AT THE FOUR SEASONS TENTED CAMP GOLDEN TRIANGLE, THAILAND – The service was exquisite. My tent was awesome. The trip to the Mekong River was fascinating. The water buffalo placenta at the nearby market was memorable. And the spa and the food and the setting were spectacular.
But I’d be lying if I said the highlight of my one and-a-half day stay here wasn’t riding an elephant.
As part of the experience, guests at the Four Seasons (voted best hotel in Asia recently by Conde Nast readers) are invited to try a two-hour mahout training exercise; learning a few basic commands such as ‘Bai” for “go” and then being led on a guided ride through the jungle and up into a clearing on a hill above the camp. The hill provides lovely views of the Golden Triangle area, which refers to the place where Thailand, Laos and Burma (now Myanmar) meet. In fact, from the hotel pool and the outdoor dining room and from most tents you can gaze out and see Thailand right in front of you, with Burma a few feet away across the Ruak River and the mountains of Laos almost close enough to touch. Amazing.
The tents are basically luxury hotel rooms with canvas ceilings and walls with zippers to keep out any unfriendly or unwanted critters; mostly mosquitoes. They’re connected by a beautiful, winding brick path that seems to be scrubbed daily. There are patios where you can gaze out at the lush greenery or read a book and also outdoor showers with views of the surrounding jungle. There’s even a suspension bridge you can walk on that traverses a deep, wooded valley.
Our mahout or elephant trainer for the day, a kind fellow and expert photographer named Seng, explained the basic commands to my daughter, Kate, and I in a barn-like area that kept the elephants – and us – protected from the hot sun. We then clambered aboard (easier for my daughter than for me, but I was given a kind push on the bum to help me out) and rode to a staging area. They don’t give you a saddle and you don’t sit high up in a chair or on cushions like in some elephant camps. You just snuggle up on the animal’s thick neck and, if needed, grab his giant ears for balance. I felt I hardly had to do that at all given their stable nature and ability to manage the terrain.
It wasn’t hard at all and the elephants respond well to simple commands for turning or stopping or moving along from that very tempting thicket of luscious bamboo they’re likely to spot along the way. Mine was so hungry for the sweet leaves of one bamboo tree that he ripped down a large section of trunk with his own trunk, then chomped away on his winnings. After a half hour or 40 minutes of riding, we were led to a pool of water, where we were given hoses that we could aim into the elephants trunk from above, thus giving them a needed drink. Of course I was given the elephant who can spray water on command, and he reared his trunk back into my face and let go with a series of huge sprays; drenching me from head to foot, much to my daughter’s delight.
I felt a little bad hearing the animals are kept chained at night to protect nearby crops, but we were told the chains were 40 meters and that they got some time to wander about, including on our rides. We also were told the elephants were rescued from logging operations or from circuses, so they likely have it much better at the camp, where they snack on all sorts of treats, including sugar cane.
If you don’t want to ride but still want to see the elephants, and they’re majestic and smart and having amazing, penetrating eyes and are well worth seeing, all you need to do is be at breakfast around 8 a.m., when the mahouts bring them up to the dining area for a morning snack of small bananas. They clamber up and silently (mostly) scarf down hundreds of tiny yellow and brown bananas, which are quite sweet. You can feed them if you wish, and they’ll gladly snatch them out of your hands with their impressive trunks.
It’s a once in a lifetime experience. But even without the elephants the tented camp is amazing. The food is outrageously good and beautifully presented. I had Thai-style lamb that was cooked perfectly and served with chilies and peppers: one of the best dishes I’ve had on the planet. The sea bass was succulent and sweet and the tom yum soup lovely. Given the out of the way (and then some) location, it’s an all-inclusive property. You can have free drinks at the atmospheric Burma Bar in the evening (nice sunsets) and free wine at dinner. I was surprised to see the only free choices of white wine were a run of the mill Pinot Grigio from Italy and a Colombard from Thailand. The reds included a Merlot and a Sangiovese, probably better options.
The decor at the hotel is unbelievably detailed and reflects a real sense of place, which I love. The sheets were luxurious and the bed was perfect. I fell down into my bed at night and thought the pillows were like dancing into heaven, minus the angels and the harps. Honestly, I’ve never had a pillow like that in my life. The attention to detail is crazy; bits of rope tied to the top of a table leg to give it a natural look, intricate imprints inside the massive, free standing bathtub, a bath faucet shaped like an elephants head and hot and cold sink handles shaped like elephant tusks. I could go on and on about the natural wood and the colours and the elephant motifs and the bathrooms with their 78 record players and elephant carvings and candles and pull-handled toilets but I can hardly begin to lay it all out it was so amazing.
The service was incredible, too. They’ll pick you up at the airport in Chiang Rai, which is an hour from the camp. But the shuttle vans (or the SUV Lexus they also have) have free Wi-Fi, so you can surf while you gaze out the window at the rice fields and Thai homes and small shops lining the highway. I went to the pool on a couple occasions and each time someone on staff hurried down to take the plastic sheets of the chaise lounges and brought in fresh towels. The pool is small but beautiful, with great views of the river. And the warm tub (not hot; not in this climate) has natural reclining positions so you sit comfortably with the jets right on the small of your back. Heaven.
The spa was quite something; a thatched hut deep in the forest/jungle, with an outdoor shower on a platform in the sky. And there was a toilet across from the shower, allowing you to answer nature’s call in the middle of nature. I had a great Thai treatment with nothing around me but the sound of birds and the wind.
It’s a couple thousand dollars a night, so this level of luxury doesn’t come easy. But it’s an unbelievable experience.
We did only one excursion outside of the camp, that being a short boat ride to the Mekong, where we floated in the middle of the river and surveyed three countries around us. Pretty cool. From land we took a taxi to a nearby market, where there were fresh fish, veggies (colourful chilies, of course), fruits of all kinds and a few things you don’t see everyday in North American markets: whole roasted frogs, pig heads and plastic bowls full of water buffalo placenta. Soup, maybe? I don’t want to think about it…
There also was a pretty temple and the ruins of some older temples, so there was a lot more than the market. All in all, pretty cool. But nothing will top the elephants….