A luxury resort in Thailand’s rugged north has reimagined safari splendour at pachydermic proportions, writes Angela Goh
A WILD, secluded hideaway awaits. I hop onto a long tail boat at a pier on the bank of the murky Mekong river at the Golden Triangle in northern Thailand.
Under the engine’s roar, the boatman points out Laos across the river from Thailand. Before I am able to grasp the configuration of this three-country border area, the boat veers at exhilarating speed into the narrow Ruak river (which divides Thailand and Myanmar).
Tall grass, bamboo jungle and mixed woodland line the curvy, placid waterway. Human settlements quickly melt away and serene remoteness takes over. Having escaped the city to the jungle, it is such isolation that captivates me.
The boatman steers to a gentle stop at a small pier where a uniformed attendant awaits. Above a steep staircase I am required to strike on a gong thrice to announce my arrival at the Four Seasons Tented Camp.
Nestled in a bamboo jungle high above the river, this intimate resort-style camp offers an upscale proposition to the rough and tumble of an adventure holiday. Guests “rough out” in rustic but luxurious African safari-style tents decked out with the refined comforts of a five-star resort.
Here, it is about being waited on by a coterie of exceptional staff (whose sterling service is second nature) and lavished with impeccable gastronomy.
Supported on wooden platforms hugging the hillside, the tents are strung out along a 1km rough-hewn trail.
Each tent rekindles the 19th century exploration era when intrepid souls made pioneering expeditions and as captured in the works of Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen.
From hardwood floors to handcrafted vintage furnishings (hurricane lamps, brass wash basins, wooden figurines and handles fashioned after elephant tusks) and a copper bathtub in the living area, this is the idealised vision of explorer living finely tuned to Four Seasons’ standard.
A large, commanding desk sits behind two king-sized beds, both positioned to look out to the vista of woodland, and both conducive for work and reflection. At the break of dawn, watch the mist roll in and drift gently away, amid songs from the jungle as it awakens.
Such preeminent landscape necessitates an outdoor rain shower and a generous sundeck along with a large day bed and two massage beds.
The modern adventure-seeker will be pleased with broadband Internet, air-conditioning, telephone, refrigerated private bar and twice-daily housekeeping service. Additionally, the open-sided tents are shielded from nature’s discomforts by three layers of covers (insect screen, clear plastic and opaque blinds for privacy) each fastened by zippers.
IN GOOD COMPANY
The more enthralling aspect of the camp is its team of affectionate rescued Asian elephants. In a mahout (elephant keeper) training session lasting two hours, I have the privilege and pleasure to hobnob with this influential group of intelligent individuals.
I dress for the occasion in a mahout’s blue denim shirt paired with baggy long bottoms. Tucked in the breast pocket is a small card listing the main mahout commands. “Pai (forward), baen (turn), how (stop),” I repeat diligently.
These gentle giants were once victims of abuse and neglect. The camp works with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, which rescues abused and retired elephants (many from animal shows and illegal logging camps), to provide them a more comfortable life, and for their mahouts and families, a sustainable income.
I clamber onto Thong Kam and mount on her bristly neck. Little is known about her background except that she has a cheeky penchant for spraying water and is inseparable from her friend, Bounma. The quiet, gentle Bounma still bears the scars of abuse from a hard life in logging companies but now leads a better life at the Four Seasons.
Thong Kam and I stroll through bamboo jungle and thick woodland to the Ruak river. There, while she soaks, I shower from her sprays, revelling in child-like hilarity. This is but a taste of a profound connection between humans and animals, a mutually beneficial coexistence long severed by feckless modernity.
The supremely immersive engagement culminates in a round of champagne for this recent Four Seasons-trained “mahout”, who offers a toast to the team.
Aching muscles on bodies unaccustomed to the rigours of mahout life can be soothed with a Mahout Recovery treatment at the picturesque spa. Stretched out in an open terrace facing a lush jungle, I submit to expert strokes in a full body massage using a blend of tangerine and sandalwood oil to foster relaxation. Strains and knots yield under hot poultices bolstered with camphor, lime and lemongrass. The result is a rejuvenated “mahout” ready for the next challenge.
As with safari propriety, evenings are reserved for human camaraderie. This anticipatory daily evening ritual involves unwinding with a sundowner (evening drink) at the Burma Bar until the sky darkens, at which signals time to proceed to the Wine Cellar for wine and cheese tasting. Walk it or request vehicular backup (there are 1970s Land Rover Defenders for nostalgic appeal) if too many cocktails take their toll.
Dining is across at Nong Yao restaurant where the set dinner (choice of Thai or western) is served in style (white linen, porcelain dishes and glassware).
This is indeed jungle book life with modern luxurious touches.
FOUR SEASONS TENTED CAMP GOLDEN TRIANGLE
499 Moo1, Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai, Thailand
TEL +66 53 910-200
15 luxurious air-conditioned tents (each measuring 54sq m) and a two-bedroom Explorer’s Lodge.
Nong Yao Restaurant offers Thai, Lao, Myanmar and western cuisine. Private dinners can be had at Camp Peak, the resort’s highest point and Elephant Camp. Picnic meals can be arranged in the jungle, by the river or in the garden. Burma Bar is an open-sided thatched-roof lounge overlooking Myanmar and the Ruak River.
Its packages start from a two-night Adventure Package which includes full board, all activities and transfers from Chiang Rai airport.
Jungle adventure in luxurious setting. Elephant experience and spa therapy.
Remote location. But for many, this is a draw.
MORE INTRIGUE THAN APPEAL
THERE are places where their narrative outweighs visual appeal and Thailand’s Golden Triangle is one of them. The exotic name refers to a non-descript landscape where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos converge at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers.
Shrouded in mists and myths, the Golden Triangle holds fascinating history and intrigue having earned notoriety from the opium trade. This nefarious substance was packed in caravans which traversed mountain trails and transported down the Mekong river for export.
“In addition to opium, it was a lively trade region at one time, dealing in all sorts of goods, including jade. But nothing to equal the Silk Road. It was an arena where British Burma, French Indochina and independent Siam struggled for dominance,” says Allen Wittenborn, author and retired professor of Southeast Asia history. “Jade is mined mostly west of the Golden Triangle, then makes its way east, through that area, and into Thailand to the south or Hong Kong to the east.”
Long before swashbuckling drug kingpins and other no-gooders reigned over the trade routes, the area was under the rule of the Lanna kingdom for several centuries.
These days, in the hilly countryside, where poppies once flourished, rice, pineapple, coffee, tea and countless other lawful crops thrive among quiet villages.
Most visit on a day trip, taking in the sleepy town of Chiang Saen (once a significant ancient city) dotted with temple ruins. However, many (including me) end up disappointed. You have been duly informed.