Shunning the package destinations to the south, Marcus Webb ventures north to find out how the tourist dollar is helping elephants rescued from city streets.
Just three days into my honeymoon and already I’d lost my wife. She’d had her heart stolen by a powerful, charismatic and photogenic male and I was powerless to do anything about it. Okay, so he was an elephant, but it still hurt: he was picking flowers for her, she was petting him from trunk to tail and I’d been reduced to documenting their burgeoning relationship on the camera that we had received as a wedding present.
It had all started so well. We had happily shrugged off the sun-seeking masses at concourse C of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport – they had turned left for flights to the beaches, beauty treatments and banging trance of the southern islands; we headed right for the gateway to the gloriously underrated north.
From Chiang Mai to the Golden Triangle
We were on a Thailand double-header. Four days in luscious Chiang Mai followed by three days – and pachyderm-based abandonment issues – in the magnificent golden triangle region.
You join us post-Chiang Mai on the border of Laos and Burma at The Four Seasons Tented Camp in the Golden Triangle. To get here we had bobbed on a motorised dugout through every cliché in rural Thailand – paddy fields, hornbills, triangle-hatted fishermen – before the site revealed itself, seemingly woven into the very fabric of the jungle. We were ostensibly camping but the fixed wooden structure was a world away from the A-frames of youth – big enough to house an elephant and decked out in colonial splendour, with a free-standing copper bath, a writing desk and an oversized bed.
The heavy tarp walls could be rolled back to let the tropical forest stream in. The shower was open to the elements and there was a private balcony where you could take a drink from the complimentary mini-bar and watch Thailand, Burma and Laos collide.
This level of luxury doesn’t come cheap, but the guilt of opulence was relieved when you realised the difference your money was making to the lives of the young elephants who share the site. The creatures are rescued from a life of poverty in the cities – the life of a streetwalking Nellie isn’t a happy one – and here they were treated as regally as the two-legged guests, with private pools, an unlimited bamboo buffet and an endless stream of tourists all too happy to bathe, tickle and adore them.
We spent a day learning to be a mahout (elephant trainer), and the process of bonding with these magnificent four-plus tonnes of muscle and tusk was exhilarating. You mount the animal by scrambling up its leg before taking your position just behind the head. You then use a combination of shouts, foot kicks, squawks and giggles to attempt to bring the elephant under your control. The creatures were remarkably compliant and within an hour we were slaloming, moonwalking and even dismounting them Fred Flintstone-style by sliding down their trunks.
You could let the days just evaporate in such elevated company, but to do so would be to miss out on your spectacular surroundings. The camp lies just off the Ruak River, a tributary of the Mekong. The scenery is spectacular and it’s hard to believe that, just 20 years ago, this was one of the most volatile and dangerous places in Asia. The Golden Triangle was the hub of the region’s illegal opium industry and, although the poppy fields are long gone, the place is still intoxicating. Green tea plantations slink down the mountainside while longboats zip beside the giant gold Buddha on the Mekong bank. The temples and markets all deserve a day’s exploration, but we couldn’t help but yearn for the tranquil campsite and soon we were back on its Ewok Village-style rope walkways making our way to the treetop spa. Having our knots kneaded out to a bamboo-forest soundtrack was delightful, but I felt like a fraud. What stressful experience could possibly require such ultra-soothing treatment? Certainly not the four days we had spent in Chiang Mai before coming to the camp.
Deep-fried chicken heads
There’s plenty to do in Chiang Mai – tiger sanctuaries, treks to cascading waterfalls and horse-riding among the paddy fields – but none of them induce a great deal of anxiety. The most challenging thing we did was spend a day in the charmingly kinetic company of chef Pitak Srichan among the timber and flames of his cookery school.
Pitak is a teacher who’s dedicated to passing on his enthusiasm for the scents and tastes of Thai cooking. We were his only two students, which meant we got his unbridled enthusiasm for the correct way to smash garlic, to spice beef to enhance the flavour, and to barbecue fish so it stays almost as moist as it was in the sea. We had picked up all the ingredients ourselves on a guided early-morning trip to the market – this is not a place for the squeamish, as it is home to live frogs, deep-fried chicken heads and other grisly ingredients alongside great swathes of fresh chillies, mountains of vegetables, lemongrass and other, more mainstream, delicacies. We took our groceries to Pitak and, a few hours later, we had transformed them into a rather wonderful kaow soi gai (Chiang Mai curry noodle soup with chicken) and gaeng hung lay (dry spiced curry with pork and pickled garlic).
Sated and smug, we headed back to our villa, whose terrace flowed straight into a private pool, which itself appeared to melt into the greenery beyond. The whole site is based around a paddy field, and you come face to face with water buffalo around every corner. Much like our tented village and its mahout academy, this place is dedicated to using the money generated by luxury tourism to preserve traditional farming techniques. Both are the antithesis of the Thailand of popular imagination. All too often the country is dismissed as having rolled over and let mass tourism tickle its belly and rob it of all its character. But this does it a gross disservice – while it’s true that there are pockets that have more Irish pubs than Cork, resorts such as these show that true Thai culture and responsible tourism can go hand in hand. Just watch your spouse around the wildlife.
The Kingdom of Lanna and the golden triangle consists of six nights’ accommodation split between the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai and the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle. A stay at Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai includes bed, breakfast and a 90-minute spa treatment. A stay at Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle includes bed, all meals and drinks, a spa treatment and the full programme of activities, including mahout training, elephant trekking and a golden triangle excursion. Prices vary significantly depending on season.