Today I was reminded how important this blog is for capturing moments and sharing adventures. It has been too long, but I am writing again. And I have the best subject matter ever!
Exactly four weeks ago today, Tom and I landed in Bangkok and started a 16 day vacation. The entire trip was absolutely amazing and I have subject matter for months, but one day in particular was pure magic and a giant check mark on the "to do" list of life. Elephants!!!
After talking with other travelers at Secret Garden outside of Chiang Mai, we decided that Patara Elephant Farm was the best place to spend the day. It was destined to be touristy, so it was important to pick a place where the elephants are treated well and there is more purpose than profit. Patara Elephant Farm's mission: Patara Elephant Farm is a 100% Thai owned and managed farm focusing on health-care and breeding management for friendly, beautiful and special elephants to produce healthy elephants to live on Earth for long term elephant conservation.
We were picked up early in the morning and driven about an hour and a half outside the town. When we arrived we met the other 20 visitors (all they accept per day) and our host Teerapat spent about 30 minutes telling us the history of elephants in Thailand and more about the mission of Patara. We could see the elephants in the distance, but it still seemed fairly zoo-like. Teerapat divided the group in half and, after learning the signs that signal a good, receptive mood and donning official trainer shirts, we were led to meet "our" animals. I was first to go - I think because I looked the most nervous/excited.
My elephant, Nui, is a 10 year old female who is pregnant with her first baby and very sweet and funny. We each fed our elephants a basket of bananas, sugar cane and tamarind by hand, getting more comfortable with their giantness and their gentleness. Her mouth was strong! It was like putting your hand in a vacuum cleaner with gums. After feeding, we learned how to judge whether or not the elephant is healthy by checking for tear tracks and dirt on their sides (proof that they slept lying down on their side), sweat on their toe nail cuticles (you have to bend down and run your finger across their nail, while keeping the other hand on their leg so they know you are there) and finally, lots of things to check in their poop. And then we performed mini physicals, including the poop check, which, because elephants are vegetarians, wasn't bad at all. Once our animals were deemed healthy, we got them to lay them to lay down and we brushed them with brooms made from tree branches to remove the lose dirt and leaves from the back and head...and then we fed them the branches, which rocked. After that we led our elephants to the river by the ear and gave them a proper bath. Nui loved filling her trunk when my back was turned and spraying me in the face when I turned back around. I was soaked but laughing the entire time. We had baskets that filled with water and little brushes that we used to clean all over - the tail, along the legs, ears, face, amazing. Tom was right next to me, washing his elephant too.
After a brief break, we got on our elephant's backs and rode them up to a waterfall about 30 minutes up in the hills. The clean water is important. Saddles are not - bare back!! I was terrified for a few minutes because it is high up and you sort of rock back and forth without anything to grip, but after a while, and several deep breaths, I got the hang of it and relaxed. You have to sit way up on the neck, with your bare feet right behind the ears, which is a cool sensation on its own. The real trainer/mahout was never far away, making sure everything went alright. All the mahouts come from the Karen hill tribe known for working with elephants, and a portion of all profits from the farm go back to the tribe (and the shirts we wore were made by the women in the tribe). At the waterfall, we got off the elephants and they went into the water to cool down and drink...and then we actually got to swim with them. Fantastic in a million ways. Getting on an elephant in the water is very, very difficult. Who would have thought they were so slippery? Also, they seem to love spinning back and forth under the water, so you have to hold on tight and balance carefully, which is a feat unto itself, considering my natural grace. I laughed and laughed like a little kid. So nice.
We were lucky because our group was great -- a wide variety of people from all over the world. Everyone had a really happy attitude and I think the nature of the program makes guests open and respectful, which made for an excellent atmosphere. We all went into the waterfall before lunch and had this beautiful moment sitting under the water in the middle of the jungle, fresh
from riding these incredible animals and it just didn't get any better than that. We ate under a canopy of palm fronds and then got back on our elephants for the ride back. This time we went over a small mountain, with steep grades going both ways and a sharp drop on the right. At one point I just stopped looking around and trusted Nui to find her way...and she did. Once down the other side, we were back in the valley, traveling into the back of the farm, passing the sleeping quarters of the mahouts and elephants just hanging out. There are so many elephants that each one only goes out with tourists once a week, so there is lots of time for standing.
We let our elephants rest for a while and eat once again and went to go meet the twin 16 month old twin males who wander around looking to eat anything and everything and playing in the water. They were mischief makers. The last bit of the day was spent with Tom and I riding Nui along the river through (what can only be described as) verdant jungle. I rode the way Thai ladies ride, sitting on the very top of her head with my legs down her trunk. Tom, by this point, was a monkey and able to climb up the trunk and settle in anywhere, while I was a clumsy as ever and fairly frightened again when I had to ride in a new position. Laughter trumped fear after a few minutes and enjoyed the intense beauty of the experience. When we were done, we said goodbye with trunk kisses and sad face. It was absolutely amazing.