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A Trunk Show in Thailand

Christopher Wise

If your bucket list includes getting up close and personal with an elephant, Patara Elephant Farm offers the Best. Day. Ever.
 

Photos by Christopher Wise

 

I am on my knees, eye to eye with a two-week-old baby mammal. In other circumstances, on other continents, I might scoop it into my arms for a long cuddle and lots of sweet-talking.

Although the sweet talk abounds, there will be no scooping up this lively baby —a 250-pound Asian elephant who stands before me, tiny trunk swinging like a metronome while her mother chews on some fruit nearby. I am in Northern Thailand at the Patara Elephant Farm—a paradise for elephants and visitors alike. Five minutes into my visit, I know that my decision to detour from Bangkok for this field trip was an inspired one: I’ve already embarked on a day that will tattoo itself atop my list of memorable travel experiences.

This is as far from a zoo as you can get. There are no bars between this mini-phant and me. Her trunk winds around my arm and lightly touches my face. I give her a hug and a kiss and pat her spiky-haired head; she gently takes my hand in her mouth. As I stand, she leans into me and gives a playful nudge; I nudge back. She nudges again and I respond. The next nudge knocks me a couple of feet to my right. Oh, yeah, this baby has heft!

No one hurries me along. Our group of nine visitors—12 are the most Patara will host on any given day—are evenly split between this baby and another one, just days younger, who is also in the pen and also enchanting. Their handlers, or mahouts, members of the Karen tribe who live in the nearby village, watch over our group, beaming at our interactions. These may be some of the happiest, most contented-looking elephants I have ever seen.

For centuries, elephants have been revered in Southeast Asia for their power, their intelligence and their docile nature. In the 1800s, there were some 100,000 elephants in Thailand (then known as Siam), a number that has been declining ever since. Elephants were involuntary laborers in the timber trade, and they had the dubious honor of helping to destroy their own habitat, which (along with poachers) came close to destroying them. When Thailand banned teak logging in 1989, elephant unemployment skyrocketed and their numbers declined even further. No one could afford to take care of them. Tourism has alleviated that problem somewhat. Today there are about 3,000 elephants left in the country, many of them found in the various reserves, preserves and sanctuaries that have sprung up in northern Thailand.

       
A visitor takes an elephant for a walk at Patara.        

Patara co-founder Theerapat “Pat” Trungpakan has little use for those who showcase elephants, making them paint, dance or walk around on two legs for tourists’ pleasure. He and his wife, Anocha “Dao,” founded Patara in 2001 in the verdant mountains surrounding the Hang Dong Valley, about 45 minutes south of Chiang Mai, for one purpose: to help save the declining elephant population. Elephants were rescued from the noisy streets of Bangkok (where their mahouts paraded them about to earn enough money to feed them) or similarly inhospitable locations and brought to Patara to eat, get healthy and, well, to have sex. Patara is a health- recovery and reproduction-management farm and a successful one—about two or three babies are born each year, adding regularly to its growing elephant population. Patara also releases elephants into the wild when possible.

We learn all of this in Pat Trungpakan’s passionate introduction to Patara’s “Elephant Owner for a Day” program, the proceeds of which (about $200 per person) go to care for the elephants, who can individually consume 175 pounds of food each day. Instead of being coddled and placed atop wooden bench-saddled elephants for a brief ride, we will be providing an entire day’s worth of care—feeding, brushing, bathing, riding and other activities—to our own individual elephant. After exchanging our clothes for colorful Karen elephant-wear (tunics and baggy pants), Pat leads us to an area the size of several football fields, where the elephants are grazing.

He says he has been studying each of us in order to pair us with a compatible elephant, and he leads me to my companion for the day—an 11-year-old female named Nui. I’m not sure I believe the compatibility spiel, but Nui and I become happily acquainted courtesy of a basket of sugar cane, tamarind and bananas. Ours is a well-orchestrated duet. I say, “Boun,” (“Open your mouth”), and she does. I feed her this elephant ambrosia and she comes back for more until it’s all gone. I say “Didi” (“Good”) constantly and am rewarded by frequent trunk “kisses.” Her mahout, who will be unobtrusively by my side all day (and not carrying the bull hooks sadly seen at other elephant attractions), nods his approval. Nui indicates hers by flapping her ears and wagging her tail, much like a dog (a REALLY big one). We are newly minted BFFs.

Our first order of business is checking our elephant’s health. Healthy elephants have sweaty toes (the only place they sweat) and well-formed poop. Trungpakan selects me to examine both. A large handful of Nui’s poop is deposited into my palms and I am asked to feel it and smell it. (Was it something I said?) Obediently, I bend my head and take a sniff. Thankfully, a healthy elephant has odorless poop that’s not too wet, and my Nui with her sweaty toes is adjudged to be in tip-top shape.

I am next given a leafy branch to sweep all the dirt and grass off Nui’s back (another good sign of elephant health, as sick elephants don’t sleep lying down at night). Getting her to lie down so I can reach her back is no problem: A gentle pull on the ear does the trick. I look in her mouth and I check her ears. All good. I’m beginning to feel like a real pro.

The sounds of leaves swishing against hides and various “bouns” and “didis” fill the air as our group clears the night’s detritus from our amiable companions and we prepare for a short walk to the river for a bath—for all of us, as it turns out.

       
Chiang Mai Province is also home to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple.        

Knee deep in water, I am given a hard-bristle brush and told to scrub Nui down completely. Then, using tightly woven ladles, we scoop water and toss it over our elephants, who stand contentedly in the water. Then they return the favor by shooting trunkfuls of water over us.

It’s time for us to go for a ride, but first we learn three different ways to mount. My favorite: climbing up Nui’s extended trunk directly to her head as she stands. Others are content to climb aboard as the elephant lies on the ground or offers a knee. There are no saddles or riding devices, just a small rope around the back. You put your feet and knees behind the ears (and use them to steer), place your hands flat on your elephant’s head and take off.

As we leave Patara, we hear faint chanting above the buzz of cicadas: The village is readying itself for a special ceremony to name newborn elephants. Sure enough, the mothers and babies we played with earlier soon cross our path as they lumber off in the direction of the musical intonations. Nui and I trundle happily the other way. Elephants have a rolling gait that is easy to adapt to, and I feel like a jungle queen as we ride quietly through the forest. After a deliciously long mile or so climbing a heavily forested path, we arrive at our lunch destination, a picturesque series of waterfalls that empties into a swimming hole.

We find another dozen Patara elephants already there for their daily exercise. As we leave our elephants, they join the group, which quickly divides into two. Some loll lazily in the pool beneath the waterfall, others stand to the side. “Why aren’t they swimming?” I ask Nui’s mahout. “They are the adults,” he explains. It’s a typical summer pool party: teenagers in the water goofing around, adults surrounding the food and drink table.

We’re served an amazing lunch prepared by the mahouts’ wives: chicken, kebabs, sticky rice, tiny muffins and a delectable assortment of fruits and other sweet delicacies, all carefully wrapped in banana leaves. As I survey my leftovers, I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. A trunk snakes up and taps me politely on the arm. It’s Boon Joon, the big-tusked male, calmly offering his food recycling talents. As I indulge him, I am struck by how easily we interact with each other. That interaction reaches heights I’d never dreamed of when we take turns swimming with the elephants, who gracefully carry us on their backs, never once behaving too roughly. Who could possibly kill such intelligent, loving beings?

After we ride back to Patara and get off our elephants for the last time, I get one last “trunk hug” from Nui and Trungpakan asks me to close my eyes and hold out my arms. Suddenly, they are covered in kisses from the trunks of the nine elephants we’d ridden that day. It was a “pinch me” moment in a “pinch me” day. If I smiled any harder, my mouth would break.

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