Visit a resort that not only offers a subtropical break but the opportunity to sit for your elephant-driver’s license
There are two ways to climb on an elephant, neither of which is graceful. You can leapfrog over its face while it bows in front of you, so you end up sitting backwards like a clown. Or, you can wait for it to offer you its foot then use its leg as a stepladder.
While this last option may sound preferable, it requires the help of an elephant trainer, or mahout, who will lift you skywards by pushing your bottom with both hands. Due to the average mahout’s stature being “diminutive”, and the average Western woman’s bum being “biggish”, that option can be a tad humiliating.
After a confronting start, however, the mahout’s course at Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa in Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand, is great fun.
The course teaches guests how to ride an elephant; how to turn left and right, go straight ahead, and – most importantly – make it stop.
Luckily, my elephant ignores every misdirection I give it and follows its trainer, who walks beside us, instead.
We ride through bamboo jungle, along a muddy one-elephant-foot-wide track, and my trusty mount never misses a step.
In fact, my elephant walks lightly, and with slinky hips, like a two-tonne house cat across a shelf full of ornaments
The Anantara resort boasts an infinity-edge pool with a view of the forest and teak-clad suites with private balconies overlooking mist-shrouded hills. But it’s the elephants that make it special. This is the site of an elephant camp set up by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, a group that rescues abused elephants from a life of begging for their masters on city streets.
Anantara gives elephants a safe haven, as well as providing ethical employment for mahouts. Guests can visit the camp and see the rehabilitation effort in action, try the mahout’s course or join the elephants as they bathe in the river.
But, it’s not just elephants that are being rehabilitated in Chiang Rai.
For centuries, the Golden Triangle – as the subtropical borderlands of Thailand, Laos and Burma are known – was the world’s main production source of opium for the heroin trade
Fertile soil and steady rainfall make this region a poppy grower’s dream. In 1988, the Princess Mother (aka Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s mum), began to rehabilitate hill tribes from the ravages of the drug trade. Realising the farmers relied on poppy cultivation to make a living, she encouraged them to grow macadamia nuts and coffee beans instead.
You can witness the horticultural talents of the local villagers at Chiang Rai’s lovely Mae Fah Luang Botanic Gardens. The opium poppies are long gone; in their place are mass-planted flowerbeds that sit among acres of meandering pathways.
A nearby contemporary museum, the Hall of Opium, charts the darker side of Chiang Rai’s opium trade (i.e. widespread addiction and poverty, alongside displays of beautiful, intricately carved antique opium pipes).
But if that kind of thing is a bit much for you to take in while on vacation, I recommend a leisurely longboat ride across the Kok River to visit a riverside market in Burma or a trip up the Mekong to have lunch in Laos. You’ll still be back in Thailand in time for an afternoon elephant ride.
Do it yourself
Stay at the resort/ride an elephant: Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa is located at 229 Moo 1, Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai. For more information and to book, go to goldentriangle.anantara.com
Find out more about the elephants:
• Read the head elephant keeper’s blog here elephant-tails.anantara.com
• For more on elephant rehabilitation, go here helpingelephants.org
Visit the gardens: To see the Mae Fah Luang Botanical Garden, go here www.doitung.com/en/travel.php
Find out more about Thailand’s history of heroin trade: To visit the Chiang Sien Hall of Opium, go to maefahluang.org/hall_opium.php
Visit Thailand: For more Thailand travel inspiration, visit tourismthailand.org
NOTE: This story first appeared in Australian House & Garden magazine