Sep 28, 2020
TWO ELEPHANTS NUZZLED THEIR heads together and intertwined their trunks in shifting spirals. Watching from my four-poster bed, I wondered if their mahouts had trained them to make wrinkly heart shapes in the drizzly dawn as a romantic dream-state wake-up for the people sleeping in bubbles 20 meters away. So mesmerized was I by this dance that I didn’t even think to reach for my phone until one of the elephants nudged her chin up on her friend’s forehead and gave her a little love bite on the top of her crown. Pretty sure they heard me squeal in delight.
Late last year, Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort planted two futuristic one-bedroom pods on a lush patch of their river-bound 65 hectares, transparent human-size snow globes in which you can sunset, sleep and awaken surrounded by elephants. The soul-soothingly tranquil resort already had one of the best pools in Southeast Asia, with its three-country view and grasslands below dotted with grazing three-ton beauties—whose lives here with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) serve as a touchstone in this region for how to compromise between wildlife sanctuary and luxury tourism. A visit offers an up-close-and-under-their-trunks experience with these gentlest of giants, one that can actually make a difference in their lives—especially now.
It’s been a hard year for the 3,800 captive elephants in Thailand. Nearly all are part of the tourism industry, which, as we’re all aware, was completely nonexistent for a few months and is only now bouncing back gradually with a domestic-travel market. Elephants cost US$20 per day to feed—more than the average daily wage in Thailand—and that’s not accounting for their healthcare or the living expenses of mahouts and their families. Whatever you might say about how various camps treated their elephants before COVID-19, the fact is most of them wound up in the same boat during the global crisis: with no safety net. Perhaps you saw the images of Thai elephants walking across hill, dale and highway, some as far as 150 kilometers, home to villages in Surin and Chiang Mai provinces, where ethnic minorities traditionally care for them.
From their position of relative privilege and prestige, the GTAEF caretakers of the animals at Anantara have been able to help others, both out of pocket and by fundraising from their global network of supporters. They’ve been paying for 14 vets and veterinary technicians to care for any elephant in need north of Bangkok, and they support a full-time veterinarian team for the 70 elephants who trekked home to Surin. They also adopted three elephants—Boon Rod, Kam Mool and Thong Inn—who otherwise would have been left homeless and friendless.
Elephants form tight friendship circles, so you can’t just shove some newbies into the herd and hope everyone gets along. It’s a slow, carefully calibrated process of introductions, based partly on what their mahouts and scientists know about the pachyderms’ personalities. Such cooperation between traditional handlers, vets and Anantara’s local coordinators, incidentally, is what made the place a pioneer. Mahouts pass down their trade through the generations. Buy an elephant from a mahout in a precarious situation and he, knowing no other livelihood, might just go out and get another elephant; elephants, meanwhile, bond with people much like they do each other, so it can be cruel to separate them. At GTAEF, the elephants and the mahouts and their whole families are all stakeholders living on site, which makes it easier to phase out old habits in favor of positive reinforcement and other research-based care.
“There is some hope that this downtime, when the elephants’ intrinsic value once again overtakes their cash value in the minds of their carers, will help us bring in much-needed reforms to elephant-keeping,” said John Roberts, the group director of sustainability and conservation at Minor Hotels, which owns Anantara. “A return to all the old ways is not recommended, and some of the worst practices are hopefully gone forever as the world takes up new forms of travel that should rule out over-tourism.”
While waiting for my Royal Enfield sidecar tour—another new experience at the resort, which delights with an open-air, ground-level ride around rice paddy plots and to Royal Project organic farms—I gushed to general manager Gauderic Harang about the elephant love-fest we’d witnessed from the bubble. Actually, he told me reluctantly, the actions I described might have been less hugging than flexing. Still, there’s no doubt elephants are affectionate.
In a clearing of the jungle, the resort’s guest program and development manager, Ou Yonthantham, was just beginning to introduce us to two elephants from afar when a bugle sounded at like 200 decibels. We all swiveled our heads and realized it was a third elephant bellowing while bounding out of the high grass, trunk aloft, making a beeline for her pals like they were long-lost sisters she hadn’t seen in years. I half expected her to rear up on her hind legs and embrace them. It was a sound I’d never heard an elephant make before, a speed at which I’d never seen one run, and a display of deeply human emotion that touched me to the core.
“I guess they’re ready to play,” Ou laughed, as we headed over to meet them. Over the course of the morning, we got to know these girls most intimately. For example, bathroom habits: elephants only digest about 40 percent of the 250 kilograms of greenery they eat per day, which results in six poops per day (of the inoffensively grass-scented variety). Sex life: GTAEF doesn’t breed, for humane reasons but also because the 2:22 male-to-female ratio here, with one of the guys being old and the other being grumpy, makes mating dicey.
As we watched the three girls somersault on the far side of the Ruak River, dunking each other and spraying water, Ou said every so often an independently minded elephant wanders off, sometimes making it across the slice of Myanmar hugging the Mekong and traversing that river into Laos. They always come back, often without any human assistance. I found such stellar navigational skills nearly easier to believe than the fact that their massive bodies could so simply summit the perpendicular plot of land that leads into Myanmar. But then the mahouts called them home and after some lollygagging the ladies charged through the water and billy-goated themselves up the steep bank next to me like it was no thing at all.
Hanging out this close to elephants, you get dirty—they shower themselves with mounds of earth to keep cool, and you will be happy to stand under this dusty debris for the chance to coo in an ear, or to examine a spiky tail—but I’m under no illusions that I was roughing it. I mean, we were staying in a literal luxury bubble. It’s got full en-suite facilities, aircon and dehumidifier, room service, and a big elevated four-poster bed (fitted with modesty curtains you could draw, though where’s the fun in that?). Even “glamping” is an elephantine understatement.
The adventure here lies more in one’s state of mind, in feeling utter freedom the middle of a thick jungle under a vast sky, and cultivating an intimacy with the elephants without their handlers around. Having a glass of wine on your deck while you watch them (seemingly continuously) munch sugarcane; running out in your bathrobe for morning snuggles before you even brush your teeth.
Usually up in the rural Golden Triangle, whichever side of the Thailand border, you’d sleep under a blanket of stars, but on our night in the bubble tent it rained, creating its own kind of romance. The pitter-patter was a soothing lullaby, but I woke a few times nonetheless because, I think in hindsight, my brain wanted to imprint on itself the cognitively dissonant and therefore uniquely wondrous sight and sound of rain falling directly overhead and not getting wet. My eyes would follow the drops running down the sides of the bubble, beyond which I could see the outlines of the wet leaves on the trees swaying, and of the elephants sleeping. I felt wholly exposed and incredibly protected, and it was easy to drift back off each time.
From my stay…
The Jungle Bubble Adventure package—including all meals, select alcohol, airport transfers, multiple elephant encounter experiences, spa, private yoga and meditation, and more—is for two guests sharing a room for three nights, and starts from US$2,850 per person. For staycation packages, other rates and info, visit anantara.com/en/golden-triangle-chiang-rai, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org or +66 53 784 084.