Winter is just around the corner and Chiang Rai, the kingdom’s northernmost province, is now more than ready to welcome visitors in search of cool weather.
Perched on a ridge overlooking the hills of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong Rivers, Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort is some 70 kilometres north of Chiang Rai Mae Fah Luang International Airport.
On our way to the resort, my friend recommends a short break at the award-winning Choui Fong Tea Plantation in Mae Chan district. Famous for its oolong blends, the tea plantation won the Gold Prize for Jinxuan and Ruanzhi oolong teas from the World Green Tea Association in Japan in 2009. Of the three plantations across Chiang Rai, totalling some 1,000 rai in area, Choui Fong is the smallest at 50 rai [1 rai = 1,600 square metres].
Visitors after a photo of themselves wrapped in the greenish blanket knitted by the rows of tea, brave the blazing sun and walk along the path. I opt for an easier way, sipping hot oolong tea and munching matcha cake at the cafe on the hill, enjoying the sight of thousands of tea bushes that stretch for almost as far as the eye can see.
After a short nap in the van, we arrive at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort. We have a quick lunch at Sala Mae Nam restaurant before heading out to one of the highlights of the trip, the Walk with Giants, where we walk with baby elephants and their mahouts to observe their behaviour in a natural setting.
“These elephants are friendly but we still have to be careful when walking with them. If you happen to be behind them and would like them to be aware that you are there simply call their names. These young elephants are like children, they always love to play so they might stop when they see something interesting and they don’t hesitate to use their trunks to explore,” says Decha, the veterinarian at the resort’s on-site elephant camp.
More than 30 elephants have been rescued from Thailand’s city streets, accompanied by their entire mahout family and provided with a place to rest and grow at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) located at and supported by Anantara Golden Triangle and Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle. Two baby elephants, Rak and Khok-khoon, raise their trunks when their mahouts tell them to greet us. Khok-khoon is quiet and polite while Rak is more energetic and always follows her heart. She stops at every bamboo we pass, eagerly stripping the leaves from the branches with her long trunk then scratching her sides against the trunk. But her best trick is climbing up the slope to reach edible leaves and then sliding down, just like a kid playing on a slide. Walking with these cute baby elephants makes me understand why Henry Mancini’s song “Baby Elephant Walk” sounds so lively.
The allotted two hours seem much too short when walking with these playful giants. “Look! Rak is very clever. She holds the hose with her trunk and drinks from it,” my friend says as we take turns spraying water over the babies after the long walk. The next morning we wake up early as we are scheduled to ride elephants bareback. We all wear the thick Morhom trousers that the resort has prepared for us over long pants to protect our legs from the hard elephant’s hairs.
Riding an elephant is not new to me but this is the first time I’ve tried it bareback in the vast grasslands where they live.As the elephants walk gracefully towards us, I cannot help but feel very small and vulnerable. The soft sunlight pierces the fog behind the elephants creating a beautiful silhouette and the sight briefly washes away my apprehension.
Once forced to walk the streets with her young calf, my elephant Poonlarp came to the foundation showing classic signs of abuse and stress, including a head bobbing behaviour typical of highly stressed and anxious elephants in captivity. The Poonlarp I see today is serene, polite and kind. She is so gentle that I would like to hold her a little longer when I climb up on to her back.
My friend sits on Poonlarp’s neck while I sit on her back. Everything is fine while Poonlarp sits and lets us adjust to a comfortable position but once she stands, I wonder what on earth convinced me to mount such a large beast.
When she starts to walk, my heart beats faster and I worry that I might fall off and be stepped on by the pachyderm. At some three metres above the ground, I find it hard to balance and that’s when I recall I don’t have health insurance.
Poonlarp’s gentle pace gradually gives me peace of mind. After my panic passes, I relax my clenched hands from the rein tied loosely around Poonlarp’s chest and start to look around.
Now I feel like I am united with this magnificent giant.
At her gentle pace, I feel peace.