We knew we wanted to take the rare opportunity to ride elephants while in Thailand, but wanted to be extra sure that we did a tour with the right kind of company. You see, there are many elephant tours directly around Chiang Mai, but they all have a different focus. Some of them train the elephants to do tricks like paint, dance, walk on two legs, etc. Others take injured elephants and “nurse” them back to health by giving tours that focus on the plight of elephants (and they never actually restore the elephants to health…because keeping them unhealthy is better business). Many elephant tours offer elephant riding, but the type of riding was important to us. We didn’t want to sit on big bamboo platforms on elephants backs, as that seemed too inhumane. We wanted to ride bareback, if at all.

Enter…the number one attraction in Chiang Mai (of 119) on Trip Advisor—Patara Elephant Farm.

A quick reading of their reviews on Trip Advisor as well as a perusal of the Patara Elephant Farm website made it clear that they were the ones we were looking for.

At first we were looking at their all-day “Elephant Trainer for a Day” program, which cost an expensive 5,800 baht ($195 USD) for one-on-one elephant care, or 4,200 baht if you share the elephant with another person from your party (that is, each person would pay $142 USD).

Ouch!

We were slow to consider it, and when we finally responded to our initial inquiry, they had already booked up our 4 available dates we had given them one month in advance (we wanted to do the tour when the in-laws were visiting and could participate)!

But alas…they didn’t want to lose our business! They offered us yet another option that was not listed anywhere I could find: Elephant Day Care! This half-day program cost 3,800 baht ($128 USD), a small discount compared to the full-day event for just $14 more for shared elephants, but instead of negotiating prices with us, they simply touted their good ethics and business practices. Why not a better price, we asked? They responded:

As we are a small farm and our farm is self-sustainable farm focusing on elephant breeding that can be assure you that your experience at Patara Elephant Farm would be more “personalized” rather than “commercialized”. By creating wonderful and unforgettable experiences, we would need the happy elephants. We do not treat our elephants like working elephants but instead we raise them as close to the natural ways as possible. Cost of looking after stud elephants, pregnant elephants, mother with small baby is far more expensive for us compare to other places. Also we are not positioning our farm as a mass tourist attraction that is the reason why we can accommodate small group. And for the half day program, there will be only your group on that day, just a private program for you family.

Okay, okay…we knew they were good and we liked their policies, so we decided to buck up and pay their non-negotiable prices. They picked us up at our rental house (an hour earlier than originally scheduled…they were negotiable about that, since our rental is located on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, a good hour from the farm!), and we arrived to our private adventure and education on their beautiful wooded farm. The elephants were happily playing and romping around when our van pulled up.

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But first things first…we had a wonderful lecture about elephants—the history of elephants in Thailand (they’re from India), the rapid decline of elephants (nearly 50% decrease in half a generation), elephant health, various elephant exploits, etc. It was intriguing!

Then we all suited up in the supplied clean hand-woven shirts and cotton pants…

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We were then told which elephant we would each be caring for (they matched personalities—older with older larger elephants, younger with smaller, livelier elephants), as well as assigned us each an elephant trainer who assisted us all day.

We then prepared for the most important tasks to assist in elephant bonding and friendship-making. What is that, you ask?

Feeding time! Armed with baskets of bananas…we were set!

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Nope, you don’t put the bananas at the ends of their trunks. They want those bananas directly in their mouths!

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Possibly one of my favorite photos…

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Next we received lessons about how to check for evidence of elephants in good health. They urged us to use this knowledge as we visit zoos or otherwise see elephants in the future. We were first instructed, and then were asked to go inspect each of our own elephants with our trainer.

We had to make sure the elephants were sleeping on their sides at night (visible proof is found in the shape of dirt marks on their sides…and unwell elephants choose to sleep upright).

We had to make sure our elephants were sweating properly (through their toenails!).

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And make sure the elephant poop was the correct quantity, size, and consistency. Here he squeezed the poop for Maiya to show her the amount of liquid that came out.

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We all got the chance to smell it. Not bad at all…especially compared to the dairy farm my in-laws live on!

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After completing some other health checks and tasks, such as sweeping the dirt off our elephants backs, we led them over to the hose to give them a good wash-down before getting on their backs.

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Even the tiniest pebble of dirt left on an elephant’s back can cause problems if a person sits on it and rubs it into their skin. It is important to get them washed up! Everyone washed their own elephants. The in-laws each got their own, I shared mine with 2-year old Ethan, Jared shared his with 5-year old Maiya, and 7 year old Ella got to care for her own.

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After getting the elephants clean, the next task was trying to figure out how in the world we would climb onto their ginormous backs!

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I was first to make the climb…fortunately assisted by the elephant, who raised his front leg to make a stepping platform for me. It still wasn’t that easy, though.

Next came my Mother-in-law, who climbed up with much trepidation—but made it! My Father-in-Law opted to walk next to his elephant, instead of riding.

Then came Jared…who climbed right up on the elephant, as if it was a horse and he had been born to ride one. Seriously, this man looked shockingly comfortable on an elephant’s back!

My husband was born to ride elephants. I swear!

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Instead of sitting on the back of an elephant as you might suppose, the most comfortable place to ride is actually on the neck (away from the hard backbone and moving shoulder blades). They added a rope as a harness on the elephant, so we could have something to grip. I felt bad about that…but I was also so grateful to have a way to feel secure!

I found it very tricky to balance my body with knees folded up behind the elephant ears, holding on to the rope behind me with one hand, and holding on to my toddler in front of me with the other.

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Fortunately, they were very attune to my plight, and immediately offered to have Ethan ride with the elephant trainer on my Father-in-Law’s elephant, instead. Whew! Ethan was a happy clam!

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We took off on a 20 minute trek up the road to a waterfall for an afternoon bath.

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Ethan was a little nervous about the elephants when he was on the ground…but was perfectly happy on top of one!

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After awhile they told me I could put my legs in front of my elephant’s ears…which made it a bit easier to balance (and probably saved my knees)!

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We arrived at the waterfall and were a bit relieved to be done with the elephant-riding portion of the day. They’re not the most comfortable seats in the house!

The staff had prepared an awesome picnic spread of Thai treats for us!  Fresh fruits, coconut-things, banana-things, rice-things, etc!  ALL YUMMY!

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We ate our fill, and then hoped the staff would be able to munch on the large amount remaining. Nope! The staff than proceeded to come over to our food, wrap it up in banana leaves, and instruct us to feed the leftovers to the elephants!

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The elephants did not complain!

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Then Jared and I suited up (as did the kids) and we prepared to bathe the elephants in the water!

This was a little bit like surfing…but sitting down…without the surf…and the the surfboard is a giant moving animal!  It was a balancing act!

We scrubbed every last inch (okay, maybe not every) with a brush and water!

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Then we took them to shallow water so we could scrub their legs, trunk, tail, etc!

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And while they had us pose in front of the elephants, they surprised us with a cold blast of water!

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Meanwhile, the in-laws watched from the sidelines, and 2-year old Ethan watched from the dry arms of a female worker who had been assigned to help me with him all day, should I need it. He had grown quickly attached to her and refused to leave her arms to go to Grandma!

We dried off, changed clothes, and the kids jumped back onto their elephants/ backs for a walk back down the road. Maiya happily got her own elephant for this leg!

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To complete the day, they took us to the large property where they keep the baby elephants and their mothers.

This 4-month old baby joyfully stampeded around us over and over, in an attempt to get us to play. Seeing how he was twice my weight, we opted to stand guard and turn down his adorable offer!

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In all, we were at the Patara Elephant Farm from 1pm until 6:30pm, and then they drove us the 1 hour back home. As part of the tour price we were each given a DVD of photos and videos they captured of us all day—4 GB worth! It was awesome to go through the photos they took—because it’s not often you get candid shots, not to mention images of everyone in the group! They were also kind enough to take my camera for a large portion of the day and take photos for me!

Overall, the operation is clearly a well-oiled machine. Tours are limited, as they allow less than 30 people to visit each day. It is important to them that they have more elephants than tourists, and that their intentions always stay genuine (nursing elephants to good health and keeping them healthy and capable of reproducing). So, if you’re interested in visiting them…plan and book in advance!

The guides were English-speaking and wonderfully informative, and the individual elephant trainers were helpful, kind, and attentive to both the elephant and customer’s needs (note: Tips for trainers are not included in the price…and when we pestered a guide for what an appropriate tip amount is, he said anywhere from 200-500 baht. We were happy to give this—as it clear that Patara’s tour is worth EVERY CENT—and more—and their staff is very deserving!).

Thank you Patara for a life-changing day for our family, and a newfound appreciation of elephants! This is a day that none of us will soon forget!

My name is Alisa, and I am off traveling the world with my adventurous husband and rambunctious 3 small children. I love mountains, outdoor living, and I am crazy about vegetables. Most of all, I love making memories with my family, and I enjoy sharing our travels with others!

24 Responses to “Elephant Daycare in Thailand”

  1. What a great day an amazing photos to cherish. We also found a love for elephants after spending the day with them!

  2. Julie Savill says:

    Totally awesome experience! That photo of Maiya and the elephant that you say is one of your favorite is an award winning photo — like the ones you see annually. You ought to find some competition you can submit it to.

  3. The photos are gorgeous. What a fun beautiful day to share with your inlaws. <3 Erin

  4. AMAZING post! Really amazing. Loved all the pics (and I was wondering tyou got so many with YOU in them!) and the whole experience looked awesome. Can’t wait to show my boys this one!

  5. Hello,

    My name is Miko and I came about your wonderful post as I was trying to look up more information about the daycare program at Patara. We will be travelling with our 2 girls (3 and 7 years old) this May. From your pics, this looks like just what we are looking for! However, it costs an elephant arm and an elephant leg. 🙁 May I ask… did Patara charge full adult price for your children?

    Much thanks.

    • Hi Miko,
      Yes, Patara charges the same rate whether it is a child or an adult. The only “break” is if you do a full-day excursion and share an elephant. If you have the option of a 1/2 day, it is a tad cheaper and more than sufficient…as it is still a LONG day out and about with the elephants! It truly was worth the money, I must admit. REALLY.

      • Thanks for getting back to me….we have decided to spring for it! –and do away with that latte fix for a year, maybe two 🙂

        I have been back-reading through your blog and wow, what an adventure! Your children are very lucky indeed. I am reminded of an Irish blessing…

        May the road rise up to meet you
        May the wind be always at your back
        May the sun shine warm upon your face
        May the rains fall soft upon your fields
        and until we meet again,
        May god hold you in the palm of his hand

        Happy trails, Miko

        • I’m so excited for you, Miko! Yes…the elephants will hold more joy for you than those lattes in the following years, I’m sure!

          Thanks for reading through our blog. It is fun to share everything and help keep a record for ourselves, as well!

          That Irish blessing is one of my absolute favorites. Thank you!

  6. WOW. I love it that you are so adventurous! Thank you for sharing your experience. If I ever get there—I will do it!

  7. AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I wish Julia could go to this daycare when I’m at work. 🙂

  8. Awesome, Alisa! Simply an amazing post. That is so awesome hat the guides were so helpful without fear of lawsuits! And that they took pictures for you. Really, really cool!

  9. Hi Alisa,
    This is Amazing! We are planning to go to Chiang Mai for the Yi Peng festival 2013 to start our nomad life and of course we will be going to the elephant daycare too.
    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  10. Wow! This is AWESOME! I definitely want to do this 🙂

  11. It was so lovely looking through all your photos and reading about your experiences. Thank you for sharing this amazing day at Patara. There are so many beautiful photos!

    We are planning to do the same daycare program in just a few weeks. I just wanted to ask you did you find that the time spent riding the elephants was long enough? Did you feel like you missed out on any of the activities that would be offered in the Owner for the Day program that you are aware of? From what it sounds like, the Owner program involves a 2 hour ride through the forest and the daycare program is 20 minutes on a road. We are a family of 4 so we thought the full day program would be too expensive. I have also read so many reviews about the full day program and haven’t heard much about the daycare. I would love to hear your thoughts about the experience–Many thanks for your time!

  12. Hello!

    Thank you so much for posting this on here! I am signed up to do the half day with Patara tomorrow, and I am so glad that I chose them – I really wanted someone who treats them well and from your story, it seems like they do! I’d love to know if you have any last minute tips for someone about to do this!

    Thanks so much!
    Nicole

  13. What an amazing experience for your children! I can’t imagine how excited I would have been to visit Patara at their age, I mean I was giddy at 31 🙂

    My husband & I had an amazing time visiting Patara when we were in Chiang Mai for our honeymoon. The organization could not have been better & we felt great that our money was going somewhere responsible.

    Check out our blog post of our experience:
    http://moneyleftfortravel.com/patara-elephant-farm-chiang-mai/

    • How fun that you were able to go to Patara and support such a great organization. I love what they’re doing, and their non-competitive stance on other elephant businesses who are helping to different degrees. (I get tired of hearing that there is one and only method)

      Thanks for sharing your blog post–it was great!

  14. Thanks so much for sharing. Did you feel like the half day was enough? My husband and I are contemplating between doing the half day or the full day.

    Thanks so much!
    Ana

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