Alyssa Hiller: Elephant Trekking in Chiang Mai
As you’ve likely seen on most of your friends’ post-Thailand Instagram feeds, elephants are a must. But, we didn’t just take quick pictures; we spent the entire day with the elephants, bathing, feeding and riding our gentle giants as their dedicated caretakers for the day. Needless to say, we couldn’t recommend this experience enough if you travel to Chiang Mai.
First and foremost, do your research before selecting an organization; many companies do not promote safe and fair treatment of the animals. If your elephants are performing circus tricks or have rigid equipment on their backs, think twice. Additionally, book far in advance! Many people travel to Chiang Mai solely for this experience, and space is limited.
We selected Patara Elephant Farm, Thailand’s only elephant breeding farm, based on its incredible reviews and mission. At 7:30 a.m., we were picked up from our hotel in a comfortable vehicle, alongside eight other passengers. After a one-hour drive through a rather precarious, Jungle-Book-like winding path, we entered an open, lush setting near the mountains of Hang Dong Valley, with several elephants hanging out right in front of our vehicle.The host excitedly introduced us to three generations of elephants as soon as we exited the vehicle: grandma, mom and baby! Unbelievable, yes, but terrifying initially, too. My face in the early morning pictures shows clear uneasiness, while the end-of-the-day shots reveal more comfort and adoration.
Once settled (and 10,000 pictures later), the guide gave a very informative introduction and strategically (i.e., by size) paired each attendee with a trainer and elephant. We were also given loose-fitting outfits for the non-water parts of the day. The shirts were to maintain familiarity among the elephants since several new faces come in every day, and the pants were more for comfort while riding bareback.
To start, we were trained to approach our elephants correctly and build relationships using basic Thai commands. Then, we cleaned and fed our elephants – they literally spend 12-18 hours a day eating between 200-600 pounds of food (no meat, they’re herbivores) and drinking up to 50 gallons of water. Our personal guides closely watched and supported, so we felt extremely safe.For the next task, we moved to the water with our elephants. Deliberately, the host previously educated us on “elephant shit,” noting it’s the cleanest animal feces there is, and has absolutely no odor if the animal is healthy.
Then, we learned how to climb our elephants for our first trek. Initially frightening, honestly, since they’re so far above the ground. My husband was instructed to mount his elephant from the front. With appropriate commands, the elephant lowered its head, and he jumped on, boosted up top by the elephant’s trunk; he then flipped around to face forward.
I got on from the side of my elephant. Again, with proper commands, the elephant raised its foot, and I stepped on, riding straight up like an elevator while holding the ear for support (and dear life). I was eventually able to swing by other leg over.
To ensure you do not put too much pressure on their backs, you must ride very close to the top of their heads, with your legs behind their ears. Yes, you’re most likely to be sore the next day from this awkward position!
The elephants took us on a 30-minute stroll through the jungle-like area surrounded by waterfalls, until we arrived at our picnic lunch. Let me tell you: This lunch, a spread of local bites, was a highlight of our trip. And, the baby elephant didn’t let any of the leftover fruit go to waste.
Post-lunch, we took one final, 45-minute ride on our elephants up a mountain and through the water. The baby elephant kept going rogue and messing up the line, getting in everyone’s way, which was sometimes hysterical and other times distressing. Our trainers held onto our cameras while we rode, making sure to get several great shots for us.
Alas, at about 3 p.m., we said bye to our elephants and trainers, changed out of uniform and concluded the unforgettable day. Patara also provides hundreds of high-quality images and videos free of extra charge, which is a nice way to look back on the experience.
If you book with Patara, here are some helpful tips:
1) Bring your nice camera, if you have one. Your trainer will get some incredible photos of you, and it will remain safe at inappropriate times of use (e.g., in the water).
2) Wear your swimsuit under your clothes, and pack a change of clothes for post-water activities.
3) If you have pool shoes, wear them during the water activities.
4) Pack sunscreen and bug spray, and reapply as frequently as possible.
5) If you’re sensitive to motion, take some Dramamine ahead of the car rides.
6) Don’t spend too much time getting ready in the morning. You’re literally swimming in shit at the onset of the day .