A Trip to Remember
[UDATE: There has been a lot of discussion recently about whether elephants and tourists in Thailand can ever be a good mix. Here’s John Roberts, the founder of the Elephant Foundation (which works with the Four Seasons Golden Triangle) on the subject: “Certainly elephants should all be wild, where they’re free to make their own decisions and perform ecosystem services. This is the reason a large amount of the Foundation’s money and effort is spent keeping wild elephants wild.
“Thailand, however, has around 3,500 non-wild elephants and we also need to find ways to look after them. There isn’t enough wild to put them back into, so a well-planned tourism activity such as ours is a great way to do that – they get to walk around as a group, meet new people and lead a rich and varied elephant life. The elephants enjoy it: there seems to be a modern misconception that captive elephants live entirely in misery and fear no matter how you look after them. I have to say that in 16 years of living among elephants I have seen no evidence of this – I have seen elephants looked after badly and I would never seek to bring a wild elephant into captivity but I’m entirely comfortable with this as a way to keep those already in captivity fed, watered and amused.”]
Sitting on top of an elephant, I look down over Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meeting at the Mekong river as the sun begins to rise. I’d ridden the gentle giant, called Thong Kam, up the mountain to watch dawn breaking over the Golden Triangle and now she’s taking a well deserved break and snacking on banana trees. Her foot effortless crushes the tree trunk into smithereens and she eats enthusiastically – it’s time for me to dismount and breakfast myself on fresh fruit and coffee the guide has set up for me.
My adventure had begun a few days earlier when the Four Seasons limo pulled up, not at the hotel, but alongside the riverbank about an hour outside Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. From here we boarded a long tail boat and sped along the river separating Thailand and Myanmar until we reached a small jetty on the Thai side some 15 minutes later. Steps led up to a heavenly hideaway. A teak wooden deck overlooking the river and filled with inviting seating set the scene for the beautiful, jungle lodge feel of the rest of the camp.
Accommodation is in luxurious tented structures – they are too grand to be called tents – just 15 of them, dotted throughout the camp. Ours is at the furthest point, reachable via a suspension bridge (although you can call for the Land Rover if you don’t fancy a walk) and handily next door to the appealing Burma bar which opens for aperitifs every evening.
Our home for the next few nights is made up of a spacious room with teak furniture and Thai fabrics and includes a free standing claw foot bath inside and shower outside. There’s also a generous sized deck with a large daybed. We soon find out why it’s called the Elephant Tent. It has a view of the elephant bathing pond where every morning and evening these lovely, lumbering creatures loll in the water. Our deck has a jacuzzi so amusingly we can loll ourselves while watching the elephants just before sunset – except we have G&Ts in hand from our in-room bar.
The Four Seasons has rescued elephants from street traders around Asia and now they have 24 of them rehabilitated at the Golden Triangle property. Before we can take the sun rise trek with them we have a morning undertaking mahout training. After a delicious breakfast at the gorgeous, open sided Nong Yao restaurant where two patchderyms are waiting to be fed bananas by the guests, we’re taken to meet our own elephants. Before anything else we’re taught the basic commands of “mae long” for the elephant to sit so we can climb aboard her, stepping on her gargantuan leg, holding on to her ears and swinging the other leg over her neck. It’s the same instruction for when we want to get off and “pai” to move forward. “Baen” is to turn and, most importantly, “how” is to stop.
At first I admit I am quite terrified. It’s high on top of an elephant. But within minutes I feel safe. These huge animals are very steady on their feet. Around me I can hear my husband and our two fellow mahout trainees gamely cry out “pai!” and “baen!” but the real mahouts are also joining in and I suspect that has more to do with the elephants responding.
After half an hour getting used to our mammoths and vice versa, we begin to trek through the forest. This is glorious. The elephant moves at a slow pace allowing us to enjoy the view, we’re encouraged to stroke and talk to them often which is a joy. Only at times do they need guidance when they stop to eat (elephants need to eat a remarkable 18 hours a day). At one point, Thong Kam, deftly grabs then walks along with a small tree in her trunk which she chomps on periodically for the rest of the journey.
By now we are trekking along side the river. The mahouts shout “baen” and as Thong Kam nears the water she belts out an ecstatic holler that reverberates right through her body. Once in the river she, like the other three elephants, sits down to let the cool water wash over her body and our legs are submerged too. Suddenly she hoses water up through her trunk and douses it behind her to wash her back – and because I’m sitting on it I get a shower as well. She does this half a dozen more times and my husband is laughing like a drain beside me on his more sedate eli, Boon Maa. So his mahout gently points another elephant’s trunk at him and he gets a soaking too.
Thoroughly drenched, our trek finishes shortly after this so we can head off to shower (human style this time) and change. I had the foresight to book a Mahout Recovery massage afterwards. This could have been carried out in our tent but I chose the Spa. The ten minute walk along a jungle pathway isn’t for everyone but I’m rewarded by a open sided sala. My blissful massage, using Thai herbal compresses is carried out with the merciful absence of piped music, just the sounds of the forest.
Soon enough it’s time for cocktails in the Burma bar, looking like a dream jungle watering hall – all open sided and lit by lantern, jutting out over the river. Then the Land Rover whisks us to Nong Yao restaurant which is also now lantern lit for dinner. We choose the Golden Triangle, rather than the Western, menu and dine on steamed fish with chilli sauce and green chicken curry, accompanied by house wines.
Even though we will be up at 5.30am for the sunrise elephant trek we can’t resist a nightcap around the fire after dinner. Marshmallows are provided for toasting, and hot chocolate sauce for dipping. “I like camping,” says my husband, holding marshmallow over the fire. “We should do it more often.”
This story was originally published in 2013