisingly large, the staff served lunch on the banks of a river, giving the elephants and their new “owners” an opportunity to cool off in the river together before settling down for a feast of locally prepared traditional Thai treats. Unwrapped in banana leaf, the spread surprised everyone except perhaps the elephants and we all emerged satisfied and ready for the afternoon’s trail ride.

Considering ourselves experts by this point, Diane and I finished our meal and made our way on the elephants once again. Beginning an exceptionally beautiful descent through the jungle, the elephant entourage proceeded en route back to the camp. Already experienced and amazed at the navigation skills and agility of elephants through steep and narrow jungle trails, we reminisced about the recent two-hour non-solo elephant trek on our trip to see the Karen Hill Tribe Village a few days earlier.  Oddly, no other Southeast Asian culture ever domesticated and used elephants as a means of transportation the way the Thai people have (and still do).

Are you famished after hiking up a long mountain trail during a summer camping trip? Of course you are and elephants are no different. Arriving back at the camp by mid afternoon, suppertime for the elephants involved more bananas than you and I could eat in a year and the elephants smiled graciously as they accepted mounds of fruit from all of us. Although not as large as African elephants, the Asian elephant eats as much as 330 pounds a day, more than 80 times an average human adult. Probably not full, the elephants appeared happy even after we ran out of bananas in only a few minutes.

final feed 2

final feed 3

Saying goodbye was the hardest part of the day as we all posed for group pictures and enjoyed a few more minutes of quality time with our new friends, the amazing Asian elephants. Clearly the most educational animal experience Diane and I have come across, the day ended as we watched our elephants walk off into the sunset and with their incredible intelligence, they no doubt remembered every one of us for months to come.

Although Malaysia is our intended destination and we love orangutans and monkeys, elephant encounters are unavailable in Thailand’s neighbor to the south. Fortunately, Penang lies only a few hours away from Chiang Mai by plane and we look forward to a return trip. Patera Elephant Farm is a highly enjoyable day and an absolute must do for any Northern Thailand itinerary. Reasonably priced at about $180 USD per person, disappointment is not an option !!

Have you experienced an elephant ride?
Perhaps you’ve just seen them at the zoo? Please share your story or comment !! 

Look for my upcoming additional posts:

in the upcoming days I’ll continue my series on our expat research vacation to Thailand, which we consider “Plan B”,  I’ll also cover what other “research vacations” to Ecuador, Aruba and Singapore (actually Singapore was really more of a shopping adventure)

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