Live with elephants in their natural habitat in utter luxury in Thailand.
Mr Prayat’s T-shirt said it all. It instructed me how to drive an elephant and reminded me how to speak elementary mahout.
“Pai!! (Forward). “Ben Kwa!” (Turn right), “Ben Sai! (Turn left) Toi Sock!” (Back). There is no elephantese for “Stop!” An elephant stops when it wants to. It rarely gives way and normally assumes it has the right of the way. Together we walked under the kapok silk trees, river figs and elephant ears and elephant apple trees of north Thailand, beside the River Ruak.
Overlooking Laos and Myanmar, the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort in Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai province, 500 miles north of Bangkok, is the only resort in Thailand offering elephant encounters on its own land and having its own elephant and mahout refugee camp.
It is also the only place in the world where you can have an elephant sleepover.
When it comes to ultra-luxurious self-isolation, north Thailand is hard to beat. It now boasts the world’s most plush, Instagram-worthy voluntary quarantine facility. Deluxe self-quarantine. The resort’s unique giant polyester plastic “Jungle Bubbles” are air-conditioned and elephant-proof. You spend from dusk to dawn being entertained by your very own en-suite elephant herd. The bubbles come with bathrobes and slippers, a king bed, bubble service and non-transparent bathroom facilities.
We had booked a VIP elephant arrival. You are picked up at the airport by a chauffeur and driven in a Mercedes-Benz to Chiang Saen where you board a traditional longboat which takes you and most of your hair down the Mekong and into the Ruak river to the hotel’s jetty. Disembarking you are met by your very own elephant guard of honour. And then get to feed them. Bananas are considered fattening. So you give them whole coconuts or foot-long sugar cane nibbles. Their jaws make you feel for your jaws. You can rent elephants to witness your wedding. Or guilty vows renewal.
Our early morning call was high-decibel flatulence. Asian elephants forage for eighteen hours a day. We watched them bath and then put their make-up and sunscreen on in the riverside dust. On our 90-minute private and very exclusive stroll with three elephants, we learned how Anantara and GTAEF ( Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation ) rescued elephants and their mahouts left destitute when logging was banned in Thailand. Mahouts and their families are housed and given jobs. Their children get to go to school and the ladies learn to breed silkworms to weave silk and make scarves. And it’s all managed by John Roberts from Devon.
“A mahout’s welfare is as important as the elephants. A happy, well-educated mahout means a happy elephant. We collaborate with doctors, vets and scientists to drive research on elephants forward. What an elephant needs to be an elephant. Not a sideshow."
“Our aim is to help elephants and mahouts who can’t help themselves. To provide a safe, stable living space and a dignified, ethical working environment. We employ two English teachers. The kids get to go to school. And their mothers receive social care”
At the 61-room resort, there are no elephant rides, no humiliating circus stunts, no hula hooping, harmonica playing, painting, elephant polo matches or tug of war. No performances at all. The elephants are allowed to do their own thing and you pay to do it with them.
“It is the national animal of Thailand and revered by royalty. They were war warriors. But recently our elephants have been abused and exploited,” says Pyat Dokmadua who has worked for the WWF and now walks with the walkers.
“White elephants were considered sacred. March 13th is National Elephant Day”.
Our walk lasted an hour and a half. It ended with the elephants getting a pedicure. The hotel’s spa offers a “Mahout Relaxation package” with “prai” facials and specially-targeted compresses and moringa oil massages. You can learn how to plant rice, get driven around the local sights in an Enfield motorbike and have dinner in a paddy field among an elephant herd. You can also say I do with elephants as your witnesses.
I recommend the banquet in the middle of a paddy field. The meal goes on forever. My shirt became tighter and tighter as the chef de cuisine brought out more food to our private rice barn in the ancient jungle in the Land of a Million Paddy Fields. The last dish was Aeb Pla, sweet mango and steamed sticky rice with coconut cream sauce. North Thailand doesn’t do cheeseboards.
Instead, you get the chance to ignite a paper lantern and launch it into the Lanna sky with a wish. We wished for Rennies. Or, at least, to soothe and propitiate the gods of indigestion. We also wished others could be as lucky as we were.