We're gliding over the dark green waters of the Ruak River in a traditional long-tail boat that's powered by a Volkswagen engine when the boat suddenly slows alongside the bank. “Can you see?,” our host points through the long grass. “That's one of our elephants.” It seems ridiculous to say that an animal of such colossal mass could blend into the background, but it takes us a few seconds to see the flapping of the ears as the elephant dips its head to drink. It's later on, when we meet the elephants up close that we learn how incredibly gentle and graceful these animals are, moving carefully through the jungle, their huge feet barely making a sound.
The Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle is, alongside a five-star resort, a foundation for rehabilitated elephants and its a role they take just as seriously, fighting against the so-called sanctuaries that often illegally capture the elephants, separate them from their families and forcibly tame them through cruel training practices.
In partnership with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, the camp works hard to rescue mistreated elephants and provide them with a humane and natural environment in which to live. They're still used for trekking, as they cannot be released back into the wild, but it's gentle work, and much of the guest elephant experiences are designed to educate and raise awareness.
The camp itself is a village of safari style tents built into the trees and connected by winding walkways. Ours overlooks Laos to the right, Myanmar straight ahead and the distant mountains of China half covered by swirling mist. It's excitingly remote, harkening back to the era of explorers when there was still wilderness to be discovered.
The tents follow the theme of romantic nostalgia with hardwood floors, leather furnishings, intricate hammered metal surfaces, hurricane lamps, a grand stand-alone bathtub and an outdoor shower. The canvas sides can all be opened for those who are adventurous enough to sleep truly in the wild and because the tents are spread far enough apart, there's never an issue of privacy. It works on an all-inclusive basis, which includes mini-bar, cheese and wine, cocktail hour and various experiences, meaning that guests can settle straight into the rhythm of the camp.
Our itinerary is handed to us in a curled scroll when we arrive, starting with Mahout training. We're given traditional costumes to wear – matching blue denim shirt and trousers – which the elephants are familiar with and led to the barn where we are introduced to the elephants and instructed on how to handle them. “Avoid speaking too loudly or shouting around the elephants, they're very sensitive creatures,” one of the camp's mahouts tells us before demonstrating how to mount the elephant in three different ways.
With assistance, I vault behind the ears of Puang Phet (which translates rather poetically as “handful of diamonds”), who's favourite snack I'm told is sugar cane. We trek slowly to the river, where the elephants plunge their heads below the water whilst we cling onto their heads. It's a deeply humbling experience to be around such beautiful and intelligent animals, and incredibly moving to see the close relationships that the elephants have formed with their mahouts.
Another important aspect of Thai culture is the art of massage, which women are traditionally taught from a young age. The camp's spa is hidden in the depths of the jungle with treatment rooms on open air decks surrounded by the sounds of the birds and frogs. I opt for an oil based treatment, which begins with a kaffir lime and salt foot bath. The therapist then gently works a sensual blend of ylang-ylang and jasmine into my skin leaving me fragrant and deeply relaxed.
We return to find our tent prepared for nighttime with a plate of local sweet treats by the bed, which we take onto the balcony to nibble amongst the glowing fireflies. We stare out into the impenetrable darkness, listening to the croaking and whirring of the nocturnal jungle awakening and sink into a feeling of total peace. There are few places in the world that combine such a high level of luxury and service with an authentic experience of the wilderness. It's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of place.
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