Yesterday, I visited the Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand (www.pataraelephantfarm.com). They’re a great organization that rescues and breeds elephants. The program I participated in is called Elephant Owner for a Day. No words can describe how incredible this day was for me but I’ve chosen to attempt anyhow.
Upon arrival at the property, we were greeted by a baby elephant and his mother. For the first hour, the staff simply observed us in order to determine which elephant would be our best fit. Just like humans, elephants have very distinct personalities and therefore, it’s important for the staff to carefully match the elephant and his/her “owner” for the day.
After this initial period of observation and a quick debriefing on the elephants, it was time for the staff to reveal our matches. We sat in a circular hut as they went around one by one and told us who our elephant for the day would be. When they got to me, I was informed that I had been chosen as the best match for Booyin, the alpha male and leader of our herd. He was noticeably larger than the other elephants and one of the only ones in our group with tusks.
I must admit, upon first sight, I was intimidated by Booyin. “He is the dominant male of our herd and doesn’t like to be told what to do,” the staff warned. “…But don’t worry, you will be great with him. Just don’t be afraid because he will sense your fear and lose respect.” ……….”Okay, I can do this,” I tried to reassure myself.
Despite my initial hesitation, Booyin and I hit it off from the start. The other guests would come over to us and want their picture taken with him. I found myself feeling territorial as I stroked his side and reluctantly agreed. (Perhaps I had more in common with Booyin than I thought?;) I fed him bananas from a basket (he stole a bunch too), while patting his head and saying, “Deedee, Booyin.” Which means “Good boy, Booyin.” We took our time getting comfortable with one another. I suspect Booyin sensed my initial fear, but as soon as I began to warm up, so did he.
Before long, it was time for us to begin our 45 minute hike through the jungle. In order to get onto his back, I commanded Booyin to bend down. He bowed with his front right leg bent. I stood on his calf as he raised me effortlessly and I used his ear to pull myself the rest of the way up. I sat on his neck, my legs firmly clutching just behind his ears. I had nothing to hold onto and was suddenly much higher off the ground than I expected. We began our trek.
We hiked through the jungle, up steep hills and back down. Through winding bends, and near the edge of deep cliffs. At one point, when we were descending a particularly steep and rocky hill, Booyin began to jog. I bounced around his neck, fearful that at any moment I would fall. I squeezed my legs as tight as I could and commanded Booyin to slow down. But he was used to being the boss and gave little attention to my measly commands. Instead, he graciously pressed his large ears back, covering my legs, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you.” I instantly felt much more secure. Not only was I holding onto Booyin, but now he was also holding onto me.
Never mind his independent nature and somewhat naughty streak, I trusted Booyin and he could sense this. In return for my trust, he gave me his trust and made sure to treat me with gentleness and care. Our connection was amazing. I wish I could describe this experience better, but like all of life’s best moments, it simply can’t be captured.
After 45 minutes of trekking through the jungle, I was relieved when we reached a water hole and Booyin jumped in. I slid off his back and began to splash him with water. I used a brush to comb the dirt off his legs and trunk, only to discover I would need to climb back on him in order to brush the dirt off his back. After his bath, we splashed around in the water together before heading to a nearby waterfall so that I could wash myself, too. And boy was I dirty. In fact, the dirt still remains under my finger and toenails. I had no idea spending a day with an elephant could be so dirty. When I got home last night, I scrubbed my hands and feet for over an hour and still wasn’t able to remove all the dirt. I did, however, gain a nice, large blister on my right thumb from trying. Regardless, the stubbornness of dirt and mud pales in comparison to the joy of bonding with an elephant like I did with Booyin.
If you are ever in Chaing Mai and have a chance to visit Patara Elephant farm, do yourself a favor and go. I can’t recommend it highly enough.